Penn State Takes On Iowa in the Prime Time

Penn State Takes On Iowa in the Prime Time

It is only fitting that Penn State’s final
road game before Halloween should be played in a true house of horrors.
Kinnick Stadium, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes, has long been an unkind destination
for Penn State, with the Nittany Lions leaving Iowa City with their
last win there in 1999. Needless to say, a lot has happened since the
day Downingtown native Aaron Harris sealed a Penn State victory with
a touchdown run down the left sideline.

The Donovan McNabb era started and ran its course. A trip to the Super
Bowl is all but a faded painful memory at this point. The Sixers saw
Allen Iverson lead the team to the NBA Finals, leave town and return…
and leave again. The Phillies ended Philadelphia’s championship drought.
Arena football came to town, went on hiatus and returned again. Professional
soccer also kicked off in town. Temple was kicked out of the Big East
and welcomed back. The Flyers saw a season wiped off the calendar, and
if Penn State loses this weekend they could have a second season erased
as well.

Though he has only just joined the program this season, head coach
Bill O’Brien is well aware of the history he has inherited with the
program as it pertains to Iowa.

“It’s a very difficult place to play, as are most of the
places in the Big Ten.  It's going to be an electric atmosphere,” O’Brien
said this week. “The crowd noise is definitely going to be a factor,
so we've got to make sure that we deal with that in the right way. So
we've got to practice with crowd noise and make sure that our players
do a great job of communicating offense, defense, and special teams.
But again, it's not going to be anything like what it's like on Saturday
night, so hopefully we can just give them a picture of it, and then
when they get there Saturday night, they have a better understanding
of how to deal with those things.”

Penn State heads to Iowa coming off a bye week, hoping to keep the
momentum going after winning four straight games. The bye week may have
helped the team get a little stronger, with sophomore running back Bill
Belton back to 100 percent ready to add some more options to the offense.
Belton is not the only player who could have used the bye week right
in the middle of the season. O’Brien says the timing of the bye week
was good for his team, who has been playing a physical style since training
camp.

“It's better to have it then than it is after the
first game or something like that,” O’Brien said. “I think the
bye week helped a lot of those guys, Billy [Belton] included, and yesterday
Billy did some nice things in practice, as did a lot of those guys that
were banged up.“

Having Belton available will help Penn State try to improve their
rushing production, which ranks 11th in the Big Ten.
Penn State’s running game has shown to drop off following the loss
of Silas Redd to USC and with Belton working through some ankle issues
this season, but the slack has been picked up by continued improved
play of quarterback Matt McGloin.

McGloin enters the week leading the Big Ten in passing
with 429.8 yards per game and 12 touchdowns. He has also avoided being
a turnover machine, with just two interceptions. This week McGloin and
O’Brien’s pass-happy style will take on their toughest test against
the pass so far this season. Iowa ranks fourth in the Big Ten, allowing
just five touchdowns and owning seven interceptions.

The Hawkeyes may also have to try getting their offense going without
their top running back, Mark Weisman, who is doubtful for Saturday night’s
game. He has been cleared to play, but it remains unknown if he will
see any action against Penn State. Then again, this could all be a sly
trick to keep Penn State’s coaching staff guessing and preparing for
the wrong guys. Nobody would put Kirk Ferentz past that sort of mind
game. He’s a competitor and knows how to get an upper hand against
Penn State.

One key to the game this weekend for Penn State will be continuing
to convert inside the red zone. O’Brien has shown no hesitation to
go for it on fourth down, which may have been aided by a struggling
kicking game, but against Iowa it could be the big difference.
Iowa’s red zone defense has struggled this season, allowing teams
to leave the red zone with points on 18 out of 21 trips, including eight
touchdowns and 10 field goals. For Penn State, it could be touchdowns
or else.

Penn State’s defense has been the real story of
the season, though. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in red zone defense,
allowing scores just 11 out of 16 times inside the 20-yard line and
allowing opponents inside the red zone just 16 times this season (second
best in the Big Ten; Wisconsin, 14). But of those 11 scores allowed,
nine have been touchdowns for the opponents, which would indicate if
Iowa can get close the odds are good they will pick up a touchdown.
The Hawkeyes have allowed 16 and 13 points in each of their past two
points in Big Ten play and fewer than 20 points five times this season.
Iowa’s defense has frustrated Penn State’s offense over the years
and appears capable of doing the same once again this season.

But that was a vanilla style offense under Joe Paterno,
with a predictable scheme consisting of run-run-pass more often than
not. Against Iowa, mixing it up is critical to keep the front seven
on their toes. That has been one of the big differences under O’Brien,
where the offense is being opened up more so than ever before, and O’Brien
taking full advantage of all four downs more often than ever before
seen in the Penn State program.

It is a new era at Penn State, of course, but will
it be a new theme in Iowa or more of the same?

Penn State plays Iowa at 8:00 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

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Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley believes he can score a touchdown every time he takes a handoff.

Don't mistake the Penn State running back's confidence for arrogance. He's put plenty of evidence on tape in just 15 games to earn a growing reputation as one of the country's most dangerous backs in space.

But with each game this season, Barkley's discovering that space isn't always there in Penn State's new zone-read rushing attack that ranks near the bottom of every major statistical category. Barkley's sure if he remains persistent, more of those highlight-reel runs will come, however.

"We've got to be patient," Barkley said Wednesday. "Stuff will open up and I've got to step up as a player and make more guys miss and break more tackles and we've really got to start getting our run game going because if we get the run game going, that can open up the passing game even more."

Barkley leads the Big Ten with six rushing touchdowns but Penn State ranks last in the conference and 122nd in the nation with just over 101 rushing yards per game. Those sagging rushing numbers can be traced to the big-play back being bottled up before he even gets going.

Usually Barkley's first step is backward in Joe Moorhead's zone-read rushing attack. A delayed handoff follows and Barkley or quarterback Trace McSorley have at times been swallowed up quickly as defenders converge on the mesh point. Although his 55-yard score against Temple came on an inside zone run, Barkley's average on such plays over the last three games falls to just 1.4 yards without it.

It's a cause for concern for Penn State's offensive staff, which is committed to finding more ways to get Barkley the ball as the team prepares to face Minnesota (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) on Saturday.

Shovel passes and pitches have made brief appearances. Barkley's also caught 10 passes thus far and direct snaps may show up in the future.

Eliminating inside zone reads isn't an option, though.

"There's a lot of different ways," Penn State coach James Franklin said.

Penn State has had success on the outside. Even with a delayed start, Barkley's done most of his damage over the last three games when he's been able to flank defenders. He's averaging 10.8 yards per carry on those plays, further evidence of his skill on the edge.

"He's a game-changing player," center Brian Gaia said.

But one that's not comfortable lobbying his coaches for more touches or criticizing a young offensive line that will likely start two freshmen guards this weekend. Like Franklin, Barkley believes a little more early physicality coupled with his own patience will open things up in the middle.

"I would say the thing that we really need to improve the most is just coming out stronger, coming out faster and starting fast," Barkley said. "Physically, I think we're there. Mentally, we've really got a good grasp of the system but, especially in away games, we've been starting out really slow."

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Take a look at the standings and you’ll see the Temple Owls are 2-2 so far this season with wins over Stony Brook and Charlotte and losses to Army and Penn State.

But take a peek to the right of that 2-2 mark and you’ll see a 0-0 record in AAC conference play.

While the Owls would most certainly like to have a better record than the 2-2 record they sport at this very moment, the silver lining is that none of those games were conference games. Therefore, those games don’t affect Temple’s overall goal of defending its AAC Eastern Division crown.

But, on Saturday afternoon, that title defense finally begins when Temple welcomes SMU and its uptempo offensive attack to Lincoln Financial Field in the first of eight straight AAC games that will close out the regular season.

“It sort of feels like a new start to the season,” Temple senior quarterback Phillip Walker said following Tuesday’s practice on campus at Edberg-Olsen Hall. “It’s just another great opportunity for us not to look back on anything or think about anything that happened in the past in the first four games. Now it’s an opportunity to play our next eight games and enjoy playing the conference again.”

The good news for Temple heading into conference play is that the offense has found its stride. The Owls overwhelmed Charlotte last week, 48-20, behind 268 yards and two touchdowns throws from the arm of Walker and two touchdowns runs a piece from senior Jahad Thomas and Sophomore Ryquell Armstead. After early struggles, Walker is now up to 846 yards and five touchdowns on the year.

That’s after the tough loss at Penn State two weeks ago when the offense settled itself for the first time this season and found continuity. Thomas’ return to the backfield has helped, as he’s scored four touchdowns in two games since missing the first two games of the year with a dislocated left thumb.

The Temple defense is still hurting itself with a lackluster pass rush. The Owls have only five sacks through the first four games. Last season, they had 10 sacks in the first game alone. Big plays allowed are an issue, too, as Temple has allowed 10 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage through four games.

But the confidence is there and the Owls believe they are getting better each week.

“I think we’re better than where we were [earlier in the year,]” said redshirt senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick, who has five tackles for loss on the year. “A lot of guys are stepping up, locking in on the small details that were hurting us the first couple of weeks. We’ve got the younger guys playing better and harder, so I think we’ve come a long way. I still think there are some things we need to get better on, but we’re close.

“Those first four games, none of those teams were conference teams. It was like preseason to work out the kinks. Now it’s time to go. It’s full-throttle now. There’s no time to make mistakes. There’s no time to beat ourselves.”

Temple head coach Matt Rhule, on the other hand, doesn’t like to talk much about the “fresh start” or “restart” that comes with the beginning of AAC play this weekend.

He preaches the importance of conference play every week, and he has proof.

“Every week, I put up the conference rankings, no matter what,” he said Tuesday “Week 1 when we lost, I put up the conference rankings. Week 2 when we won, I put up the conference rankings. Week 3, Week 4, I do that every week because I want guys to understand the importance of conference wins, conference losses and conference play.

“I will say, to be fair, I did say we were going to try and get our kids to be ready for Week 4 or 5 or 6, because we knew we were going to have to play a lot of young guys and knew we were going to have to teach them.”

All the Owls, young and old, know they need to be prepared on Saturday.

The Mustangs have already equaled their win total from last season and have the same record, overall and conference, as the Owls heading into Saturday. They hung tough with Big 12 powerhouses Baylor (6-6 at half) and TCU (6-3 TCU at half) before eventually succumbing in the second half of both games.

Defensively, SMU is tied for tops in the nation with 10 interceptions. But plenty of focus goes on the Mustangs’ uptempo offense, which break off chunks of yardage in the blink of an eye with 448 yards per game so far this year. Rhule and the Owls know that fact better than anyone. The last two times these schools have met, SMU earned a 59-49 win in 2013 and Temple came away with a 60-40 victory last season. That’s 208 points combined in the last two meetings.

SMU’s fast-paced attack is exactly the type of offensive system Rhule’s Owls have historically struggled with, too.

“They have, obviously, a lot of offense,” Rhule said of Saturday’s foe. “(SMU head coach) Coach (Chad) Morris was one of the best offensive coordinators in the country. He did it at Clemson and he’s doing it there. There’s a lot to deal with. That’s the history of this series, though.”

Quarterback Matt Davis, who hurt Temple with both his arm and his feet last season, is out for the year with a knee injury suffered in Week 1. Ben Hicks has stepped in and thrown seven interceptions compared to just two touchdowns. But big-play receiver Cortland Sutton is still there and he already has four touchdown grabs on the year.

In practice this week, speed has been the theme of the Owls' defense, which is 28th in the nation with 327.3 yards allowed per game this year.

“It’s difficult to prepare for,” Reddick said of SMU’s offense. “You’ve got to just work on it in practice, going fast and getting the defensive calls faster. You have to look and read to the offense faster to see what you have to do faster. So you have to kick it up.”