September 23, 2010

Preview: Temple at Penn State

NR AP / 3-0, 0-0 MAC @ PSU
#24 AP / 2-1, 0-0 BigTen
9/25, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN Wk 3 - W, 30-16 vs UConn Wk 3 - W, 24-0 vs Kent

Evan Royster
Evan Royster in a slump?
The Temple run D might be just the cure...
Penn State enters the final non-conference game of this season, as the Nittany Lions play host to in-state foe Temple. If this game were played three, four or five seasons ago, it would be a laugher for Penn State fans. But head coach Al Golden is brewing up something special in Philly--a winning football program. The Owls could reach consecutive bowl games for the first time since... ever!

This game is far from a cakewalk for Penn State. So, let's get to it...

The Temple Defense

Temple was out-gained last week 390-356 against UConn, despite the Owls' 30-16 victory. The Temple defense surrendered a whopping 240 rush yards to the Huskies, a running game that hadn't really done much in its opening day loss at Michigan. But Temple is a respectable No. 32 nationally in points per game (16.67) and No. 33 in turnover margin (0.67). Going up against an offense as mistake-prone as the Nittany Lions, turnovers could be a major factor this Saturday.

The last few week, Penn State hasn't faced a traditional defense, in the Big Ten sense. Youngstown State, Alabama, and Kent State all ran defensive schemes that were not based on a 4-down formation. In the Big Ten, most teams run that traditional 4-3, so for Penn State to face three straight teams running relatively unusual defensive schemes, it caused some problems. This week, Temple comes in running a base 4-3 defense, which should offer Penn State some success from a scheme-on-scheme standpoint.

Senior LB Elijah “Peanut” Joseph is the Owls' big playmaker on defense, coming into this game leading the team with 19 tackles, two pass breakups, and 1.5 TFL. Most of those big stats came just last week against UConn, where Joseph had nine stops, a tackle-for-loss, and the two pass breakups. But he's not the only one to watch for on defense, as Tahir Whitehead, Adrian Robinson, and Muhammad Wilkerson have combined for 10 TFL, four sacks, and three forced fumbles.

PSU Pass Offense vs. Temple

Penn State has been able to keep the chains moving this season by leaning heavily--probably more heavily than Joe Paterno would like--on the passing game and true frosh quarterback Rob Bolden. Part of it has been due to the last two opponents being extraordinarily stout against the run, the other part being Penn State's inability to find cohesion along the offensive line. But this week could finally offer some relief to an increasingly strained pass game.

As Temple's run defense hasn't exactly been stellar, Bolden and his receivers might not have to make so many big plays through the air to compensate for a stalling ground game. Still, Bolden will want to use this game as a springboard into the Big Ten conference schedule. Jay Paterno shouldn't hold back in the playcalling this week, especially if it looks like the ground game is working against Temple, but high-percentage throws and a near-perfect game from Bolden should be one of the goals this week.

Impact Spot: PSU WRs vs Temple DBs... Penn State's starting receivers (minus Devon Smith), average better than 6-foot-4. Temple's starting cornerbacks average 5-foot-11. Those five inches could come up big again, as they have so far this season, even against teams like Alabama. The Temple safeties are a bit bigger, with Jaiquawn Jarrett at 6-foot-2 and Kevin Kroboth at 6-foot. But Bolden has shown a knack for throwing where only his receivers can get to the ball.

PSU Rush Offense vs. Temple

Is this the week Penn State finally gets its running game on track? Well, it sure looks like it could be, as Temple comes in with the worst rush defense Penn State has faced so far this season. Is it a bad rush defense? No. But compared to Kent State's No. 1 rush defense, and Alabama's defense full of NFL draft picks, Temple could be just the medicine to perk up Penn State's ailing ground game. Temple has given up an average of 140 rush yards in three games this season. Last week against UConn, the Huskies were able to run all over the Owls. Temple's other two opponents this season do not offer much to go on, as Central Michigan is a pass-based offense, and Villanova (as good as they are) is an FCS team. If you take away the nine sacks by Temple this season, the rush defense average soars to about 160 yards per game.

The Penn State run game hasn't exactly been plowing over opponents, however, averaging only 140 yards per game. We've been saying this for two weeks, but it's about time Evan Royster had his "welcome back" game. Temple is the right opponent at the right time for both Royster and his offensive line.

Impact Spot: Quinn Barham vs Temple run blitzes... In last week's Kent State preview, I wrote that LT Quinn Barham and TE Garry Gilliam were the impact spots for the running game. I couldn't have nailed it any better. On Royster's touchdown run, it was Gilliam who make a play-making cut block on the outside, giving Royster the exact running lane into the end zone. However, on 3rd-and-1, Stephfon Green was stopped cold for no gain when Barham completely missed his blocking assignment, allowing a blitzing safety to blow up the play. We're half way there, so this week I'm looking for Barham to step up.

The Temple Offense

Al Golden and OC Matt Rhule refer to their offense as an "East Coast" scheme, which is based on a single-back set with at least one tight end, yet also an additional "wing" back next to the running back. Penn State ran some of this style of offense in past years, mostly when Fran Ganter was in charge. Here are two examples of what an East Coast offensive formation might look like:

The focus of this kind of offense is the ground game, supported by a highly-efficient pass game. That should all sound very familiar to Penn State fans. For Temple, they're in luck this season, because the Owls have Heisman candidate (not really) Bernard Pierce, who as a freshman in 2009 ran for 16 rushing touchdowns, and 1,361 yards. Under center, Chester Stewart has grown into the exact kind of quarterback needed in this system, as he hasn't thrown a single interception this season. There aren't too many big-play guys on the outside, but in this offense, they're not critical. Temple lives and dies on its rushing attack, led by Pierce.

PSU Pass Defense vs. Temple

Chester Stewart has passed for 510 yards and two touchdowns, completing 61 percent of his passes. Good for what Temple needs to do in MAC play, but not against a team like Penn State. Stewart hasn't thrown a pick yet this year, but might not get through another week with that goose egg in the INT column. The Penn State defensive backfield has been somewhat resurgent this past week, not only grabbing its first two interceptions, but playing at a noticeably higher level against Kent State.

Temple's wide receivers aren't elite playmakers, even for a MAC team. That's due to the offense's emphasis on running the ball with Pierce. Penn State has a chance this week to give just enough focus to stopping Stewart and the Temple pass game, but still leave enough bodies down in the box to counter the run. The one big problem Penn State might face is the usually effective seam passes right at the safeties. Temple has a good tight end in Vaughn Charlton, but he's also their former starting QB, so it's not like he's Antonio Gates.

Impact Spot: PSU DEs vs Temple tackles... Penn State has only been able to grab five total sacks this season, only two of them coming from defensive ends. With a dynamic running back like Pierce coming to town this week, Penn State can't afford to let the Temple passing game breathe. Temple's right tackle Darius Morris is a returning first team 2009 all-MAC performer, while left tackle Derek Dennis was out last year on a medical redshirt, but was a starter the two previous seasons. Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore and the rest of Penn State's ends must play well this week.

PSU Rush Defense vs. Temple

Here's the part where you start to worry. You might think it's entirely about Pierce. You might be wrong. Pierce did set all kinds of records last year, as he topped 1,000 yards after only eight games. But the real key to Temple's rushing prowess is the offensive line, which returns four of five starters from 2009. Last year, when Pierce went down to injury, backup Matt "The Bug" Brown simply ran over Kent State for 156 yards, then Ohio for another 172. Call me crazy, but I doubt Brown is just as good as Pierce.

Just as Penn State hasn't faced a less-than-good rush defense, the Lions haven't faced a team outside of Alabama with a really good running back. The only time this year that happened, down in Tuscaloosa, Trent Richardson went ape-shit on Penn State's defense. But this is Temple, not Alabama. Penn State's front seven played much, much better last week, particularly against the run. That should continue this week, though the numbers won't be as good as last week against Kent State.

Impact Spot: Devon Still and Ollie Ogbu... They have been by far the most productive defensive linemen for Penn State this season, and will need to play their best game to counter what Temple will throw at them this week. Still has been great the past two weeks getting into the backfield, even notching a sack at Alabama. Temple guard Colin Madison is a returning first team all-MAC player, while center John Palumbo earned third team all-MAC last year.

Special Teams

Temple returns its entire special teams unit from 2009, while Penn State has been night-and-day improved from last season's disappointing special teams performance. I would mark this as an early draw between the two teams, but that doesn't mean special teams won't play a part in either team's victory or defeat.

Penn State's kickoff return unit of Stephfon Green and Chaz Powell is averaging 33 yards per return, good for fourth nationally. On punt returns, Devon Smith and Justin Brown have done very well, though the team average is only 7.9. Smith and Brown both had big returns last week against Kent State.

Last week, Collin Wagner missed his first field goal of the season, while Anthony Fera seemed to have more control over his directional punts.

Impact Spot: Kickoff returns... This one goes out to both teams. Pierce returns kicks for Temple, which is always a dangerous situation for the opposition. But Penn State has been very good in coverage this year, even though it hasn't faced too many dynamic returners. For Penn State, Powell and Green can give their side a big boost with a long return or two. Even if it's not a touchdown, good field position is something this offense will probably need not just this week, but in the coming weeks as well.

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

Rob Bolden's efficiency... Bolden had arguably his worst game of the season last week against Kent State. Of course, that's relative to what he faced in Tuscaloosa the prior week. Bolden threw two bad interceptions, and missed a simple handoff, all on three consecutive possessions. This week is critical for Bolden to play sharp and error-free. As opponents become tougher, such as this week against Temple, mistakes will grow increasingly more costly.

Attendance... Beaver Stadium has the largest capacity of all venues in which Penn State will play a game this season. So far, there have been two home games. But you know which crowd was the largest this year? Alabama's 101,821. Now, if Bryant-Denny Stadium were only a few hundred, or one or two thousand seats smaller than Beaver Stadium, I could understand. The Alabama-Penn State game was a huge national contest between powers, while the Nittany Lions have faced "cupcakes" in their only two home games. But for Beaver Stadium to have 6,000 empty seats on average for home games is just disgraceful. And don't blame it on the student section, because there were plenty of club seats and general admission seats open as well. Will Penn State actually fill its stadium this week? We can only hope.

Check out our LBU staff picks tomorrow for score predictions

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  1. Maybe next year they will charge 60 bucks for parking and attendance will average below 100k. I refuse to go down there and pay 40 bucks for parking.

  2. @Anonymous - Great point, if you just include the general admission seating and a very few of the club/$$$ seating. Club seats already include parking in the season package. So it's kind of a lame excuse for those people to not show up. Also, please at least include a name next time.

  3. 40 bucks for parking is out of control, but parking is only 12 dollars if you buy ahead.