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Opponent Q&A: Talking Penn State Nittany Lions Football

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Get the inside story on the 10-2 team from the B1G East

NCAA Football: Indiana at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week we had the chance to talk to Aaron Yourke (@AaronPYourke) from the SBN community Black Shoe Diaries regarding the Fiesta Bowl matchup with the Huskies.

Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:

UWDP: Studying QB Trace McSorley, he seems to be an energetic player who has hot and cold moments with his accuracy. True? He also gives his line about 2 seconds before he jumps up and breaks the pocket. Is this by design, does he feel more comfortable outside the pocket, or has his O-Line let him down and he feels the pocket won’t hold up?

Aaron: It's true that Trace can go from looking like he can't hit the broad side of a barn to looking like a Heisman Trophy candidate. Overall, though, he's much better at throwing the ball this year than last. That's why his completion percentage and Penn State's third-down conversion rate are way up even though McSorley is averaging one yard fewer per pass attempt. The Lions have struggled at protecting the passer since Franklin took over three years ago, so it makes sense that McSorley is quick to leave the pocket. On the other hand, any shorter signal caller -- McSorley is listed at six feet tall -- should feel more comfortable when he doesn't have to look over his massive linemen. Add in McSorley's production in the running game, and it's no wonder why he's always looking to get out of the pocket.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Penn State
QB Trace McSorley has rushed for nearly a thousand yards in his Penn State career.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

UWDP: Penn State has some nice weapons on the outside. DaeSean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson both have good size and lead the way. TE Mike Gesicki is a beastly target. How are these three used in the offense, and who else can UW fans expect to see step up as receiving threats?

Aaron: McSorley has done a great job distributing the ball to a variety of targets, as Hamilton, Gesicki, Johnson, and Saquon Barkley all have more than 45 receptions this season. While it makes sense for the 6'4" Johnson to be the deep threat, he's been more of a possession receiver lately, while Hamilton is the guy who McSorley looks to when he's locked in one-on-one matchups down the field. Gesicki is versatile in that he can be targeted deep due to his size advantage over defensive backs, but also close to the line of scrimmage due to his running ability. That's why you see Gesicki with a lower yards-per-catch average than Barkley, who gets deep against opposing linebackers more often than you might think.

UWDP: Saquon Barkley is obviously the focal point of the offense. Offensive Coordinator Ricky Rahne could write a book titled “101 ways to get Saquon the ball.” What makes this guy so damn good? What other running backs could factor in for the Nittany Lions?

Aaron: Barkley's two biggest assets are his explosiveness and versatility. While he's often been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage due to the offensive line being overpowered by stronger opponents, the All-American makes up for that by being a touchdown threat every time he touches the ball. It's Barkley's ability to accelerate and change directions with ease in combination with his surprising power that has made him such an intriguing NFL prospect. He's also the best in the country when it comes to tailbacks catching the ball out of the backfield. Barkley has at least one reception in every game this season, and he's gone over 50 receiving yards in half of them. Miles Sanders and Mark Allen are the next men up on the depth chart, but they usually come in when Barkley needs a breather, rather than on a situational basis.

UWDP: Washington had a rough year in the injury department. What kinds of injuries/suspensions is Penn State dealing with?

Aaron: Ryan Bates suffered a leg injury against Ohio State in late October and finally returned to action in the season finale at Maryland. He should be back to full strength for the Fiesta Bowl, so look for him at right tackle, albeit not in a starting role. Meanwhile, defensive end Ryan Buchholz, who was also hurt in Columbus, is expected to return to the starting lineup against Washington. Linebacker Manny Bowen, on the other hand, has just been dropped from the team due to off-field issues after being suspended for the final three games of the regular season. Reserve wide receiver Irvin Charles has also been given the boot.

UWDP: Watching the Penn State defense two things stand out: They like to blitz and there are some guys who deliver some hard hits. Safety Marcus Allen stands out. What other defensive players are likely to imapct the Fiesta Bowl? What has been the biggest problem for PSU on the defensive side?

Aaron: Jason Cabinda is the team's leading tackler and he should be key in slowing down Myles Gaskin on Saturday. While Marcus Allen and fellow safety Troy Apke have done a great job in run support, the secondary has struggled in coverage against the top quarterbacks of the Big Ten. Part of that is due to the front seven's failure to generate pressure against good offensive lines, so hopefully the return of Ryan Buchholz will help in that regard. Freshman defensive end Shaka Toney has shown some potential, but the fact that he's tied for the team lead with four sacks is a problem.

Michigan v Penn State
DE Ryan Buchholz has been out since the Ohio State game Week 8, but is expected to be full-go for the Fiesta Bowl.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

UWDP: How much animosity do Penn State fans have toward Washington in terms of thinking they should have been in the playoffs over the Huskies a year ago? Or was it all about Ohio State?

Aaron: 100 percent of the animosity went towards Ohio State, mostly because Penn State held a head-to-head victory over the Buckeyes. There won't be any extra juice to this Fiesta Bowl matchup due to what happened last year, but it should be a fun game regardless.

UWDP: What is your prediction for The Fiesta Bowl?

Aaron: I believe in both rush defenses, so I think Barkley and Gaskin will be running uphill all game. In the passing game, the Lions have been more explosive and have more effective weapons. I think that makes the difference.

Penn State 34, Washington 27.

Thanks Aaron. For more on the Fiesta Bowl from the Penn State perspective, be sure to visit Black Shoe Diaries.

To read my answers to Aaron’s questions, click here.