Audrey Snyder is the Penn State football beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. With Maryland set to face Penn State this weekend at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, she was kind enough to chat on the phone for a while about the upcoming matchup and answer some questions about the Nittany Lions.
With everything that happened last year and with all the recruiting/divisional implications surrounding this game, do you have a sense of how the team is approaching this game or how it feels about it?
You need to look extra good in games like this when you're in this area. Kids in Maryland want to see that Penn State looks like a legitimate 5-2 game — even though if they've watched any of their games, they would see that's not the case. … [Recruiting Maryland has] been a big part of their footprint here for years, and you've got to do a good job to recruit that area and show that you can develop the talent you had. This will be their second NFL stadium this year. Penn State played Temple at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia in the season opener. They also played in MetLife Stadium two years ago when they opened up the season against Syracuse.
Penn State is 5-2 this season, but it doesn't really feel like it. What are some of the issues with this team?
The offense is the main issue right now, but the other stuff from the outside that probably goes under the radar, Penn state's special teams, specifically punting, has been pretty bad. They started the Ohio State game with one punter and went back to another punter. These guys aren't getting great hang time. You have an offense that can't move the ball and then you have a special teams unit that can't pin guys deep. They're losing the field position battle. You've got two kids punting who walked on because when they had the sanctions they didn't want to use one of their coveted scholarships on a punter. The special teams have been a problem.
I think the biggest thing right now with this offense, and you look at the quarterbacks Penn State is recruiting and it's a lot of dual-threat guys, and that's not Hackenberg. He's your prototypical pocket passer. Penn State has gone to this conservative playcalling early in the season to minimize mistakes. He's not used to those short dink and dunk passes. You're asking a quarterback to do something he's not comfortable with. You've got an offensive line that's been pretty bad at best. It's something Penn State hasn't had an answer to in the past year and a half. … They just don't have the talent on the offensive line and you look at a guy like Hackenberg and his NFL draft stock continues to take a hit. Saquon Barkely has been the brightest spot on this offense this year. He was the first running back to rush for more than 100 this year. They've got a special one in Barkley. That'll help Hackenberg a little bit. But right now, they're asking him not to throw the deep ball consistently and throw these underneath passes, and he just hasn't gotten into a rhythm.
On paper, where do you think Penn State matches up the best with Maryland? And where does Maryland match up the best with Penn State?
Penn State, the strength is the defense, particular their defensive line. Carl Nassib has just been totally disruptive, and nobody's been able to stop him. The thing that impressed me was Nassib going against that Ohio State offensive line that's been really, really good, and they couldn't stop him. The interior of the defensive line is another one of Penn State's strength. …This Penn State defense has been pretty good against the pass and solid against the run as well. They will rotate and do a wholesale line shift to replace the starters. They think they can keep their guys fresh and they like what they have behind them. That's certainly worked in Penn State's favor in every game this year.
This Penn State offense, you can attack it in so many ways. If Maryland can get even a little bit of pressure on Hackenberg, it throws things off tilt. If you can corral Barkley and you're a good tackling team, you have a shot. But Barkley makes it difficult. He just hasn't looked like a freshman. I don't know if he's ever going to have one of those true freshman moments or not. If you can get pressure on Hackenberg, this Penn State offensive line will have challenges if anyone can get to him.
For Penn State, this is another chance for them to take a step forward. James Franklin's mantra every week is trying to be 1-0 every week. Now they're trying to be a convincing 1-0. I don't know if Penn State is capable of posting more than 30 points. That's been the trouble this year. This offense needs to show it's better. I think that would be big for this team and for this fan base to kind of realize, "We don't need to rely on this freshman running back every game and maybe Hackenberg is a first round draft pick." I think this offense needs to find its footing, and maybe it never will this year. I feel like this is one of those last chances to establish itself before you get Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan State and Michigan.