Part One of Our Two-Part Temple-Penn State Primer: On Penn State

Part One of Our Two-Part Temple-Penn State Primer: On Penn State

In advance of this weekend's showdown in Happy Valley between Temple and Penn State (3:30 p.n. on ABC/ESPN 2), Nick Menta and our friend and guest-spotter from Examiner.com Kevin McGuire have gotten together for a two-part preview of this weekend's matchup.

In Part 1, Nick picks Kevin's brain about the current state of the Nittany Lions. They'll reverse roles in Part 2. And for yet more, check out Nick's full game preview here.

On with the show...

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Nick: Alright, let's get the injury report out the way up front. How are the banged up running backs?

Kevin McGuire: It looks as though Bill Belton’s status is still not good, as he was
not seen in practice late this week while media were allowed to watch
(could be a decoy, who knows), but Derek Day was in full pads and
O’Brien suggested he is ahead of Belton right now.

Last week Penn State
relied on Michaekl Zordich to pound the football, and he is comfortable
doing so when asked. Don’t expect to see true freshman Akeel Lynch
unless absolutely necessary. O’Brien is trying to keep freshman from
playing as much as possible in some spots to preserve their eligibility
moving forward.

This is one of those inevitable "what really was it?" questions. Was Penn State's thrashing of Navy a product of the team settling in and finding itself, or of Navy being sort of horrendous by comparison. (No wimping out and picking both! Okay, you can if you want.)

It had to be a little from Column A and a little from Column B to be honest, but I think there are signs that Penn State is continuing to improve in some aspects in the early going under O’Brien.

The defense has forced eight turnovers in the past two games and that doesn't happen by accident. The defense has played better week-to-week after three games.

The offense seems to have found at least one player to take over a key role with sophomore Allen Robinson at wide receiver. The offense in general is still finding itself, but Matt McGloin has shown some good things early on with his decision-making, for the most part. As a team I think there are some positive trends unfolding for Penn State on both sides of the football that suggest they could be OK this season.

Speaking of McGloin, his progression isn't staggering, but it's certainly
substantial. Is it because it's O'Brien, because it's not Paterno,or because he doesn't have Bolden over his shoulder any longer? Which of those
three is most responsible for his improvement?

There is no question in my mind that McGloin has benefited from new
coaching, and he has made some subtle and not so subtle comments
supporting that idea. But, as you pointed out, I think the fact that
McGloin was named the starter early by O’Brien has the biggest impact on
everything.

Last season the switching back-and-forth of quarterbacks prevented Penn
State from finding their offensive identity and establishing any sort of
rhythm. We know that McGloin is not the most talented or skilled
quarterback, but right now at Penn State he has been the best available
option. Now McGloin gets to take all of the first team snaps and feel
more comfortable leading the offense.

What do you make of the number of attempts to go for it on fourth down? Specifically, O'Brien's decision not use Ficken for a chip shot last week and coming away with no points right after the kid has missed an extra point. The right move? Too aggressive? Is he unconcerned with Ficken's psyche?

I thought O’Brien should have gone for what should have been an easy field goal just to give Sam Ficken a chance to boost his confidence and let him know that he will be trusted. I felt kicking a chip-shot field goal (or at least not hesitating to attempt it) would have done Ficken some good as a young player who felt awful about the way the previous week had gone.

That said, I’m not Bill O’Brien.

It’s a new way of thinking when it comes to Penn State’s offense, and that means taking more risks and gambling on fourth down a lot more than usual. Penn State has already converted six fourth down attempts for a first down this season, compared to ten all of last season. This may be the way it is going to be under O’Brien but there may be something else to consider here. What does Penn State ultimately have to lose by going for it on fourth down rather than kicking field goals? We all know Penn State has no postseason to play for, so there is nothing to lose by playing with an extra risk.

Do you get the sense that as this season goes on, key guys in that locker room will grow committed enough not to leave the program, or is Penn State treading water until the next transfer period?

There is no question that the biggest challenge Bill O’Brien has this season is keeping this team together, and establishing and maintaining team chemistry is a huge part of that. The ability for this program to stay afloat, metaphorically speaking, will rely heavily on O’Brien keeping players on the roster now from transferring elsewhere after the season at a time when he will also need to focus on recruiting for the Class of 2013.

What's the most key matchup in this weekend's game that Penn State needs to get the better of to win?

Penn State’s biggest weak point this season has been third down defense. Penn State ranks 115th in the nation in third down conversions allowed, giving up first downs 50.98 percent of the time (Temple is getting off the field 60 percent of the time by comparison). If the Owls can get in to some manageable third down situations, with the running game they should have to rely on the odds could be very good that Temple continues to crack Penn State’s third-down defense.

And since I anticipate this being a tight game, that could become a huge factor as the game unfolds.

Click here for Part 2: On the Temple Owls and keep up with Kevin and Nick's weekend reports from State College on
Twitter @KevinOnCFB and @cnmenta.

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Derek Barnett's college position coach: He can flip switch to 'monster'

Derek Barnett's college position coach: He can flip switch to 'monster'

For family days at the University of Tennessee, former defensive line coach Steve Stripling's wife Gayle would make cookies for the crowd. And every time she did, it didn't go unnoticed by the Vols' best player. 

Every time, without fail, Derek Barnett would make a point to seek her out and say, "Hey Mrs. Strip, thank you for the cookies." 

It's a small thing, thanking someone for cookies. But it's something that seems to exemplify the type of players the Eagles are focused on bringing into the organization, especially with new VP of player personnel Joe Douglas leading the draft charge. And it was the one of the stories that stuck out most to Steve Stripling on Friday morning, 12 hours after the pick was made. 

"He's got that in him," Stripling said to CSNPhilly.com on Friday morning, just before boarding a flight from Philadelphia back to Tennessee, "and then on the football field, I've seen him just be a monster. 

"He has that ability to be quiet, unassuming, polite, respectful, all that, and then on the football field, he's a warrior. When he walks on the football field, he's different, totally different." 

Barnett, 20, is a pretty quiet and reserved guy. Some fans thought he didn't look pleased to be picked by the Eagles with the 14th pick on Thursday night, but that's not true. That's just his demeanor — off the field. 

On the field, Barnett is a relentless technician with an exceptional motor that powered him to 33 sacks at Tennessee, breaking Reggie White's long-standing record. 

"If you get to know him, he doesn't say much," Stripling said. "He's very quiet, but on the football field, when he says something, everyone pays attention. He just has that built into him, to play hard and he's a grinder and focused and all those things."

Stripling joined the Volunteers' coaching staff as an associate head coach and defensive line coach for the 2013 season. That was the year spent recruiting Barnett out of Brentwood Academy in Brentwood, Tennessee. After Barnett's 2016 season, Stripling, 63, took a job as the director of football program development, but he was Barnett's position coach for all three years of his college stay. 

And from the time Barnett arrived on the Tennessee campus in 2014, it didn't take long for the coaching staff to realize something was special about him. 

Stripling recalls a play that the coaching staff has shown "a thousand times" since it happened back in 2014. During the first or second day of Volunteers' two-a-day camp, Barnett, then a freshman, showed that relentless style for which he's now become known. Barnett lined up as the team's right end as the ball broke to the left and the carrier jetted down field. From out of nowhere, Barnett chased him 40 yards downfield and delivered a sideline hit. 

Before that play, Tennessee knew Barnett was good. After that play, it knew he was special. 

"Usually when a freshman gets to camp, they're just trying to fit in, learn their way," Stripling said. "But it was from Day 1." 

The Tennessee defensive line room tried to live by an acronym: EAT — effort, accountability and technique. Barnett represented all of those facets. 

But perhaps more than anything, the technique part of his game is what really stands out. The use of his hands and his ability to bend as a pass rusher are the traits that vaulted him into the top half of the first round. 

And Barnett credits "Coach Strip" for a lot of it. 

"I’ll you what, he was hard on me," Barnett wrote about Stripling in the Players' Tribune. "From the very first day I arrived on campus, he was on me to refine whatever physical talents I had so that I could become a well-rounded football player."

In addition to working with Tennessee coaches, Barnett has also spent time in the offseason working with former NFL defensive lineman and pass-rush guru Chuck Smith. 

Barnett (6-3, 259 pounds) didn't perform well at the 2017 combine in Indianapolis. Even though he was dealing with the flu, he wanted to show more. But on Thursday night, that lackluster performance didn't seem to bother Douglas, who raved about his technique and even dropped some scouty lingo with the phrase "ankle flexion." 

Stripling, meanwhile, compared Barnett's bend as a pass rusher to former Colts great Dwight Freeney. 

"I think that's athletic ability to me, even though it's not a 40-yard time," Stripling said. "It's the ability to get low, reduce the surface and turn the corner. And I think that's one of his strong suites."

And then there's something Barnett has that simply can't be coached: instincts. Barnett, according to Stripling, has the unique ability to leave his gap responsibility at exactly the right time, when necessary to make a play: 

"I would say, 'Derek, how did you know the ball was going there?' He'd say, 'I just knew it.'"

For Stripling, Thursday night at the Ben Franklin Parkway was quite a thrill. A college coach since 1977, this was the first NFL draft he had ever attended. Hours after the Eagles used their 14th pick to take Barnett and hours after the hoopla surrounding the event had faded, Stripling sat up late with Barnett, his mother Christine and the rest of the family, reminiscing and reflecting. 

A little earlier in the night, when Barnett's name was called, Stripling happened to be seated near a group of inquisitive Eagles fans. 

"They were saying, 'who is this guy?'" Stripling recalled. "And I said, 'you're going to love this guy. He's going to work hard, he's going to be tough, he's going to make plays, you're going to love him.' I'm excited for him, it's going to be a good fit."

Record-breaking crowds flood the Parkway for NFL Draft Experience in Philly

Record-breaking crowds flood the Parkway for NFL Draft Experience in Philly

Who needs to the Pope when you have Ginger Jesus?

The NFL Draft Experience joined a long list of wildly popular events in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and all along the Ben Franklin Parkway.

The NFL announced today that nearly 100,000 fans enjoyed the experience, the most-ever for a draft-related event, on day 1 of the draft alone.

Fans flooded into the Experience with people from all across the country in town to support their respective teams. Eagles fans clearly dominated the crowd, however, as you couldn't go a few minutes without hearing an E-A-G-L-E-S chant. 

ESPN also showed some love all night long. SportsCenter's Scott Van Pelt called the story of the night in Philadelphia the city of Philly itself. Adam Schefter called it the "wildest, most raucous crowd in draft history." Jon Gruden called Philly "one of the greatest football towns on the planet."

Aside from not being totally in love with their first pick Derek Barnett upon first blush, Philly fans showed off wonderfully. Even the booing of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came off as cute.

The Draft Experience is open again on Friday from noon until 11:00 pm and on Saturday from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm. It's free for all fans.

Try the games, avoid the cheesesteaks. And bring some sunscreen (ugh).