Can it please just be Saturday already?? There are any number of normal reasons to be excited with college football season officially kicking off this week, but for some weird reason the thing I’m most into heading into Week 1 is the idea that everybody thinks we suck. I don’t know. Obviously, the preference would be to be excited because everybody thinks we’re good, but reality is what it is and now my inner sicko is downright giddy for the opportunity to shove a good season right down the throats of all the non-believers. All the assholes who picked us last in the Big 12, the asshole who picked Garrett as the worst P5 quarterback (Rocco Becht? Seriously?!), even the asshole subset of our own fan base acting like we might as well not even show up for the season, I want nothing more in life than to grab those people by the scruff of their collective neck and say "See?? See?!?!" for the next three months. Please win some damn games, Neal. Please. This is not healthy for anybody. Exhale.
As for Penn State... look, I don't remember West Virginia ever playing Penn State, but like every Mountaineer of my generation, I've heard the stories. The 25-year losing streak, the wins in 84 and 88. Hell my parents’ first date was a road trip to Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions were once our white whale, and I’m very much looking forward to joining the hunting party.
Date: September 2nd, 2023
Kickoff: 7:30PM EST
Where: Beaver Stadium - State College, PA
Live TV: NBC
Radio: Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG (Radio Affiliates) | SiriusXM Channel 200 | WVU Gameday App (Apple | Android)
Radio Announcers: Tony Caridi (PBP), Dwight Wallace (analyst), and Jed Drenning (sideline)
Reminder: It is against site policy to post links to illegal streams in the comments.
Spread: WVU +20.5 (-110) on FanDuel
ML: WVU +800, Penn State -1400
For the Mountaineer fans reading this, I wouldn't touch that ML unless you have some free bets you're trying to burn, but I do think the spread might be worth sprinkling on, especially if you can find the line at +21.
For any Penn State fans who have somehow stumbled into this article, the money line is obviously safe, but hit the Nittany Lions to cover at your own risk. America may be down on the Mountaineers, but this team should have a different vibe about them than any other group of the Neal Brown era. You'll make less money, but I'd say you're safer at an alt spread like -13.5 or -16.5. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Sunny - high 80/62 low - Wind 3 mph
Should be right around 75 at kickoff. Absolutely pristine conditions for an upset.
Where are they from: State College, PA. I haven’t been there yet but gandering at the map gives major Blacksburg vibes.
All-time Series: 9-48-2. Penn State has generally dominated the series, and because of that the wins in 1984 and 1988 are two of the more famous in Mountaineer history.
The Last Time We Played: 10/24/1992, West Virginia 26-40 Penn State. I was alive for this one!
Head coach: James Franklin (10th season, 78-46). There have been some ups and downs through a decade of Franklin, but he's recruited well and has Penn State firmly positioned as the third best program in the B1G. Next order of business is to get within touching distance of Ohio State and Michigan, which, good luck with that.
2023 record: 0-0. Season openers will do that, but the Nittany Lions are fresh off an 11-2 campaign with the hype train stuck on full steam ahead.
WOMEN LIE, MEN LIE, NUMBERS DON’T
1 - Penn State topped the charts in Beta_Rank's Negative Drives metric last year. They excelled at all things havoc-related, finishing in the top 10 nationally in tackles for loss (5th), passes defended (1st), and forced fumbles (10th). All told their 16.8 havoc plays per game and 23.9% havoc rate both led the country.
212 - Pressures returning across the Penn State front 7 out of the 232 they generated last year. That’s 145/163 up front and 67/69 among the linebackers. Just insane production. We won’t face a better group this year.
116 - Missed tackles by the Penn State defense during the regular season last year, nearly 10 per game. Overall Penn State’s 63.0 PFF tackle grade ranked 49th out of 64 P5 teams. Kind of a weird outlier - you guys know any running backs who break lots of tackles?
40 - Explosive passes allowed by Penn State last year, good for 62nd nationally. They played a higher percentage of man coverage than any team in the Big 12 last year, and with many of the same guys back, you have to expect more of the same in 2023. I’m not even sure we’ll be able to take advantage, but they do put their guys on islands out there which affords their opponents opportunities to attack downfield.
59.3/5.8/8.7 - Completion percentage/yards per attempt/ADOT from Penn State QB Drew Allar on 70 dropbacks last year. Per PFF, those numbers ranked 63rd, 87th, and 63rd among the 100 P5 QB’s who had at least 50 dropbacks. A bit shakier than you’d expect based on the hype that he’s getting, but the former 5* has everything a growing boy needs to be successful. Speaking of which...
80 - Missed tackles forced by Penn State running backs Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton last year. HCNB says we've been emphasizing live tackling practice this fall, we'll know right away whether it paid off or not.
WHEN WE HAVE THE BALL...
WVU Players to Watch: QB6 Garrett Greene, RB4 CJ Donaldson, and RB0 Jaylen Anderson
PSU Players to Watch: DE44 Chop Robinson, LB11 Abdul Carter, CB4 Kalen King
Let’s play a good old-fashioned game of “Of course, but maybe”.
Of course Penn State's defense is one of the best in the country, of course they are. They finished 2022 as a top 10 defense basically across the board and they have a handful of NFL dudes scattered across all three levels again this year. Of course they're gonna be great, and a huge test for us, of course.
But mayyybe... maybe we should be just a little bit dubious about some of those numbers? Maybe if you exclude Michigan and Ohio State, Penn State's average Big 10 opponent averaged about 355 yards (would've ranked 96th in FBS last year) and 23 points per game (100th) last year. Maybe their defense got fat on a bunch of shitty offenses? Maybe they only played two objectively good offenses all season, and maybe both of those teams hung 40 on them. I don't know if any of this will matter because I don't know if we're an objectively good offense, but it’s a thing I’ve been thinking about.
Bits aside, this is the best defense we'll play this year. I keep coming back to that negative drive metric mentioned earlier and can't help but think that staying on schedule is the key for us offensively. There are any number of reasons why this would behoove us, but the primary data point to consider is this: Penn State faced 201 third downs last year. Opponents converted a respectable 43.3% of the 90 opportunities that were 3rd and 6 or less, but just 23.4% of the 111 opportunities that were 3rd and 7+. We have to avoid those situations as much as possible and keep Garrett in 3rd and manageable where he can legitimately hurt them with his arm or legs. On paper this should be something that our offense excels at, but we won't know for sure until we see it on Saturday.
WHEN THEY HAVE THE BALL...
PSU Players to Watch: QB11 Drew Allar, RB10 Nicholas Singleton, RB13 Kaytron Allen
WVU Players to Watch: DE91 Sean Martin, LB1 Lee Kpogba, S13 Hershey McLaurin, S2 Aubrey Burks
Explosive plays were an issue for our defense last year. Penn State’s running backs are explosive, and Singleton especially is a dude who just outruns angles for fun, with 56.7% of his 937 yards coming on explosive carries (T-5th FBS). This represents a problem for us, especially because you have to assume that they will likely lean on the run even more than usual in Drew Allar’s first start. The first order of business has to be putting the kibosh on any of those home runs, especially early in the game. That’s a one-way ticket to pound-town and we’re not going to be competitive if we let them have it all their own way running the football. However, if we’re going to take it a step further and really make them work for it, there’ll also have to be some negative plays on early downs that force Allar into the spotlight. You have to make that dude beat you in his first start. Have to. It’s obviously possible that he does and you just have to live with that, but that has to be the mentality.
X-FACTOR - SCRAMBLED LEGS
One thing that jumped out to me as I dove into Penn State's schedule last year is that they didn’t see many quarterbacks who can move, and they certainly didn't see any who can boogie like 6. Only five Big 10 quarterbacks had more than 30 designed rushing attempts - JJ McCarthy led the conference with 38; Greene had 36 on more than 300 fewer run snaps - and none of them came close to matching Greene's 7.4 yards per carry. Dual threat quarterback is just not a skillset they're used to seeing, so it'll be interesting to see how that plays. I'm especially curious to see how Penn State handles Greene as a scrambler - the 7.6 yards per scramble they allowed last year would seem to indicate those situations may represent an opportunity for the good guys.
10 out of 10. There aren't many combinations of team, venue, and stage that would make for a more difficult season opener.
89%. That’s Penn State’s implied winning probability in this game based on the +800 money line. Not great, but also not zero.
Look, if you somehow haven’t accepted that Penn State is the superior team in this matchup, I don’t know what to tell you. The preseason #7 tells you everything you need to know about how good America expects them to be, and the 21-point spread tells you what America thinks of us. That being said, it does kinda feel like most of the pressure is on them, right? Night game in front of the whole country, with the most hyped team they’ve had in who knows how long, playing a team they’re supposed to beat up on? It’s the kind of situation that can fester if you don’t handle business early. You especially look at a kid like Drew Allar, who’s apparently leading this team to the CFP before he’s even started a game - you’re telling me there’s not the slightest chance that dude plays with a little bit of a tight ass if things don’t go to plan?
We, on the other hand... we’re playing with house money here. Either the game goes how everybody expects and we lose, or it's one of the great nights in the history of the program. That’s not the worst situation to be in. “Nobody believes in us” is powerful stuff as long as the guys in the locker room do, and I gather that this group does.
Ultimately, I think it goes one of two ways - either we get run off the field in the first half, or we weather the storm and are in it til the end. I’m obviously hoping for (and let’s be honest, expecting) the latter, even though the talent gap is probably too wide to overcome without some weird stuff happening. And that’s fine. I’m not big on moral victories, but if we have enough in the tank to make 106,000 sweat it out in the second half I’ll walk away content. LET’S GO!