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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Penn State Nittany Lions with Black Shoe Diaries

Ball State heads to Happy Valley with eyes on upsetting the No. 11 team in the country.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Ball State concluded 2020 with its first-ever final AP Poll ranking and checked in at No. 23 in the most important poll of the year. The Cardinals have collected eight consecutive victories dating back to last season, and only Alabama, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma own longer streaks.

The Cardinals have been tested by two opponents over the course of this streak — Buffalo and San Jose State — but it’s safe to say a trip to the middle of Pennsylvania will be their greatest challenge yet. Ball State must face a Penn State team that rose to No. 11 in the rankings after a standout defensive performance against Wisconsin last week.

To preview the Cardinals’ Week 2 opponent, we bring in Nittany Lions writer Dylan Callaghan-Croley (@DylanCCSports) who covers Penn State for SB Nation site Black Shoe Diaries (@BSDtweet).

Steve Helwick, Hustle Belt: Wow... what a defensive performance by Penn State at Camp Randall last weekend. It’s hard not to be impressed by the Nittany Lions after smothering Wisconsin’s offense in all facets of the game all afternoon. How sustainable is this caliber of play, and do you believe the prowess of this defense labels Penn State as Big Ten contenders again?

Dylan Callaghan-Croley, Black Shoe Diaries: In terms of the defense, I think Penn State’s play is rather sustainable. Outside the defensive line, the Nittany Lions have a deep and experienced defense especially in the secondary. Their linebacker corps is a bit raw still but the talent is off the chart and the secondary is led by names such as Jaquan Brisker and Tariq Castro-Fields who both should be in for major seasons. Not to mention names like Joey Porter Jr, Ja’yir Brown, and others. In terms of being labeled as Big Ten contenders, It’s hard to say. To be contenders, they’d have to get past Ohio State which I’m not sure they will be able to do this season, though the defense will surely give them an opportunity to do so. But I will say that I think Penn State could very well earn the label as being the No. 2 team in the Big Ten right behind Ohio State. The only thing I think may hold back this Penn State team is the quarterback play.

Helwick: Let’s dive into quarterback play then. Sean Clifford has seen mixed results during his tenure as the starting QB. He guided Penn State to an 11-2 season with a Cotton Bowl win in 2019 but last fall didn’t go as smoothly. What does Clifford have to show in his game in order for Penn State to make another run at the New Year’s Six?

Callaghan-Croley: If Penn State is going to make another run at the New Year’s Six with Sean Clifford at the helm, he’s going to have to play a game-manger style of play. In the beginning of last season, he really struggled in trying to do too much and making too many turnovers. In the latter half of the season, he cut down on those turnovers and the success for the program came along with that, it’s not a coincidence. Last weekend, he wasn’t perfect but the fact he didn’t turn over the ball was a huge factor in the Nittany Lions victory. So primarily, keeping the turnovers low. Additionally, he’ll need to make the easy passes that sometimes sail over the heads of his wide receivers, and he’ll have to get more comfortable under pressure. He can get real happy feet at times and can often be easily rattled — he’ll need to get past adversity quickly this season. But overall, if he can play within himself and not try to play “hero ball”, he should have a quality season and in result, the entire team should have a really good season.

Helwick: Penn State still showcases two halfbacks from its 4-headed monster backfield in 2019, but the linemen turnover has been more significant. Other than one 34-yard Noah Cain run Saturday, the Nittany Lions were constantly stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Is there any concern about the ground game going forward, or is this more of a result of Wisconsin’s sturdy front seven?

Callaghan-Croley: I wouldn’t say there’s any major concern. Wisconsin arguably has the best front seven in the entire Big Ten and that’s a tough matchup at any point in the season, let alone the first game of the season. In the second half, the offensive line started gelling and playing better. There’s plenty of talent in the backfield as well and talent won’t be a problem. I think going forward we’ll see success on the ground with the offensive line playing pretty well. There were a lot of moving pieces on the offensive line this offseason, so it wasn’t too shocking they struggled early on.

Helwick: Ball State finished last season with a MAC title and a No. 23 ranking, while Penn State finished below .500. A one game sample size suggests both programs are trending in opposite directions in 2021, and the Nittany Lions are heavy favorites. What has to go wrong for Penn State for Ball State to have a shot in this one?

Callaghan-Croley: If Ball State is going to have a shot in this one, a lot will need to go wrong with Penn State. Starting off, Sean Clifford will need to have a really bad game with a few turnovers. If he does that, anything is on the table in terms of how this game progresses. Defensively is where it’s really hard to see Penn State struggling. I won’t be shocked if Ball State scores a touchdown or two but based off what we saw last week against Wisconsin, it would take a truly shocking and terrible performance out of the defense for the Cardinals to have a chance.

Helwick: Many colleges will admit having fans back in the stadium is beneficial to their home-field advantage. But with the second-largest stadium in the country and a loyal fanbase, the advantage seems even more remarkable at Penn State. What type of atmosphere do you anticipate for Saturday’s 3:30 ET game?

Callaghan-Croley: I don’t expect a highly ruckus crowd. Early in the game it should be a fun atmosphere but I expect that it will be rather tame for a Penn State game. Most people are going to be excited just to be back in the stadium and watching Penn State football live. Seeing that most fans will take Ball State lightly and as a likely win on paper, there shouldn’t be too many nerves or anxious energy in the stadium. That being said, next week when they face Auburn in the White Out, that will be a different story. That may be one of the loudest games in Beaver Stadium history. If there are any Ball State fans traveling for the game, they’ll be welcomed with open arms by most Penn State fans. It will be a great time with people more just happy to be back than anything else.

Helwick: What is your score prediction for Saturday in Happy Valley, and who are your offensive and defensive MVPs of the game?

Callaghan-Croley: My final score prediction for Saturday is 45-13. I think Ball State may score an early touchdown and stay in this one for a quarter and a half or so but I believe in the second and third quarter, the Nittany Lions will assert their dominance and pull away. In terms of offensive and defensive MVPs, I’ll take sophomore wide receiver Parker Washington on offense — I think he will have four receptions for 80+ yards and two touchdowns. On defense, I’ll go with linebacker Jesse Luketa who had a good performance against Wisconsin and I expect to have another big performance Saturday, especially with Ellis Brooks not available for the first half (suspended - targeting).

Ball State hopes to preserve its impressive win streak in Happy Valley this Saturday afternoon. The game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET and is viewable on FS1.