Two weeks later, Bill O’Brien is still searching for his first win at Penn State.
He hopes the third time, Saturday in Beaver Stadium against Navy (0-1), will be the charm for his Nittany Lions (0-2). O’Brien watched his team, and specifically his defense, turn in an outstanding road performance last week at Virginia only to watch kicker Sam Ficken miss a game-winning field goal attempt as time expired. It was the kicker’s fourth miss of the day, and the nail in the coffin of a heartbreaking 17-16 loss.
This week, the Nittany Lions welcome the Navy Midshipmen on Military Appreciation Day at Beaver Stadium. While Penn State will be honoring the Midshipmen who serve the country, they’ll also be honoring their own with service time: fullback P.J. Byers and defensive end Brent Smith. Byers is an active member of the Navy and will become an officer once he graduates while Smith has spent two tours of duty in Iraq in addition to eight years in the Marines.
O’Brien knows that facing a service academy is a challenge, he even joked with reporters this week by saying that he didn’t schedule Navy, an ode to the toughness and tenacity that service academy teams play with week in and week out. What makes Navy an especially tough team to play is their triple-option attack on offense. The option attack controls the clock and piles up yardage while wearing down the defense. O’Brien said he expects to see only eight to nine possessions due to the clock that the option chews up. With possessions at a premium, quarterback Matt McGloin and the offense will have to make the most of the ones they get, something they haven’t done so far in two losses against Ohio and Virginia. O’Brien specifically wants to see improvement from his offense in the red-zone, where the Lions have struggled so far, settling for field goal attempts instead touchdowns. Without saying, O’Brien also expects more from his special teams and kicker Sam Ficken, who simply has to be better.
Keeping up in the clock management game should be easier for O’Brien as he should get his starting tailback, Bill Belton, back from an ankle injury. Belton, who was injured in the season opener, was missed in the Nittany Lion backfield against Virginia, where the Lions averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. Backup tailback Derek Day, who was banged up against Virginia, is also expected to play. If both Belton and Day can’t go, sophomore Zach Zwinak will get the call in the backfield. Zwinak carried the ball three times for just two yards last Saturday.
While the Lions would have rather ended up with a win on the road, the Penn State defense rebounded nicely against the Cavalier after a lackluster season opener. Led by senior linebacker Michael Mauti, the Lions forced four turnovers and held the Cavaliers under 300 total yards. The bad news was third down again for the Lions, where Virginia went 9-15 a week after Ohio went 13-21. O’Brien stressed during the week how important it was for the defense to get off the field on third and long situations. But if the Lions have their way, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s offense will be facing plenty of third and long situations.
Leading the charge for the visiting Midshipmen will be quarterback Trey Miller. The ringleader of Navy’s triple-option actually threw for 192 yards and a touchdown as the Mids played from behind in a 50-10 shellacking in Dublin to Notre Dame. But this weekend, Miller, along with tailbacks Prentice Chrisitan and Gee Gee Greene will try and wear down Penn State’s front seven and pull the upset. Navy’s defense also presents the Lions with a challenge, as O’Brien noted the Mids use mixed fronts throughout games to confuse opponents and creates mismatches. The chess match between the Nittany Lion offense and the Mids defense will be on from kickoff.
Matt McGloin leads the Penn State offense after playing through an injury to his throwing elbow against Virginia. The senior missed two series’ after appearing to have his elbow hit a helmet during a play. McGloin has passed for four touchdowns and one interception in two games, but is completing just over 55% of his pass attempts. He’ll be throwing to breakout sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson when he does throw, as Robinson leads the team with 19 receptions through two games. Tight end Kyle Carter got into the act against Virginia when McGloin hooked up with the redshirt freshman on a touchdown. Carter has 10 receptions and 100 yards so far this season.
Players to watch:
Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State - With Navy’s triple-option attack chewing up clock, McGloin will have to been effective and efficient on Saturday if the Lions want to avoid an 0-3 start. With around eight or nine possessions in the game, McGloin has to lead his team to touchdowns, something he hasn’t be able to do all that frequently early on.
Trey Miller, QB, Navy - Miller is the ringleader for Navy’s offensive game plan. He’s also the option trigger man. Notre Dame stuffed Miller (20 carries for 16 yards) in their opener, but he still beat them through the air. Look for this dual-threat to wreak havoc on Ted Roof’s defense all day.
Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State - If Mauti’s defensive front seven can’t contain Navy’s option early, the Lions will be in huge trouble. Navy is 24-7 under Ken Niumatalolo when scoring first, so getting stops early will be paramount for the Lions defense.
Penn State’s front seven vs. Navy’s triple-option - Notre Dame stuffed Navy’s running game early and had the Mids looking like fish out of water by the end of the first quarter. That’s the blueprint, but it’s also easier said than done. Penn State’s defense front will need to stay disciplined and know their assignments on every play to stop the option. If Penn State’s front seven holds up and stays disciplined, they should be able to get enough penetration to stop Navy’s option attack early. If not, Navy will be the second team to embarrass the Nittany Lions in Beaver Stadium in three weeks. Yikes.
Prediction: Penn State 24 Navy 14