Our “how you doing” feature is back for year three! Each week we at B5Q will review how each of Wisconsin’s opponents has fared heading into their contest with the Badgers.
First up, the Penn State Nittany Lions.
With no football on the record books yet for Penn State in 2020, we instead will dive into the happenings of fall camp for a team hoping to bounce back after a very sub-par season by their standards.
Results thus far:
As previously mentioned, no games have been played in the Big Ten, outside of Nebraska’s (Editor’s note: hilarious) loss to Illinois last weekend.
Therefore, Penn State (0-0 overall, and 0-0 Big Ten) is still winless, or undefeated, depending on your outlook.
- Running back Noah Cain is back with a clean bill of health, which is good news for the Penn State rushing attack.
- Defensive end Adisa Isaac, one of their top returning players in the front seven will miss the entire season. His loss is huge considering how many d-lineman either left Happy Valley for the NFL or via the transfer portal.
Status of the offense:
Let’s begin at quarterback. Sean Clifford regressed last year, but he has a new offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich. Clifford was a heralded recruit coming out of high school (he started ahead of Chase Wolf at Saint Xavier in Ohio), and he moves well as a runner when needed. The biggest question for him is consistency. With a third offensive coordinator in three years, time will tell if the Yurcich and Clifford connection can spark the offense.
While quarterback is the biggest question mark on the offense for Penn State, the interior of the offensive line is still a bit up in the air too. The Nittany Lions have an extensive list of capable players at both guard spots, and center questions remain at this point as to who will be the starters come Saturday. Penn State has two extremely long and athletic players at the tackle spots in Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace. Overall the line will be a relative strength this year, but the interior is more susceptible than outside.
The strength of the Penn State offense will undoubtedly be the backfield, in my opinion. The Nittany Lions have recruited the running back position extremely well the past few seasons, and have one of the better groups of running backs in the Big Ten entering the year. As previously mentioned, Noah Cain is back, but Devyn Ford, Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes are also talented playmakers with the ball in their hands. Baylor grad transfer John Lovett is another intriguing option as well that could steal some carries. It will be interesting to see if Cain can replicate what he did in 2019 because he emerged late in the year as a player to watch. Unless Sean Clifford takes a big step as a senior, I would expect Penn State to lean on their rushing attack this season.
Out wide, Clifford has plenty of weapons. Jahan Dotson is one of the better receivers in the Big Ten after breaking out last year with nearly 900 yards in only nine games. He is an electric player that the Badgers will need to keep in check. With him, there are plenty of young options like Parker Washington. Washington took an official visit to Madison a couple of years back and was an instant impact freshman last season. Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson are two tight ends that can also do move well as pass catchers.
Status of the defense:
In the front seven, Penn State is best up the middle. Linebackers Brandon Smith, Brooks Ellis and Curtis Jacobs were all highly recruited out of high school and have shown flashes, especially Smith, who I believe set for a big season. Add in an experienced mountain of a senior nose guard upfront in PJ Mustipher and talented youngster Hakeem Beamon, and this group could be tough against the run.
The issue in the front seven for Penn State is at the defensive end. The loss of defensive end Adisa Isaac was big. Penn State lost a bunch of pass-rushing production the past couple of seasons, and Isaac was one of the only remaining players with experience coming back. They added a transfer from Temple (Arnold Ebiketie) that should help out, but there are definite questions about the pass rush off the edge.
The Nittany Lions have a deep group in the secondary. At cornerback, South Carolina transfer Johnny Dixon is expected to add depth alongside Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter Jr, while three capable seniors should stand atop the depth chart at safety. Jaquan Brisker, in particular, is a player to look out for from his safety spot.
The Penn State defense was not nearly as good last season as years prior, but I would expect that they should be better than a year ago. The pass rush is still a big question, however.
I think Penn State will be better than what we saw from them in 2020. The Nittany Lions have recruited well and also hit the transfer portal extremely hard in the off-season.
Three questions still linger after fall camp for me:
- How quickly can their offense adjust to another system?
- How effective and impactful can their incoming transfers adapt to a new home?
- What does Sean Clifford look like as a senior?
Given those three question marks, I think it may take a little time for their offense to settle into a rhythm, which could be good news for the Badgers. Penn State holds talent at the skill positions that I think will test Wisconsin in many ways, especially in an opening game where it is hard to predict what teams will attempt to do gameplan-wise.
This will be a fun game to watch come Saturday and a good litmus test for what Penn State and Wisconsin could be in 2021.