Reaching across enemy lines: Penn State

Editor’s note: Every week, The Daily Illini football staff will chat with a sports editor or football beat reporter from an opposing school’s paper. Up this week is The Daily Collegian sports editor, Kristen Nelson.ch

The Daily Illini: How different is this Penn State team from last year’s team?

Kristen Nelson: Well first off, Penn State has all of the scholarships back, so there’s certainly more depth, but it still isn’t perfect. Penn State is seeing a lot of the same problems it did last year. The offensive line problems certainly aren’t fixed, they’re making adjustments seemingly every game. Tight ends still aren’t being used like they could. The defense is still very solid and reliable. The biggest difference this season is Saquon BarkleyJT at running back, and for him, many at Penn State are thankful.

DI: Has Christian HackenbergJT taken the next step to becoming an elite quarterback or is he still where he was last season?

KN: Christian Hackenberg does what he can with the offense he’s given. Like I said, the offensive line doesn’t always give him the chance to truly show what he can do, but he’s still a very good quarterback. Will he be the top pick? I say no. First round? Probably. He has an incredible arm and this season he’s even picked up a few more rushing yards than we’re used to seeing. Penn State has just recently started to resort to the passing game more and he’s done fine with it, he knows exactly where to throw the ball for each of his receivers.

DI: What position group stands out the most on defense?

KN: Penn State has its ‘Linebacker U’ tradition, which will always be solid, but the defensive line has really stood out this year. Former linebacker Mike HullJT basically did it all for the Lions last season, but this year it’s been all about defensive end Carl NassibJT and his buddies on the line. Nassib, who was a walk-on and earned a scholarship from Bill O’Brien, leads the country in sacks, tackles for loss, and is tied for forced fumbles. The team calls him “Crazy Carl” and he’s shown all season why. Plus, he has defensive tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin JohnsonJT by his side to help with the work. That duo was good last season, but incredible this season.

DI: Is Penn State’s offense pass heavy or has there been a balance this season?

KN: In the first five games of the season, Hackenberg barely threw the ball. The first game that was because he was sacked 10 times, and then three of the next four it was because of rain. But against Indiana, Penn State started to show its ability in the passing game. Part of that had to do with top running backs Barkley and Akeel LynchJT being injured for a couple games. Both can easily run for 100-plus yards per game, which makes it tempting for the offense to utilize. Against Maryland, though, passing was the only way Penn State could move the ball upfield. I expect the offense will become more balanced for the rest of the season.

DI: Who might be a player that might Illini fans might not know of and who could make a difference in the game?

KN: If Illini fans don’t know who Chris GodwinJT is, they will soon. The wide receiver is capable of miracle catches. He likes to run deep and leap high, even with cornerbacks draped all over him. Godwin seems to make every pass Hackenberg makes catchable because his speed and hands are incredible. And he also rides around campus on a hoverboard to save his legs. Defensively, Jason CabindaJT can make a big difference. The linebacker was forced to step up his role when top guys were injured early in the season, and Cabinda hasn’t struggled with that at all, leading the team with 61 total tackles.

DI: How do Penn State fans feel about the job James FranklinJT has done?

KN: It’s very mixed. There are still the fans who will always insist no one will ever be better than Joe Paterno, and then there are others who love Franklin’s enthusiasm and persistent positivity. The real frustration has been with offensive coordinator John DonovanJT. His play calling is rather questionable at times and he seems to be the one hit with all the grumblings from the fans. But there are still some fans who would gladly like to see Franklin take the job opening in Miami.

DI: What has the new era of Penn State football been like? Do you think the cloud of Jerry Sandusky has passed over the culture?

KN: Per Franklin’s insistence, the new era of Penn State football is all about being 1-0 each week. When it comes to this current team, it’s all about what happens on the field, rarely dwelling on the past. When it comes to the fans, it is truly split. There are many who love Franklin and have moved on. Some truly can’t get over what happened in 2012 and they still fight with other fans over whether Joe Paterno was involved or not. And then there are those who are still looking for the Joe Paterno statue.

The sanctions have been lifted, but their effects can still be felt. Penn State does not have as much depth as it could; this season’s schedule was made based off the idea that Penn State would be terribly untalented; fans can’t travel to a single road game without hearing Sandusky’s name heckled to them. It’ll be a very, very long time until the cloud of Sandusky has passed. However, to Franklin’s credit, he’s working very hard to leave his own mark on this program. What that mark is, I’m still trying to figure it out. The guy is a PR machine.