In Shawn Elliott’s second game, the Georgia State Panthers face a very difficult challenge playing one of the best teams in America. To learn more about James Franklin’s team, we hooked up with Aaron Yorke of Black Shoe Diaries to discuss the 2017 Penn State football squad.
Adam Luckett: What has been the deal with the limited touches to Saquon Barkley? Is the coaching staff saving him for conference play?
Aaron Yorke: It might seem like Penn State is trying to limit Barkley's touches, but he's been on the field plenty so far. Against Akron, quarterback Trace McSorley did a good job recognizing the defense keying on Barkley and responded by keeping the ball and ripping off big chunks of yardage in the option game. The Pitt game was a different story, as the Nittany Lions were on defense for most of the game due to the Panthers' ball-control game plan. Backup tailback Miles Sanders got one carry in that game and put the ball on the ground, so expect to see head coach James Franklin use this non-conference game to build up his confidence. One other factor for the lack of major carries for Barkley is that offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead has been trying to get him the ball in the passing game more often. Last year, the Heisman Trophy candidate had just three games with more than two receptions, but he's caught at least three balls in both games this year.
AL: We hear all about the offense, but just how good is this Penn State defense? Who is the player people need to be aware of?
AY: Penn State lost a lot of talent in the front seven over the summer, but the unit has been impressive so far with a shutout of Akron and just one touchdown allowed against Pitt. The defense had trouble getting off the field at times during the rivalry contest, but it hardened in the red zone, and that was a big factor in the Lions winning by a comfortable margin. Safety Marcus Allen leads the team in tackles so far with 15, and middle linebacker Jason Cabinda should make plenty of stops as well in this game. One guy who is making a name for himself on the line is Shareef Miller. He had two sacks against Pitt and looks to be a major factor in Penn State's pass rush this season.
AL: Mike Gesicki has 10 receptions and four touchdowns. Just how good is the big tight end?
AY: Coming into 2017, many pundits had Gesicki pegged as one of the best tight ends in the country, and he's done nothing to discredit those claims. As good as he is at catching the ball in traffic and making linebackers look silly, Gesicki is also a big part of the short passing game, and that's how he's scored three of his four touchdowns this year. Don't be surprised if he gets the ball in the flat off of play action a couple of times in this game.
AL: What is the biggest strength of the Penn State squad? What are the biggest weaknesses?
AY: The biggest strength of this team is its explosiveness on offense. With McSorley's love of the deep ball and Barkley's ability to turn any play into a highlight, the Lions can score from anywhere on the field, and that will help the put a lot of points on the scoreboard this year. It's easy to say that the weakest link is the entire defense, because overall the defense isn't as good as the offense. However, I'm going to mention the same thing I've harped on all summer. The offense still isn't great at moving the chains consistently, and that's a big reason why the Lions collapsed in the Rose Bowl despite scoring touchdowns on seven straight possessions. We just saw Pitt do a great job controlling the clock and using Penn State's boom-or-bust offense against it. That game could have turned out a lot differently if the Lions hadn't gotten key stops inside the 10-yard line or taken advantage of a pair of brutal interceptions by their opponent. As we get further into the season, I'd love to see Moorhead, McSorley, and company find a way to more efficiently gain first-down yardage.
AL: What are the expectations of the fans for 2017? Is it Playoff or bust?
AY: If Playoff expectations weren't there at the start of the season, they are there now after seeing Ohio State fall to Oklahoma. Michigan might have beaten Florida, but they didn't earn many style points with the way quarterback Wilton Speight performed in that game. That makes Penn State the de facto favorite to win the Big Ten as we creep towards conference play. If the Lions fall short of that title, it will be a disappointment.
AL: What does Penn State need to work on in this contest against Georgia State? Could this be a letdown spot for the Nittany Lions?
AY: I'd like to see them control the clock better on offense and get stops on defense, but I don't think Georgia State is the right opponent to work on those things with. Instead, it should be a good time to get the backups some work before the schedule toughens up. It will be disappointing if the Lions don't have the game in hand by the third quarter, so hopefully they're as focused on the Panthers as Franklin says they are.