Penn State vs. Eastern Michigan Preview

Story posted September 5, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Bradford Conners

After starting the season away from home for the first time since 2000, the Penn State Nittany Lions (1-0) will return to the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium on Saturday to take on the Eastern Michigan Eagles (1-0).

The Nittany Lions are looking for their first 2-0 start in four years, after they opened up the 2013 campaign with a 23-17 triumph over Syracuse. Penn State’s offense could only muster six points in the first half under true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, but wide receiver Allen Robinson provided a spark when he entered the game in the second half, racking up 115 yards in the third quarter alone.

Coming off of a 2-10 season, Eastern Michigan came dangerously close to dropping its 2013 opener to FCS opponent Howard. However, trailing 24-13 late in the third quarter, the Eagles stormed back with 21 unanswered points to take down the Bison, 34-24.

Saturday’s matinee will mark the third all-time match-up between Penn State and Eastern Michigan. The Nittany Lions took the first two meetings, including a 34-6 win over the Eagles just two years ago.

Facing an Eastern Michigan team that has put together just one season with five or more wins in the last decade, Penn State will have an opportunity to work out some of the kinks in its offense, with a much tougher match-up against Central Florida looming next week.

Most notably, running back Zach Zwinak will look to rebound after having an off-game against the Orange. Following a breakout redshirt junior year in which he racked up 4.9 yards per carry, Zwinak never really got going on Saturday and was held to just 2.5 ypc.

Though part of Zwinak’s lack of production can likely be attributed to the offensive line’s uncharacteristically shaky play, he should be able to get back on track against Eastern Michigan’s porous run defense. The Eagles surrendered 267 yards per game on the ground last year, which was the worst in the MAC.

In his first career start, Christian Hackenberg submitted mixed results, completing 22 of his 31 passes for 278 yards, while tossing two touchdowns and two interceptions. However, the freshman signal caller should have plenty of time to stay in the pocket and make the right reads on Saturday, as Penn State goes up against an Eastern Michigan pass rush that registered just seven sacks in 2012, also good for worst in the MAC.

The Eagles weren’t much better offensively than they were defensively in 2012, as they ranked 12th in total offense out 13 MAC teams. The good news for Eastern Michigan fans, though, is that most of their leading skill position players from a year ago are back in the fray in 2013, including junior quarterback Tyler Benz.

Last year, Benz threw for over 1,500 yards while posting 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions while completing 54% of his passes. He looked sharp last week against Howard, connecting on 19 of his 26 throws for 210 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.

Although they may have an effective passing game in 2013, the Eagles have always relied heavily on their ground game, and once again this year, they’ll depend upon Bronson Hill to be their impact player on offense. The junior running back is coming off of a monster year in which he ran for over 900 yards on 6.5 yards per carry.

Hill managed just 3.5 yards per carry in last week’s win, but he scampered for over 100 yards on the day and found pay dirt on two consecutives drives to enable Eastern Michigan to erase its two-score deficit. He’ll have his work cut out for him on Saturday, however, as he faces a Penn State defense that held a very good Syracuse running game in check a week ago.

Ron English’s squad is already halfway to its win total from last season, but the Eagles would need some magic to pick up win number two this weekend. The Nittany Lions are 9-2 in their last 11 games, and they’ll look to feed off the energy of the home crowd and continue their winning ways when the clock strikes noon on Saturday.

Bradford Conners is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email btc5082@psu.edu.