SCOUTING REPORT: PENN STATE AT GOPHERS
11 a.m., Saturday, TCF Bank Stadium (Ch. 5, 100.3-FM)
A look at Penn State: Their storybook season was validated Tuesday by the College Football Playoff committee, which ranked Penn State fourth in its initial assessment of potential selections for the four-team tournament, but few designations are as meaningless as that if-the-season-ended-today appraisal. True, they are undefeated in November for the first time since 2008, but their path to the playoffs includes two other undefeated teams — Minnesota and top-ranked Ohio State — plus a Big Ten championship game. Still, it’s been a remarkable season for coach James Franklin and the Nittany Lions, who were picked to finish fourth in the East Division after their projected starting quarterback, Tommy Stevens, transferred to Mississippi State in May. They survived that because sophomore Sean Clifford has been superb, throwing 20 touchdown passes already with only three interceptions. But though Penn State has piled up points — scoring 308 this year, exactly one more than the Gophers — it’s defense, especially against the run, that has kept the Nittany Lions unbeaten. They scored 79 points in their season-opening victory over Idaho, or two more points than the 77 they have allowed all year. And while they averaged only 20.7 points in their three biggest games thus far, against Pitt, Iowa and Michigan, they won all three by surrendering only 14.3.
Who to watch: Linebacker Micah Parsons. The sophomore is a converted defensive end, and the move has turned Parsons into one of the most ferocious defenders in the Big Ten. After leading Penn State in tackles as a freshman despite never starting, Parsons has anchored a front seven that allows only 68.4 yards per game on the ground, second-fewest in the nation, and only 1.99 yards per carry. “As his fundamentals and technique continue to improve, and his understanding of the game at that position, which is still fairly new to him, it’s hard to say where he can go,” Franklin said of the Bednarik Award semifinalist. “I don’t think he’s anywhere close to his ceiling.” With defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, who has five solo sacks this year, controlling the outside of the line, the Nittany Lions try to funnel most rushers toward Parsons, a dynamic that produced double-digit tackles for the 6-4, 245-pound linebacker in each of his past two games.
From the coach: James Franklin’s background is on offense — he coached wide receivers at five different stops in his career — and it shows when Penn State nears the end zone. The Nittany Lions are 29-for-31 in the red zone this season, scoring 24 touchdowns, and the two failures came on a missed field goal and a run-out-the-clock situation. “It’s been an emphasis for us. We’ve been good at it,” Franklin acknowledged at his news conference this week. “We’re able to run the ball and throw the ball, and the best teams in the red zone are able to do both.”