STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 01: The Penn State Nittany Lions football team run to huddle up before playing the Ohio Bobcats at Beaver Stadium on September 1, 2012 in State College, Pennsylvania. Player names are now displayed on the team jerseys as of this season. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
The pass-happy Nittany Lions welcome Navy and its triple option.
No, Penn State will not be the team deploying the run-heavy attack when it faces Navy at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
In fact, the Nittany Lions are averaging the 13th-most pass attempts per game nationally through two games, a stark departure from former coach Joe Paterno's ground-based attack that fans came to know so well over his four-plus decades leading the Nittany Lions.
The Midshipmen, on the other hand, prefer to take the air out of the ball. Their triple-option offense calls for all kinds of runs, from handoffs, to pitches and quarterback keepers. And so, Saturday's game figures to be as much a contest of diametrically opposite offensive gameplans as a battle between two teams still seeking their first wins of the season.
Navy returns from a week off after getting crushed 50-10 by Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland on Sept. 1. Penn State came soul-crushingly close last week when four misses by kicker Sam Ficken proved costly in a 17-16 loss. Here are some keys to the game.
When Navy has the ball...
-It's critical that the Lions stay disciplined against the triple option. Navy's offense doesn't have near the athleticism of Penn State's defensive front, so the only way the Midshipmen will be able to keep this close is if they're able to reel off some big gains caused by over pursuit from Penn State's defense. If defensive linemen and linebackers stay in their lanes and concede a few yards to avoid giving up a bunch, the Lions will make the plays they need to win over the course of 60 minutes.
-After getting burned a couple of times in the first two games, Navy is a perfect opponent for Penn State's secondary to build momentum against. The Midshipmen don't like to throw it a whole lot, so it will likely only take a few solid plays by the defensive backs to get the job done. If they can do that, it will help that unit build a lot of confidence heading into the Temple game next week.
-Navy's run-heavy attack will test the stamina and depth of Penn State's defensive line. The unit will be at the point of attack all afternoon, so it's critical that reserves who might not normally get a lot off playing time are ready in the event their needed to spell the first-teamers.
When Penn State has the ball...
-After the loss at Virginia last week, players lamented leaving the game on the foot of their inexperienced kicker and took responsibility for not scoring more touchdowns when driving deep into Cavaliers territory, meaning they'll be the first to acknowledge that they need to capitalize more. If the Lions can finish off a few drives this week, it should give them a little more faith in themselves moving forward.
-With the status of running backs Bill Belton and Derek Day still uncertain, guys like Curtis Dukes and Zach Zwinak need to be prepared to carry the load in the running game. If they can take a little pressure off a passing game that has had to show a lot in the first two weeks, it will set a tone for when the injured backs do get on the field and have the Lions on their way to a more balanced offense.
-Keep an eye on who will replace former wideout Shawney Kersey as a starter on the outside this week. Brandon Moseby-Felder and Matt Zanellato seem to be the obvious choices, but true freshman Trevor Williams, who fought his way onto the depth chart in fall practice, could steal the show, too.
Navy is not nearly on the same level as Penn State's first two opponents. The Lions' roster has been depleted by transfers, injuries and dismissals over the last few months, but the players remaining still outclass Navy's by a wide margin. Look for coach Bill O'Brien to pick up his first victory and finally get some positive vibes going in Happy Valley after a tumultuous offseason and a frustrating start to 2012 action.