I got a little nostalgic this week remembering the last time I covered college football. I wrote about Penn State for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2016 and got real familiar with driving that two 1/2 hours one way to State College, Pa. Now, Mike Persak has that joy, and I invited the new beat writer at my old haunt to share a few thoughts on this year's Nittany Lions:
Who is an under-the-radar player Minnesota fans should watch out for?
I’ll highlight defensive tackle Robert Windsor for this particular game for a few reasons. One, he has been quite good recently. He broke out against Iowa, in particular, finishing with six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He’s a guy that, by all accounts, is just an extremely hard worker. The second reason for bringing him up, though, is that Penn State’s going to rely on him for a lot on Saturday, because Antonio Shelton, the other starting defensive tackle, has been suspended against Minnesota. James Franklin said today [Tuesday] that Windsor and PJ Mustipher will probably see 15 to 20 more snaps than usual to try to replace Shelton’s production. So, suffice to say that Windsor’s leadership at that particular position is going to be important. The defensive line has been an extremely strong position this season. How they do without Shelton might have a lot to do with how well Windsor, and Mustipher to an extent, can step up.
What's your impression of quarterback Sean Clifford so far? He had some big shoes to fill from Trace McSorley.
I think Clifford has exceeded most people’s expectations so far this season. I think a lot of people expected this to be an offense that relied a lot on its running backs and short, quick plays to KJ Hamler, but it’s really been the other way around. The run game has struggled at times, but Clifford has really been trusted to throw the ball downfield, and he’s performed well. He’s 10th in the country in passing efficiency, tied for 15th in the country in passing touchdowns, and he’s only thrown three interceptions all year. I think it’s fair to say that that’s way better than what people thought he’d be able to do in his first season, and it’s an enormous reason why the Nittany Lions are 8-0.
Are you surprised to see Penn State at 8-0? Why or why not?
Heading into the season, I predicted they would be 10-2, losing to Ohio State and one of their three games against Iowa, Michigan or Michigan State. However, as the first few weeks moved on, obviously expectations changed. That’s partially because Penn State looked better than expected and partially because Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State all looked worse than expected. So, to answer the question, yes and no. If you had told me to start the year that they’d be 8-0, I think I would have been surprised, but looking back on it how the season has gone, I’m not.
How will Penn State handle playing in chilly weather?
It isn’t exactly the same, but I was pretty surprised with how well they handled the weather in East Lansing two weeks ago. It was cold and rained for the entire game, but Penn State didn’t seem to run its offense any differently than it normally does. Clifford still threw the ball well for the most part. All four of the Nittany Lions’ touchdowns came through the air. Obviously, it should be even colder on Saturday, and snow is a little bit different than rain, but I don’t expect it to be too much a factor if Penn State’s last game is any indication.
How has your first season on the beat been and what's your favorite part of State College?
Honestly, it’s been great. I took over just before the start of the season, and I think it could have been really tough to get acclimated to covering the team as quickly as I had to. But everyone on the beat and around the program was so welcoming, as I’m sure you know (Megan's note: They're great We're all having dinner Friday night!). It really made me feel comfortable as I was getting to know the team and the program and all of that. For the second part of the question, I haven’t gotten around State College as much as I would have liked to, because I’m still living in Pittsburgh and commuting up there when I need to. However, it’s a beautiful campus. I love how it looks now that the leaves have changed color. Plus, to state the obvious, the Beaver Stadium environment has been pretty special, especially for the White Out against Michigan a few weeks ago.