The Big Ten has finally begun their college football season, and from the onset, some terrific conference battles are on tap. One of those should be in Bloomington as the Indiana Hoosiers will welcome in the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Coming off an impressive 11-2 season in 2019, Penn State head coach James Franklin has the Nittany Lions ranked among the nation's best teams in 2020. Penn State welcomes back some impressive talent, including starting tight end Pat Freiermuth and starting quarterback Sean Clifford. An impressive defensive player to keep an eye on in 2020 is sophomore linebacker Brandon Smith.
While Penn State is well-regarded, it bears mentioning that the Nittany Lions suffered some key personnel losses, even outside of the traditional NFL draft selections. Linebacker Micah Parsons opted out of the 2020 season over the summer, and projected starting running back Journey Brown may potentially miss the 2020 season due to an undisclosed medical condition. Penn State has recruited well under Franklin, and now the burden will fall upon those players to step up for the Nittany Lions.
Under Indiana head coach Tom Allen, the Hoosiers have made considerable strides within the Big Ten East Division. Coming off an 8-5 season in 2020, Indiana had their first winning record in the Big Ten since 1993. It seems possible that Indiana may make consecutive bowl games for the first time in 30 years when the late Bill Mallory was able to get the Hoosiers to the Peach Bowl (1990) and the Independence Bowl (1991).
A major reason for the optimism is the play of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. Penix is a dynamic, dual-threat option at the position, and will not be looking over his shoulder, as Peyton Ramsey transferred this off-season to Northwestern. A big challenge for Penix will be to stay healthy, as injuries have impacted him during his college career.
Under Allen, the Hoosiers have played a 4-2-5 defensive scheme that has helped them to compete against conference opponents who run the spread offense. With Penn State coming to town, the Hoosiers' defense will be put to the test right away. Allen stated, "Obviously, playing a team like Penn State gives us an opportunity. What's next for our program is winning these games. Being close is no longer acceptable."
Penn State at Indiana
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -6.5
When Penn State Has the Ball
Penn State hired Kirk Ciarrocca from Minnesota as their new offensive coordinator in the offseason. Even with the addition of Ciarrocca, look for Penn State to continue to do what it has in the past, and that will mean a diverse offense that incorporates both the run and the pass very well. Penn State's offensive line has returning starting experience, and that will be leaned upon as the Nittany Lions try to ease projected starting running back Noah Cain into his role.
The aforementioned Freiermuth is a matchup problem for any team. How Indiana chooses to defend Freiermuth will bear watching, as Freiermuth is listed at 6-foot-5, 258 pounds, and is a challenge for linebackers or defensive backs to effectively stop. Freiermuth is coming off a 2019 season where he had 43 receptions for 507 yards and 7 touchdowns.
When Indiana Has the Ball
Indiana also has a new offensive coordinator, Nick Sheridan, after Kalen DeBoer departed for the Fresno State head coaching job. Sheridan will likely rely upon a strong running game with Stevie Scott III and Sampson James. The duo combined for 1,120 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns.
If Indiana is able to get its running game going, it will only help Penix as the Hoosiers have an arsenal of talented wide receivers. Led by senior Whop Philyor, who compiled 70 receptions for 1,002 yards and 5 touchdowns last year, the Hoosiers may be able to take advantage of a talented but inexperienced Penn State secondary that gave up 251.5 passing yards per game in 2019, 100th out of 130 FBS teams.
Both Penn State and Indiana are eager to get on the field and get the 2020 season started, but it will not be surprising if there is some sloppiness from both teams, as evidenced by the performance of other college football teams around the country so far this season. Indiana may try to help its defense with a ball-control offensive strategy since Penn State beat the Hoosiers 34-24 last season with a nine-minute fourth-quarter possession behind that strong Nittany Lion offensive line that effectively ended the game. Indiana is getting closer and closer to knocking off the elite of the Big Ten East Division, and it will put a scare into Penn State, but I see the Nittany Lions getting the victory in the end.
Prediction: Penn State 28, Indiana 20
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions