After opening the season with a win on the road, the Penn State Nittany Lions return home to some of the friendliest confines in college football on Saturday.
After the Nittany Lions spent last weeks season opener in a “neutral site” game, beating Syracuse 23-17 at MetLiefe Stadium, they’ll return home to Beaver Stadium, which can house roughly another 20,000 more fans than the NFL stadium that the Jets and Giants share.
Joining the Nittany Lions (1-0) in Beaver Stadium for the noon kickoff will be the Eastern Michigan Eagles (1-0), who edged FCS opponent Howard 34-24 in their season opener last week. The Eagles racked up 170 yards on the ground, and junior quarterback Tyler Benz added 210 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Tailbacks Bronson Hill and Darius Jackson combined for 165 yards on 35 carries and three scores on the day.
It marks the first home start for freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who showed flashes of brilliance in throwing for 278 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Orange in his first career start. Now it’s time to unveil the heralded signal caller to the football-crazed town of Happy Valley.
Penn State hopes for a better result against this MAC team than the season opening loss the Ohio Bobcats handed the Nittany Lions in Beaver Stadium a year ago in coach Bill O’Brien’s first in charge of the program.
But these visitors aren’t quite the 10-win Bobcats that ruined O’Brien’s debut last season, as the Eagles won just two games last season and struggled against far interior competition just last week.
The Nittany Lions have a clear edge on both sides of the ball as far as skill-wise and from a matchup standpoint. The Eagles will undoubtedly have issues covering receiver Allen Robinson, who followed his first half suspension last week with a 51-yard touchdown to start the third quarter en route to 133 yards on seven receptions. Robinson is one of the best in the country and figures to be the best wideout the Eagles face all season.
In addition to the threat outside of Robinson, the Eagles will be dealing with a young quarterback with a ton of confidence coming off of his first win as a starter. Christian Hackenberg finished 22-31 for 278 yards and two touchdowns against the Orange last week. Not bad for a first start in college, eh? Despite being intercepted twice, and one of them potentially game-changing, the freshman acclimated himself to the big stage well and should be even more conformable in front of home fans this week.
Another factor besides the budding Penn State passing game for the Eagles to worry about on defense is the Penn State rushing offense. Syracuse returned a solid defensive unit from a year ago and showed it last week in holding the Nittany Lions to just 57 yards on 38 carries. After spending last season averaging five yards per carry, senior tailback Zach Zwinak saw himself held to under three yards a carry last Saturday. Expect O’Brien and his staff to push a veteran offensive line to create more running room for Zwinak and the running game to reduce pressure on the freshman quarterback in game two. It should be easier sledding for the offensive line as the Eagles allowed 200 yards on the ground to Howard last week.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Nittany Lions were stout as usual against Syracuse. Up by just six with plenty of time left on the clock for the Orange offense, and the Lions defense held and sealed the win. Senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones was in the Syracuse backfield all day and should again push the pocket against Eastern Michigan come Saturday. The Penn State defense held the ‘Cuse to just 260 total yards in the win.
Key matchup: Eastern Michigan’s front seven vs. Penn State’s rushing attack
Hackenberg proved that he’s the real deal last week, and should have no problem throwing to a bevy of weapons again, but the Nittany Lion rushing game never got footing in the win and showed some cause for concern. Enter the Eastern Michigan defense, which allowed over 200 yards on the ground to an FCS opponent last week. Look for Penn State to establish the running game early and see if the Eagles’ front seven can stand up to the challenge. My guess is that they won’t, and the Lions will go on to cruise in this one going away.
While the competition won’t be as tough, the Lions will need another complete team effort to move to 2-0 on Saturday. We think they get it, 42-17 over Eastern Michigan.