As Penn State prepares to open the 2011 season on Saturday against an unfamiliar opponent, we thought it would be wise to tap the Sycamore branch for some answers. The problem is, as it can often be the case with FCS programs, is that finding someone to represent those schools can sometimes be scarce on the Internet.
Fortunately, Jason Svoboda from the Indiana State Sycamores forum Sycamore Pride was kind enough to share some thoughts on Penn State's first opponent of the season.
NLD: I'll be honest, most Penn State fans know very little about Indiana State. So please give us some insight in to what type of team we'll be seeing Saturday. What kind of offense and defense do they play, and who are some of the players we should know on either (or both) sides of the ball?
Jason: Offensively, the Sycamores employ multiple formations. You'll see some pro sets and you'll see west coast and spread concepts. Our head coach, Trent Miles, has spent time at Notre Dame, Stanford and Washington, so he has melded various philosophies and that led to a pretty dynamic offense last year.
As for the notable players, you have to start with QB Ronnie Fouch. The Washington Husky transfer was a key reason why Indiana State had the turnaround last year that it had. Additional important offensive guys include WR Justin Hilton and TE Alex Jones. Both guys have deceptive speed and very strong hands. Our leading rusher, Shakir Bell, is suspended for the first quarter of the game due to team rules violations. Starting in his place is Luke Harris, who sat out last year with a knee injury. They are completely different backs though with Harris being a power rusher and Bell is more of a junebug/scat back. One big question mark for the Sycamores will be how the offensive line meshes as we lost three guys that were in the two deep including our starting left tackle from a year ago.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Sycamores employ a 3-4 base defense most of the time. I wouldn't be surprised to see a 4-3 against Penn State due to the usually solid Nittany Lion running game. Our former defensive coordinator Rick Minter implemented the defense last season and has since moved on to Kentucky. His son Jesse took over the reigns as DC this season. We return 10 starters on defense and most of those guys have started since they were true freshmen so there is a lot of experience within the unit.
The notables on defense include FCS All-American DE Ben Obaseki, LB Jacolby Washington and SS Alex Sewall. There is a host of other guys that have 40+ tackles a season ago as well. I believe we returned something like 96% of our top 22 tacklers on defense.
NLD: The game looks to be used for an open competition for the starting quarterback job between Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin. Does any of that play in to the preparation for Indiana State as far as defense is concerned? And can that play in to their favor at all?
Jason: Not really. I think the Sycamores game plan will and should be more focused stopping the Penn State running game. Unfortunately, the Sycamores weren't that great stopping the run last year so the Bolden/McGloin issue may be marginalized as I expect a healthy dose of the Penn State running game until the Sycamores can prove they can stop the run.
NLD: FCS teams are no strangers to winning games against FBS opponents, although the record is still largely in favor of the bigger programs. Do you see anything that suggests Indiana State can pick up a win in Beaver Stadium?
Jason: It's going to be a tall, tall order. The Sycamores strengths and weaknesses seem to be the opposite of the Nittany Lions'. Unless they can force some turnovers and catch a few breaks, I would expect it to play out similar to the Cincinnati game last season. The Sycamores gave the Bearcats a scare trailing just 12-7 at the half but were just pounded and worn down in the second half en route to a 40-7 loss. A big component to the FBS vs. FCS matchups isn't necessarily individual talent but the overall talent. The 85 to 63 scholarship difference is a pretty big hill to climb when that basically allows the FBS school to put in a completely fresh offensive and defensive unit. This is compounded even more for Indiana State as the football program hasn't been fully funded until just this past week.
NLD: How does Indiana State fit in to the conference picture this season?
Jason: Most football pundits around the country have them slated anywhere from third to fifth in the MVFC. Phil Steele had them 4th in conference and ranked 27th in the country. The MVFC is typically a very strong conference from top to bottom and I have them finishing third myself. I think they'll end up winning 6 or 7 games and possibly 8 if they can play well on the road, stay healthy and remedy some of the question marks.
NLD: College football in Indiana seems to be dominated by Notre Dame (of course). We see how Indiana and Purdue fair on a regular basis, but what challenges does Indiana State have as far as recruiting in and around the state?
Jason: Before this year, I would have said not many. Indiana is known for putting out basketball players by the truckload, but the Division 1 football players have been few and far between. However, there has been a noticeable change in that over the last couple years and this year I've seen more Division 1 commitments than I can ever remember. With the previous mentioned funding issues, the Sycamores also didn't really recruit Indiana very hard because they used what scholarships they did have on out-of-state prospects. Most of the kids from Indiana on the team came in with partial scholarships or as walk-ons. With a fully funded program and if they continue to have success, I can see them going after more of the Indiana high school football upper crust.
NLD: Finally, please share your predictions for this weekend's game with a score and a thought or two.
Jason: I'd like to see it in the 42-17 range. I think that's realistically possibly considering the experience on this team and the work they've put in this Summer. Regardless of whatever happens, my biggest hope is that our team can come out of Happy Valley 100% healthy with big game experience to take into Missouri Valley Football Conference play. Losing any of our key players in this game could be catastrophic for the remainder of the Sycamores season.