STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – A matchup of weakness vs. weakness will determine whether the University at Buffalo can make things interesting Saturday when it meets once-mighty Penn State.
The Nittany Lions are in a tizzy over the state of their offensive line, which was awful last season and opened the 2015 campaign by allowing 10 sacks in a loss at Temple last week.
If UB’s defensive line can get some pressure on quarterback Christian Hackenberg, Penn State’s supposed NFL star-in-waiting, the Bulls could make roughly 100,000 fans in Beaver Stadium squirm in their seats.
There’s the rub. Defensive line is the biggest question-mark position on the UB team. The Bulls have no pass rushers with college production and barely any with college experience.
Asked to address the Buffalo defense this week, Penn State coach James Franklin replied: “I think their offense is their strength.”
The Bulls’ defensive line played well against Albany last week, but that was a lower-division, undersized opponent.
“You know, it was a solid performance but there was room for improvement,” said UB coach Lance Leipold of his defensive line. “This is going to be a huge test against a line that may have struggled in pass protection, but it’s big, it’s experienced. There’s a lot of snaps there. It will be a good challenge for us, especially size-wise.”
Penn State allowed 44 sacks in 13 games last year, which ranked 119th out of 125 teams. Four offensive line starters are back for the Nittany Lions. The fifth starter is junior college recruit Paris Palmer, and he had a miserable debut at left tackle.
Temple has an outstanding defense, with 10 returning starters. The Owls are considered the best defense in the American Athletic Conference this year.
Temple killed the Penn State offensive line with blitzes. Five of the 10 sacks allowed came on five-man pressures. Three of those were delayed blitzes, in which Hackenberg took a deep drop and the line failed to pick up a late-rushing linebacker. One sack came on a six-man blitz. On one third-and-15 play, Temple rushed only two men yet still got a sack of Hackenberg when a lineman split Palmer and left guard Brendan Mahon.
Last season, teams did not have to blitz a ton to get pressure on Hackenberg.
“The thing is, are we going to be able to do it with four people?” Leipold said. “Or are we going to have to bring extra. Then you’re going to have to hold up in coverage.”
Hackenberg, a 6-foot-4, 233-pound junior, was criticized some last year for getting jittery in the pocket and sensing pressure at times even when he had room to throw.
UB’s starting defensive ends both are sophomores whose first starts were last week – 6-4, 275-pounder Demone Harris (Timon-St. Jude) and 6-2, 250-pounder Solomon Jackson. The second-string ends are 6-2 redshirt freshman Randy Anyanwu and 6-3 true freshman Charles Harris.
Leipold is trying to keep his defensive linemen fresh in the hope that the young players will give their maximum performance while they’re on the field. Albany’s offense ran 60 plays last week. Demone Harris played the most snaps (29). Nine Bulls linemen played between 16 and 29 snaps.
“We rotated nine,” Leipold said. “That’s what we wanted to do and that’s what we hope to continue to do.”
UB is a 17-point underdog. If defensive linemen can make some plays, the Bulls have a chance to make the game interesting.