Penn State Nittany Lions: Eastern Michigan Eagles

All eyes on Penn State's offense vs. EMU

September, 7, 2013
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Good morning from here at Penn State!

More than 80,000 fans will descend on Beaver Stadium in a few hours, and it should be an interesting home opener for a couple reasons -- but none of which includes it being a close contest.

The Nittany Lions are heavy favorites, to the tune of about three to four touchdowns, but all eyes will be on the PSU offense and what it can do against the easiest test on the schedule. Bill O'Brien stuck to short, high-percentage passes in Christian Hackenberg's debut and, if the head coach is going to lengthen the leash early in the season, it has to be against the Eagles.

We saw Hackenberg flash his arm with a jaw-dropping 54-yard TD strike last week to Geno Lewis. And that's just the tip of his ability. There's an iceberg worth of potential still sitting below the football waters.

Will we see more of those kinds of passes against Eastern Michigan? Well, you'd certainly think so. If O'Brien doesn't test Hackenberg more here, you certainly have to think he wouldn't do so against a tougher Central Florida team or against a decent Big Ten squad.

PSU's defense also proved its mettle last week. But the questions on offense don't just necessarily revolve around the true freshman quarterback.

Syracuse blitzed mercilessly, and it would be a surprise if EMU didn't try the same approach. This will be a recurring theme for Penn State, and it has to find a way to stop those extra defenders somehow -- whether it's a difference in play-calling, extra tight ends or blocking backs, or something else up O'Brien's sleeve.

You can't blame the offensive line. O'Brien emphasized that they played pretty well last week. For Penn State to win big in this game, though, it'll have to counter the blitz and test Hackenberg a bit more.

It'll be interesting to see how Penn State responds.

Planning for success: Penn State

September, 5, 2013
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien was asked nearly three dozen questions by the media this week. Only one directly addressed the Eastern Michigan contest.

That wasn't a big surprise. The position-by-position matchups aren't really in question, and this is a relatively easy game for fans to overlook. After all, the Eagles last earned a conference title in 1987 when O'Brien was still playing high school ball. And PSU is more than a three-touchdown favorite.

But you can bet Penn State's head coach isn't taking EMU for granted.

"We have a lot of respect for Eastern Michigan," he said in response to the single question about the Eagles. "And I have a lot of respect for Coach [Ron] English -- they have guys that coached at the University of Michigan with Ron English and Stan Parrish -- so we have a lot of respect for their team."

College football underdogs seem to be on quite the roll lately, and O'Brien isn't about to let his Nittany Lions grow too cocky. Michigan State thwarted EMU rival Western Michigan thanks to a pair of defensive touchdowns. Illinois survived a scare against an FCS team in Southern Illinois, 42-34. And No. 18 Nebraska came away with a 37-34 victory against Wyoming.

And that's not to mention actual upsets like McNeese State running over South Florida and Northern Iowa edging Iowa State.

If ever there was a season not to grow overconfident with overmatched opponents, it's this one -- even if some Penn State players struggled to come up with specific strengths on Eastern Michigan.

"Ummm," defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz said, pausing. "I would say just, they're -- they're a tough team."

O'Brien believed the Eagles weren't all the different from Syracuse, at least scheme-wise with the offense. The Eagles will mix up defensive coverages, spread the ball around and won't play back on their heels.

It's not exactly a tough test -- at least it shouldn't be -- but this will offer the young roster some added confidence and experience. If O'Brien allows Christian Hackenberg to test his arm more against early-season competition, then this has to be the matchup he was waiting for.

This game might be a better indicator of Hackenberg's future talent than Syracuse. But, oh, it should be boring. If Penn State's going to have a successful season then, by everyone's standards, this game shouldn't be close.

Penn State will prepare the same way. O'Brien wouldn't do any differently. He's not the type to overlook an opponent.

But that's precisely why PSU should run over the Eagles.
Every weekday over the next three weeks, NittanyNation will take a closer look at a different game this season and how the matchup stacks up for PSU. Up today: Eastern Michigan.

Big Ten teams can no longer schedule FCS teams -- but this matchup's about as close as it can get.

Eastern Michigan last won a conference championship in 1987, back when Bill O'Brien was still playing ball in high school, and had its last winless season in 2009. Put simply, the Eagles are one of the worst programs in the FBS and are the closest thing to a sure win that PSU can get.

The question isn't whether PSU can win, but by how much, and just how soon the backups and the walk-ons can get some game experience. It's not going to be pretty.