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.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.