Five things: Penn State-Kent State

September, 21, 2013
9/21/13
7:00
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The Nittany Lions' defense will seek redemption at Beaver Stadium after a disappointing performance last week. Here's what we'll be watching in Penn State's final non-conference game before the Big Ten season.

Turning around the defense: PSU surrendered more than 500 yards to UCF, but the defense's test should be markedly easier this week. Kent State's top player, Darren Sproles-clone Dri Archer, is doubtful, and the Golden Flashes rank No. 108 in scoring. Kent State doesn't have much of a passing game, and its offensive line is overmatched. This is either the game that helps get PSU back on track ... or shows that PSU will be in for a long Big Ten season.

Hackenberg Fever: Christian Hackenberg has already won two Big Ten freshman of the week honors, and he could be in for a third this week. He has continually evolved since Week 1, and even Adam Rittenberg decided to drop Taylor Martinez on his fantasy team in favor of Hackenberg. The true freshman is completing more than 70 percent of his passes, and he'll likely pad his stats some against a not-so-good Kent State defense. At his current pace, he'd surpass Matt McGloin's single-season record of 3,266 passing yards in the final game.

Three-headed running attack: Who will lead the Nittany Lions in rushing this game? Well, you have about a one-in-three chance of being correct. PSU likes to involve each of its three scholarship tailbacks, and Bill O'Brien tends to go with the hot hand. Zach Zwinak gets most of the carries as the bruising, 240-pound back -- but Akeel Lynch is a one-cut, speedy change-of-pace runner. And Bill Belton actually leads the team in average yards per carry with 8.1. The trio has combined for 535 yards and eight touchdowns through the first three weeks.

Gambling O'Brien: For those who know the Penn State head coach, it comes as no surprise that only three teams this season have gone for it more on fourth down. It's expected. Of the 26 fourth downs that Penn State has faced, it has opted to go for the first down six times, punt 14 times and attempt a field goal six times. The Lions have converted all but one of their fourth-down attempts, which ties them for 10th in the country in conversion percentage. It's a strategy that has paid off for O'Brien, and it's a trend that doesn't look to end anytime soon.

Especially special teams: The Nittany Lions ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in every special teams category in 2012 but are at the middle or near the top this season. PSU is No. 6 in kickoff return average (22.7 yards), No. 3 in punt return average (14.6 yards) and has missed only one field goal -- a 57-yard attempt that fell just short. Eugene Lewis has added a lot to the return game and seems poised to break one eventually, while kicker Sam Ficken is the most improved player since last season. If Alex Butterworth can improve his leg strength and/or consistency, these special teams would be in great shape.

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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