September 16, 2010

Preview: Kent State at Penn State

THIS WEEK PSU NR AP / 1-1, 0-0 MAC @ Bama #18 AP / 1-1, 0-0 BigTen
9/18, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN2 Wk 2 - L, 26-13 @ BC Wk 2 - L, 24-3 @ Bama

Stupar, Hill, Stanley, Colasanti pile Well that was depressing. Luckily for Penn State, the visiting Golden Flashes are a team decent enough to look bad against, but good enough to figure out what the hell the Nittany Lions are actually doing out there on the field. Yeah, still kind of pissed about the tackling effort (or lack thereof) last weekend.

Kent State offers a game that Penn State hasn't yet experienced this season--one against an FBS (I-A) opponent that isn't a defending national champion.

Let's get to it...

The Kent Defense

The Flashes may play in the Mid-American Conference, but their defense is projected to be one of, if not the best in the league. Kent returns seven defensive starters from 2009, including three in the secondary and three of four linebackers (they play a hybrid 3-4, similar to what Penn State did with Jerome Hayes the last two seasons). Up front, senior starting nose tackle Quinton Rainey returns, but it's been a true freshman, Roosevelt Nix-Jones, who has emerged as a dynamic force on the line. Nix-Jones has seven tackles in the first two games, but four have been for losses, two resulted in sacks and he has forced three fumbles.

In its season opener against FCS Murrary State, Kent's defense set a program record by holding MSU to minus-65 (that's not a typo) yards rushing. Some of that was from the five sacks against MSU, some from fumbles. But a look inside the box score shows that Murray State only gained 21 yards rushing in the game, with 86 yards lost. Last week against Boston College, Kent was able to hold the Eagles to less than 100 total rushing yards (85 yds) in the 13-point loss in Chestnut Hill.

The back seven for Kent State will be the strength, even though Nix-Jones is earning a reputation as a playmaker up front. As mentioned, Kent plays a hybrid 3-4 defense, with a stand-up defensive end/linebacker, similar the way Penn State used Jerome Hayes in 2008 and 2009. For the Flashes, seniors Cobrani Mixon (transferred from Michigan, was No. 25-overall rated LB prospect) and Dorian Woods should be able to clean up anything the front line doesn't take care of. In the defensive backfield, three seniors and a junior are probably the best in the MAC this season.

PSU Pass Offense vs. Kent

Penn State has yet to allow Rob Bolden to be sacked this season, but I'm not sure how long that will last. It's really incredible that Bolden wasn't taken down last week at Alabama, and you can be sure the Tide fans are concerned about it as much as Nittany Lions fans are concerned about lack of turnovers on defense. Anyway, with an active front seven in an alignment similar to Alabama's 3-4, Penn State could have some issues once again getting off blocks, or at the very least, picking up where the pressure is coming from. This isn't Alabama's defense, but the best defense in the MAC is about as good as the seventh or eighth-best in the SEC.

With the experienced secondary, guys like Kent's Josh Pleasant, Dan Hartman and Brian Lainhart by now know how to bait quarterbacks and jump routes. Bolden could be in for yet another pick or two this week, but I'm not going to guarantee that by any means.

Impact Spot: The wide receivers' hands... This one is very simple. So simple, in fact, there's no analysis needed. Penn State's wide receivers, when thrown the ball, must CATCH IT. For an extra bonus here, if Evan Royster gets a screen pass thrown his way this week, he probably should not fall down five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Just a thought.

PSU Rush Offense vs. Kent

Penn State needs to surpass 200 yards rushing this week. Against a very decent Kent front seven, the Nittany Lions will want to see if the running game is really that bad, or if it just needed time to develop. We are all hoping its the latter. The Flashes held Murray State just as an FBS team should against an FCS team. But Boston College's Montel Harris is a serviceable back, yet was held under 100 yards rushing against Kent last week. Evan Royster is better than Harris. Stephfon Green is probably better than Harris. Even Silas Redd is probably better than Harris. So there is no excuse for not topping the 200 yard mark this week, or at least coming very close. Penn State ran for 127 yards (only 3 yards lost) against Alabama last week. You know how many yards it ran for against Youngstown? 132. So I consider that a big improvement from week one to week two. We'll see if that improvement is tangible or not against Kent this week.

Impact Spot: Garry Gilliam & Quinn Barham... I know last week this was the "X-Factor" for each unit, but I'm still experimenting with this new preview format. If there was one side of the defensive line that had trouble blocking, it was the left side. Yes, that's scary looking ahead to Ohio State and Iowa. But Gilliam has to step up his blocking from the tight end position, which will help out Barham at the left tackle spot. On several plays last week, missed blocks on the left side allowed defenders to come screeching in to make back-side tackles, preventing run plays from gaining more than a few yards.

The Kent Offense

Kent will miss its best player this week: Eugene Jarvis. He's a Doak Walker Award candidate with 3,268 career rushing yards, though he was out last year with a kidney injury. Penn State was torched last week early on the ground, but more on that, and Jarvis' injury in a minute. Spencer Keith is a good quarterback who threw for 2,147 yards in only seven starts last season, as he missed time due to injury. In two weeks this year he's thrown for 476 yards, but four interceptions. He's not much of a scrambler, but can move if called on.

Kent's offensive line is big (6-4, 300 lbs. avg.) and experienced, but not all that old with two sophomores, two juniors and a gray-shirt freshman. The problem for Kent is that last week, the line blocked well, but head coach Doug Martin said the running backs failed to hit the holes. Sound familiar? Their wide receivers and tight end are all 6-foot-1 or shorter, resembling Penn State's receivers a few years ago. The Flashes design their passing game around a heavy air attack that's compared to what Texas Tech ran under Mike Leach. Flanker Kendrick Pressley had originally signed with Virginia Tech a few years ago, but went to Hargrave Military Academy (Kevin Newsome went there) and ended up at Kent.

PSU Pass Defense vs. Kent

Ok, Penn State. This is yet another very good passing team that uses quick, short passes to take advantage of spaces in the defense. Kent State could be the Nittany Lions' chance to improve upon its Youngstown State performance, which allowed the Penguins to complete 21 of 27 passes with no interceptions. YSU was an unknown commodity coming into the season, with a new head coach and new system. But Kent State is known, meaning there is plenty of game tape to go over. Penn State hasn't been very good at pressuring the quarterbacks so far this season, or at least forcing them to rush the throws. Keith has been sacked four times in two games, and thrown the four interceptions. This week it will all come down to how much pressure the Penn State defensive line can put on the pocket, while the secondary and linebackers need to start making some plays on the ball while its in the air.

Impact Spot: Penn State safeties... Against both Youngstown and Alabama, Penn State's safeties were continually forced to make tackles at the second level of the defense, while being caught out of position on several occasions. Penn State's defense usually likes to have one big-play safeties that can jump a route once or twice a game and come up with a pick or big hit. The middle of the field might not get the same attention from Kent as it did in Tuscaloosa, but it's time for the safeties to make some kind of impact in the secondary.

PSU Rush Defense vs. Kent

Jarvis was the FBS leading returning rusher in 2008, piling up 1,669 in 2007. He was a bit banged up in 2008, then missed 2009. Now he's expected to miss the next two or three weeks with a groin injury sustained against Murray State. So going into this game, Kent State looks to be one-dimensional, though expect a few plays to the backs to keep things under control. This could be the best possible situation for Penn State, but the worst at the same time. There were tackling issues last week against a good running back, issues which could have been resolved or at least worked on this week against Jarvis. Next week another Doak Walker Award candidate--Temple's Bernard Pierce--will offer another shot at this challenge. But this week against Kent, the rush defense might be able to have much better stats against much worse opposition.

Impact Spot: Penn State linebackers... Linebacker Who? Yeah, I know that was a bad joke, but Penn State offered little in last week's performance from this position to warrant its hard-earned nickname. With Gerald Hodges now out with a broken leg, it will be up to the four main guys in the rotation--Nate Stupar, Michael Mauti, Chris Colasanti, and Bani Gbadyu--to play lights-out this week. Tackling should never be an issue on a Penn State defense.

Special Teams

Anthony Fera shanked a few punts last week, but it didn't kill Penn State. Joe Paterno said this week that he could be a great punter, once he gets more control. The new spread punt formation looks to have worked, but it's only two games into the season. Fera has also done a tremendous job on kickoffs so far, as has the coverage units. Penn State is allowing very little on returns. Collin Wagner is perfect on kicks this season, not even coming close to a miss.

Punt returns are sill leaving much to be desired, but Devon Smith and Justin Brown haven't muffed one yet, so that's an improvement... I guess. Kickoff returns have been much, much better this year for Penn State, even last week against Alabama. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green consistently brought the ball out past the 25 yard line.

Kent State's biggest strength this year (until Jarvis returns) is the special teams unit. Not only does everyone return from 2009, the unit was quite spectacular last year. The Flashes allowed an FBS-best 15 yards per kickoff return, while their first-team MAC punter Matt Rinehart returns.

Impact Spot: Kickoff returns... Is Penn State for real on kickoff returns this season? This game will prove it. As mentioned, Kent was the best kickoff coverage team in the FBS last season, and should be better this year.

Two things that could really piss you off...
or make you really, really happy.

Defensive tackling... The most frustrating thing against Alabama wasn't the turnovers. It wasn't even the big plays given up through the air. The worst thing about Penn State's defensive effort last week was the horrendous tackling by the Nittany Lions. If it's fixed this week, great. If not, you might burst a vessel in your brain. Or at least throw your remote through your TV screen. Not sure which would be worse.

Evan Royster... This is Royster's week to get back on track. The offensive line didn't do a great job last week, but wasn't bad enough for Royster to gain only 32 yards. If the line is better this week, and Royster is just waiting for more room, we should see him own the Flashes defense. He doesn't have to reach any particular yardage total for fans to be convinced. All anyone asks to see is that he still has it.

Check out our LBU staff picks tomorrow for score predictions

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