The Penn State Nittany Lions have played several hundred home football games at Beaver Stadium. They are used to that part of the equation. What this current team is not used to is having two straight losses to start the season, and their opponent on Saturday.
The last time the Nittany Lions (0-2) faced the Navy Midshipmen (0-1), Gerald Ford was president. It has been a long time–almost forty years– since the teams met, but if the result is similar to the September 21, 1974 game that Navy won 7-6, things are going to get really ugly in Happy Valley.
Going back to last season, the Nittany Lions have lost four straight games, and five of six contests overall. There was a period between 2005 and 2008 where the Nittany Lions lost a total of two games at home. Dating back to last year, they have lost two straight games at Beaver Stadium. A third straight home loss and third loss this season would be gut-wrenching for a team searching for tangible results from months of hard work.
If things go according to plan, these losing streaks should be no more when the sun sets over Happy Valley tomorrow night. Navy finished last season 5-7 under Ken Niumatalolo. That was the first time since 2002 that the Midshipmen failed to qualify for a bowl game, but the season was ugly as they surrendered 28.9 points per game. Two weeks ago, they were throttled 50-10 against a Notre Dame team that many would argue is nowhere as good as that score indicates.
It is well known that Navy runs a triple-option offense relying on speed and quick decision-making. Against Notre Dame, they attempted a pass twenty times, but that was mainly because they were losing the entire game. If things are going well for them, they will not throw more than ten passes throughout the entire afternoon.
Some key Midshipmen players to look out for:
Trey Miller #1 — The junior quarterback is a full time starter after playing on and off last season. He has a decent amount of arm strength and had average passing numbers against Notre Dame, but is relatively new at running the option and was sacked three times in the opener.
Gee Gee Greene #21 — An experienced senior, this 5’8″ 185 lb. running back does not touch the ball a ton, but when he does, good things usually happen. He has never averaged less than six yards a carry in a season and scored on four of his eleven receptions last year. The Nittany Lions cannot let him find open space, or it will result in big plays.
Parrish Gaines #2 — The sophomore cornerback had an interception and led the Midshipmen defense in tackles against Notre Dame. Can he be the first cornerback to hold Allen Robinson in check this season?
Matt Warrick #51 — An experienced senior linebacker, he and the rest of the defense will attempt to do what Ohio and Virginia have both done pretty well- Hold the Penn State running game in check.
A few things to watch for from Penn State:
Who is the running back? — If Bill Belton (ankle) and Derek Day (shoulder) can’t play, O’Brien is looking at his third different starting running back in three weeks. Conventional wisdom says Curtis Dukes gets the call after recording ten carries against Virginia. Another big question is whether he turns Akeel Lynch loose. O’Brien said on Tuesday that he would like to redshirt the true freshman but left the option open of him playing.
Will Donovan Smith play? — The massive left tackle did not practice on Wednesday as he was dealing with an ankle injury. If Smith cannot play, Mike Farrell shifts over to left tackle while Adam Gress jumps in at right tackle. Those are still two capable tackles, but th offense is much better with Smith on the field.
Number Two Receiver — With Shawney Kersey out of the picture, there should be opportunities for guys like Matt Zanellato and Trevor Williams to step up as viable options behind Allen Robinson. Someone needs to seize the opportunity.
Paul Jones — It has been a rather strange journey for the former five star quarterback. Jones is in his third year with the program, but still has not seen a live snap. It sounds like his first could come tomorrow lined up as a tight end.
The third quarter and third down — Both of these have been huge issues. The Nittany Lions are being outscored 21-0 in the third quarter through two games, and the defense is being picked apart on third down. Ohio was 11 for 12 on third down conversions in the second half, and Virginia was 7-9. Tomorrow presents a good opportunity for Penn State to improve in this area.
Navy should not be good enough to beat Penn State. The size and athleticism does not match up, but they are a disciplined and tough team that had two weeks to prepare for this game and could keep things close. The Nittany Lions beat themselves last week with several missed opportunities. If they can avoid doing that tomorrow, fans should walk out of Beaver Stadium happy for the first time in nearly eleven months.
By the Numbers: During Niumatalolo’s tenure, the Midshipmen have a 21-3 record when leading after the first quarter and are 11-19 when trailing or tied after fifteen minutes of play. This could bode well for the Nittany Lions who have been getting off to decent starts early on.
Blast from the Past: While these teams have not met since 1974, they do go way back, with their first meeting all the way back in 1894. It resulted in a 6-6 tie. There was also a scoreless tie in 1911.