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stormstopper

[2023] Big XII Network Week 0 Saturday Evening Preview: #2 TCU at #19 Penn State

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CFBHC Kick-Off Game: :tcu: #2 TCU (0-0) at :PSU: #19 Penn State (0-0)

 

The season may now technically be under way, but it doesn't truly start until two of the nation's premier college football programs square off in white-out conditions. Both teams are loaded with talent, and the second-ranked Horned Frogs are only a slight favorite on the road. This will be the much-anticipated debut of Taylor Cook, who promised big things from the offense even in the face of a menacing Penn State defensive line. He and Griffin McHanna (with a bit of Matteo Cates) make for a completely revamped backfield, and this will be the first time the rubber meets the road. We can expect them to try and stretch the Nittany Lions' defense out horizontally and vertically. It's a speed-friendly offense between McHanna, slot receiver Julio Robledo, and even inside receiver Rodrigo Marroquin--but Finn Nielsen, F.T. Grady, and Miguel Aguilera are all guys who can keep the chains moving and keep a defense honest. Establishing the pass is something they'll likely be trying to do most games anyway because they have way too many guys to successfully cover for all but the best defenses in the country, but it'll be especially important against Penn State's secondary. The Nittany Lions had 15 interceptions last year, and the three players who combined for 8 of them are gone. That includes leading interceptor Bradley Rainey. They're thin at cornerback and starting a freshman at free safety, though strong safety Jonas Newberry is a rock-solid complement.

 

Penn State's bet is that most teams just won't have time to test them out, because they have to resist the combined might of defensive end Oghale Adelangwe (12.5 sacks and 8 TFL last year and a probable very high draft pick next spring) and defensive tackle Erik McElmore (5.0 sacks, 8 TFL, 1 FF), on top of a couple of very talented redshirt freshmen in defensive end Jerraud Braxton and linebacker Xavien Bowers. Last year, offensive line was at times a weakness for TCU; this year, an extra year of development for Hayden Breaux (who moves from right tackle to left) and Antonio Logan ought to at least offset the loss of Tyson Chadwick. The unit as a whole still manages to stay young, with redshirt freshman Frank Billings III starting at right tackle. They will not have the opportunity to get their bearings. This defensive line will throw them into the fire from the first snap. If they can hold off the charge long enough for Taylor Cook to work his magic--or if Cook's mobility proves enough to stymie the line on its own--then TCU's offense will click. If not, they will be in trouble.

 

Penn State's offense last year finished 73rd in the country in scoring, and just about everyone from last year's version will reprise their role with a couple of notable exceptions. Alex Vasili is gone, with redshirt freshman Eric Lanier taking his spot. The biggest upgrade other than a year's experience for just about everybody: the addition of wide receiver Dominic Dixon (not to be confused with Texas Tech's Dominique Dixon). Dixon comes to State College all the way from San Marcos, and he adds a top-of-the-line receiver option to open up the offense for Dillon Sneed. Sneed is one of the more promising young quarterbacks out there, having endured an up-and-down redshirt freshman campaign. He threw for 2,621 yards, 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on 62.7% passing and added 3 touchdowns on the ground. He had games where he looked brilliant (Boston College, Michigan State) and games where he looked lost (Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State).

 

Having a go-to receiver like Dixon should change things for him. Last year, Penn State had five players with at least 200 receiving yards, three with at least 500 yards, and none with at least 700 yards. Sione Salanoa ought to complement him decently in this offense; last year he rushed for 1156 yards and 13 touchdowns on 4.6 yards per carry, though he fumbled three times and lost two. I don't think that's enough for TCU to feel that he's a priority over Sneed, Dixon, and the remainder of the receivers like Gabriel Moore, Lareto Liuga, and tight end James Mulholland. Penn State will need to disprove that hypothesis, because asking Sneed to try and throw on Patrick Ross or William Cooper sounds perilous. This is a speed run team, so they'll test new TCU defensive ends Clinton Staton and Jefferson Cruz moreso than established defensive tackles Kwon Shaw and Hooker Jackson. But as long as linebackers Richard Farrell and juco transfer Blake Burns are maintaining their edges, Salanoa won't get the chance to display his explosiveness. If Burns drops more into coverage, that's more of an opportunity to run the ball--but it also makes things that much harder for Sneed.

 

When TCU has the ball, it's tough to tell who has the matchup advantage. But I like the way TCU's defense matches up with Penn State's offense. I think they'll be able to limit Sneed and Salanoa, contain Dixon, and control the ballgame. I'm picking TCU.

 

:tcu: #2 TCU 26, :PSU: #19 Penn State 20

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