Sunday, December 21, 2014

Penn State vs Navy: Five storylines to follow

Penn State takes on Navy on Saturday at Beaver Stadium as Bill O'Brien looks for his first win as a head coach -- and the Nittany Lions try to avoid an 0-3 start to the season. Here are five storylines to follow:

Penn State vs Navy: Five storylines to follow

Penn State takes on Navy on Saturday at Beaver Stadium as Bill O'Brien looks for his first win as a head coach -- and the Nittany Lions try to avoid an 0-3 start to the season.

Here are five storylines to follow:

Who's in, who's out: Once again, the Nittany Lions enter the weekend with question marks at several positions. The main area of focus is at running back, where Penn State's No. 1 Bill Belton (ankle) and No. 2 Derek Day (shoulder) are considered day-to-day. At practice on Wednesday both running backs were in full pads -- surely a positive sign -- however appeared to be sitting out or taking it easy on a few drills. In the first live action set at practice, Zach Zwinak took snaps as the No. 1 running back and Mike Zordich took snaps at No. 2. I'd expect Belton and Day to probably suit up, but won't be surprised if we see either or both of them in limited roles. Meanwhile starting left tackle Donovan Smith was not dressed at Wednesday's practice, and to that point had not practiced since the loss to Virginia. Smith, who is nursing an ankle injury, might not play against Navy. It would be a big loss for Penn State's offensive line. Defensive end Pete Massaro (shoulder) and linebacker Nyeem Wartman (knee) are both possible. 

What's the big surprise? O'Brien was coy during his weekly radio show on Thursday evening when he teased that fans will see “a few different things” in the running game on Saturday. O'Brien said one of the surprises, would include a running back that hasn't played yet to be used in short-yardage situations. Is he referring to P.J. Byers, an active-duty member of the U.S. Navy, who would have the unique experience of playing against some of his peers? Or how about Akeel Lynch, a dynamic freshman who O'Brien previously said he would like to redshirt? Well, as O'Brien said: “You’ll see for yourself on Saturday.”

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A couple options: Preparing for Navy is unlike preparing for a normal opponent -- the Midshipmen run the triple offense. Assignment defense will be key for Penn State's defensive group, which surrendered 263 pass yards last week. Tedd Roof's defensive has seemed to struggle after halftime through the first two games -- lack of necessary adjustments? -- and this will be a big game in defining Roof's early legacy at Penn State. Does he have his players ready? It usually takes more than a week to prepare for the option, but the Nittany Lions were not given that luxury. They ran it with the Dirty Show (scout team) in practice. How prepared will they be?

Anyone home? About 97,000 fans came to Beaver Stadium in O'Brien's debut -- a 24-14 loss to Ohio. That's certainly not a sell out. How many fans will return this Saturday to see the winless Nittany Lions take on the Midshipmen? And what will the mood be like? The weather forecast is questionable, and a sell out is definitely not expected. Will Penn State sell out any home games this year? Perhaps the 6 p.m. game against Ohio State in October. But what does that say about fan support? Is Nittany Nation truly behind this team?

Kicked to the curb: All eyes will be on the kicking game this weekend after a disastrous showing against Virginia last Saturday. Of course, much of the focus surrounds a 19-year-old sophomore, Sam Ficken, who made only one of five field goals. He received a ton of negative feedback from fans -- mostly on social media sites -- but also unrequited support from his teammates and coaches. How will he responds? It can't get much worse than it was on Saturday -- where one of his misses was from 20 yards, and he also botched an extra point after a touchdown -- but will it be significantly better? Tune in Saturday to find out.

 

-Emily Kaplan

About this blog
Joe Juliano has been a staff writer for The Inquirer for 20 years, covering college sports, golf and the Penn Relays.

Joining Joe this season will be John Stuetz, an intern for The Inquirer and senior at Penn State majoring in print journalism and marketing. This is John's third season covering the Penn State beat. He previously covered the Nittany Lions for the Daily Collegian, the university's student newspaper. A native of Glenside, Montgomery County, John graduated from Cheltenham High School.

For Joe, this will be his fifth season on the paper's Penn State beat. He previously covered the Nittany Lions for United Press International from 1976 to 1984.

Reach Joe at jjuliano@phillynews.com.

Joe Juliano Inquirer Staff Writer
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