Penn State Football: Keys to the Game Against San Diego State

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Sep 19, 2015; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) is congratulated by tight end Mike Gesicki (88) after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Like The Notorious B.I.G. said, “If I got to choose a coast I got to choose the East.” And in week four, San Diego State University (1-2) makes the cross-country trip eastward to play Penn State (2-1) for the first time in school history. The Nittany Lions will look to look to maintain momentum from their 28-3 blowout win against Rutgers in last week’s raucous Stripe Out and send the Aztecs “going going, back back, to Cali Cali” with their third loss of the season. SDSU will try and salvage the out of conference portion of their season after being upset at home in overtime last week by South Alabama, 34-27.

Following Penn State’s forgettable week one performance against Temple, the SDSU game looked like a toss-up at best; however, entering week four, the programs look to be moving in different directions. The Nittany Lions have made significant strides offensively in the last five quarters and enter the contest as a double digit-favorite. With 14 returning starters, SDSU was a preseason favorite to win the Mountain West, but has yet to play to its potential against its two FBS opponents to date, Cal and South Alabama.

Led by fifth year head coach Rocky Long, the Aztecs have the talent on their roster to provide a stiff test for Penn State. A blitz-oriented 3-3-5 “chaos” defense will pose a challenge to Christian Hackenberg and the offensive line due to its constant shifting and unpredictability.  However, the secondary-heavy defense is susceptible to giving up yards on the ground as evidence by South Alabama rolling up 241 rushing yards a week ago. As Rutgers discovered, the Nittany Lion’s rushing yards can pile up in a hurry with the combination of explosive Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch in the backfield. I am excited to watch Barkley add a few more runs to his rapidly growing highlight film and maybe this is the week that Coach Donovan decides to throw the play-maker the football out of the backfield potentially giving Hackenberg’s passing statistics a much needed boost.

SDSU’s offense has struggled this season, averaging just over 310 yards per game (121st in the country, while PSU is ranked only slightly better at 114th). Aztec quarterback, Maxwell Smith who transferred from Kentucky, has been inconsistent, completing less than 50 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions on the season. If SDSU falls behind early, Penn State’s secondary should have plenty of opportunities for takeaways again this week after recording two interceptions against Rutgers. The strength of the Aztec’s offense lies in their running game with standout junior running back, Donnel  Pumphrey. Pumphrey rushed for 1,867 yards a season ago and will have to carry the load if SDSU wants to be celebrating a win on the long flight home.

Through the first three games of the season neither team would be mistaken for having a dominant offense, but I like the Nittany Lion’s chances to get the victory at home considering their top 25 defense and the strong likelihood of another explosive game rushing the football. 

This week’s installment of Keys to the Game focuses on what Penn State needs to do to continue to improve, defeat the Aztecs and run their record to 3-1.

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