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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing Penn State with Black Shoe Diaries

Dylan Callaghan-Croley of Penn State’s SB Nation blog Black Shoe Diaries joins us to talk about the #15 Nittany Lions before they take on Buffalo.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Idaho at Penn State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Buffalo enjoyed a nice 28-point victory over Robert Morris of the FCS on opening Thursday night. With a 1-0 record, Lance Leipold’s team will travel to Happy Valley to challenge the No. 15 Penn State Nittany Lions.

Penn State has won eight consecutive contests against MAC opponents, dating back to 2012. The Nittany Lions tossed aside their FCS opponent in Week 1, but James Franklin and Co. welcome their first FBS opponent in Beaver Stadium this Saturday night. To preview this showdown, we welcome Dylan Callaghan-Croley (@DylanCCSports) of SB Nation’s Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries.

Steve Helwick, Hustle Belt: Penn State is operating without a handful of its stars from last year — QB Trace McSorley, RB Miles Sanders, WR Juwan Johnson, OG Connor McGovern, OT Ryan Bates, DE Shareef Miller, and CB Amani Oruwariye. At which position(s) do you think Penn State has reloaded at the best and which group(s) have taken the greatest hit from these departures?

Dylan Callaghan-Croley, Black Shoe Diaries: Penn State has reloaded tremendously at running back and defensive end in my opinion. Those two position groups are by far the Nittany Lions deepest and you won’t see much drop off if any this season from those two positions. The Nittany Lions have four running backs who will see the field consistently and truth is, all four of them could start this season. At defensive end, the Nittany Lions are three, four deep on both sides with guys who can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They’re not at Ohio State level yet but they’re getting there. After all, this is a Penn State defense that led the country in sacks per game last season. The position group that is the biggest question with those departures is offensive line. The offensive line still hasn’t become a strength for the Nittany Lions and even against Idaho, they had their times where they struggled. The offensive line has the talent to be a strength but it hasn’t been able to find the consistency that they’ve needed under Coach Matt Limegrover just yet.

Helwick: We mainly saw Sean Clifford play in garbage time last season, but he looked stellar in his starting debut against Idaho. What aspects does Clifford excel most in as a passer and can he also prove to be a viable running threat throughout the season?

Callaghan-Croley: Clifford for a while now has had the best arm of any quarterback on Penn State’s roster and that remains true this season. In reality, it’s hard to tell just how strong Clifford will be going forward as we’ve only seen him in garbage time and against an FCS team. That being said, Clifford has shown to have great touch on his ball when he’s calm and collected which when combined with his rocket of an arm is a deadly combination. He was a little jittery to begin against Idaho but if he can keep the jitters down, the sky is the limit. I do think Clifford can become a viable running threat throughout the season but he doesn’t possess the same agility or elusiveness of Trace McSorley. That being said, I think due to his size, he’ll be able to barrel through a defender here or there and pick up some tough yardage when needed.

Helwick: Penn State struggled containing Benny Snell (144 rushing yards, 2 TDs) in last year’s Citrus Bowl. Buffalo presents a star running back tandem of Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks (165 yards, 6.6 average in Week 1). How equipped is Penn State’s defense this season to stop the run and which playmakers do you expect to step up vs. Buffalo’s rushing attack?

Callaghan-Croley: The Citrus Bowl for Penn State, for the most part, was a mirage. In that game, the Nittany Lions were without their top defensive tackle (Robert Windsor) and lost their second-best defensive tackle Antonio Shelton during the game. Without those two, the defensive tackle depth just wasn’t there for them in the Citrus Bowl. Now, Snell still would’ve had a nice day but he wouldn’t have had as dominating of performance in my mind. I think the Nittany Lions are well equipped to handle Buffalo’s running back tandem as the depth is much deeper at defensive tackle this year and across the line as a whole. This is going to be a defensive line that’s among the best in the country all season and I expect them to show it on Saturday night. In terms of certain playmakers, I’m looking at defensive tackles Robert Windsor, Antonio Shelton, and PJ Mustipher. I also expect defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos to play a big role in stopping the Buffalo rushing attack.

Helwick: The wealth was shared on the ground during the 72-point victory vs. Idaho with nine different ball carriers earning touches. Is Ricky Slade the next feature back (à la Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders) for this team or do you expect an even distribution of carries between Slade, Journey Brown, and Devyn Ford this year?

Callaghan-Croley: I would say for now, Ricky Slade is the featured back for Penn State on paper. That being said, Penn State is going to rotate at running backs throughout the season which will keep carries rather low across the board. I do believe that if one of the other backs breaks out in the upcoming weeks (looking at Devyn Ford), that one of them could become the feature back but for now Slade is still the guy. It will be interesting to see how the carries are split this upcoming weekend against Buffalo, I don’t think the run game will be as much of a committee as last week but I think all four running backs get carries on Saturday night. It won’t be an even, 25-25-25-25 split but perhaps somewhere around a 40-20-20-20 split. I think more than anything, the Nittany Lions are looking for one of Journey Brown, Devyn Ford, and Noah Cain to create a gap between themselves and the others.

Helwick: As 22-point favorites, what has to go wrong for Penn State in order to lose this game?

Callaghan-Croley: A lot would have to go wrong for Penn State. Even if the offense struggled mightily on Saturday night, the Nittany Lions defense is just so deep and strong that’s hard seeing Buffalo being able to score consistently. That being said, in order to lose this game, Penn State would probably need to suffer a major injury or two as well as the offense not being able to get anything going or turning the ball over consistently.

Helwick: Who wins in Happy Valley on Saturday? Score prediction and player of the game?

Callaghan-Croley: Penn State will win on Saturday and I don’t think it will be particularly close. If I was a betting man, I’d take Penn State and the points. This Penn State team is on a mission to show it’s an overlooked Big Ten team this season and I think they try to continue making an early statement this season. I’m going to go with Penn State wins 52-13. I’m going to give the player of the game award to Sean Clifford. I think Penn State looks to get Clifford a lot of work in this week through the air and I think we see an efficient and strong effort out of Clifford, 250-300 yards and three or four touchdowns through the air.

Penn State and Buffalo kick off in Happy Valley on Saturday, September 7. The game, which is viewable on FOX, begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.