Penn State looks to keep what could be a revitalized running game going strong this week as the Nittany Lions go for their third straight win. Their opponent, San Diego State, is a team that tends to thrive on the run. Will the Aztecs have enough offense to leave Happy Valley with a win in the first all-time meeting between the programs, or will the Nittany Lions once again flex some muscle with their offensive line to continue the momentum heading into October?
San Diego State at Penn State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Penn State -15
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Penn State's offensive line keep it going?
Penn State's offensive line was atrocious in 2014 and got off to as bad a start as you could imagine in the season-opening loss to the Temple Owls. Penn State allowed Christian Hackenberg to be sacked 10 times and the running game produced just 80 yards in the loss. Since then things have turned around for the offensive line. Hackenberg has not been sacked in either of the last two games and the running game has amassed 5030 rushing yards and six touchdowns. It is not quite time to suggest Penn State has solved all of its problems in the trenches, but it has been encouraging to see from Penn State's biggest weak spot on the roster. Herb Hand has done a splendid job of regaining the confidence of the offensive line, but there is still plenty of football to be played.
2. Say hello to Saquon Barkley
One of the bust-out players for Penn State the last two weeks has been Class of 2015 running back Saquon Barkley. After getting just one rushing attempt in the season opener (for a gain of one yard), Barkley has quickly become one of Penn State's more impressive offensive players with back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against Buffalo and Rutgers. Last week Barkley rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns, showing off some nice moves along the way against a beleaguered Rutgers defense. He now leads the team in rushing and is receiving tips from and being compared to another former Penn State standout running back, Ki-Jana Carter. That is some mighty high praise for a player entering just his fourth career game, but Barkley came to Penn State with high expectations.
3. Can San Diego State's one-dimensional offense mix things up enough?
San Diego State is a team that will rely on the run through thick and thin. The Aztecs come to Happy Valley with the 112th-ranked passing offense with 159.0 passing yards per game, three touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. The running game is San Diego State's strength, although that has gotten off to a slow start this season with the 95th-best running offense in the nation, averaging just 152.67 rushing yards per game. Penn State's defense should be in good form for this matchup with San Diego State's offensive identity struggling early on and the Aztecs continuing to struggle to move the ball through the air. If Penn State takes away the running game, then the Aztecs could quickly be in big trouble.
The time has come for Penn State to start letting the run game seize control of a game. The last two weeks should show the running game can be trusted against certain opponents, and San Diego State appears to be the kind of opponent that can be run on. The passing game at Penn State is still more of a concern than expected at this point, but having Barkley and Akeel Lynch take some of the pressure off of Hackenberg should work well. San Diego State needs Donnel Pumphrey to have a big day on the ground, but that may not be enough for the visiting Aztecs.
Prediction: Penn State 31, San Diego State 17
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.