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Indiana at Penn State: Five things to watch

The Nittany Lions were down after suffering their first loss. Can they bounce back against a Hoosiers team ranked for the first time in 25 years?

Journey Brown and his Penn State teammates face a rebound game Saturday.
Journey Brown and his Penn State teammates face a rebound game Saturday.Read moreAl Goldis / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The Penn State football team will look to rebound from its first loss of the season when it hosts Indiana at noon Saturday in a Big Ten matchup.

Here are five things to watch.

The bounceback

The Nittany Lions’ loss to Minnesota was stunning for how overmatched the Lions were defensively in the first half. They still had a chance to win the game late but had their first true failures of the season in the red zone twice in the fourth quarter.

So the question is, how will they recover against a fired-up Indiana team that found itself in the national rankings this week for the first time in 25 years?

There are a few issues here. A first loss so late in the season has to be a blow to Penn State’s confidence. Head coach James Franklin said he felt good about what he saw in practice Tuesday and Wednesday, so maybe the Lions will be fine.

However, the team’s last chance to make a national impact and climb back into the College Football Playoff hunt will come next week at No. 2 Ohio State. Yes, Franklin’s constant message is going 1-0 each week, but who among you reading this know that everything rides on next week, and that defeating a team that has lost 21 times in 22 games to Penn State shouldn’t be that much of a problem?

This would have been a trap game anyway had the Lions won last week. But it’s probably more so.

Indiana will be loose

The Hoosiers will enter Beaver Stadium with a four-game winning streak and the Big Ten’s most productive passing attack. Their defense has shown marked improvement during head coach Tom Allen’s tenure, and they are in the top 25 nationally in pass defense (176.3 yards per game) and points allowed (20.0 per game).

They’ve had a week off to prepare for this game. Look how Minnesota came off its bye week and befuddled the Nittany Lions. Can Indiana do the same?

Tightening the pass defense

Penn State’s secondary has allowed three of its last four opponents to pass for 286 yards (Iowa), 276 yards (Michigan), and 339 yards (Minnesota). The unit left gaping holes that allowed the Golden Gophers to go on a rampage for much of the game.

The Lions’ challenge is coping with Peyton Ramsey, a 72% passer who conducts an up-tempo offense. Ramsey has five receivers who have caught more than 20 or more passes apiece this season. Junior Whop Philyor (59 receptions) has a pair of 14-catch games.

It’s fair to say no one in Penn State’s secondary played well last week. The Nittany Lions’ DBs must eliminate last week’s mistakes.

Igniting the pass rush

Speaking of pass defense, the Lions need to regenerate their pass rush. Since notching 10 sacks last month against Purdue, they have recorded just six sacks in their last four games, including just one last week.

Penn State also needs more production from junior end Yetur Gross-Matos. He receives constant attention from opponents week after week, but he has gone four games without a sack.

Working the ground game

The Lions fell behind early last week and finished with 29 rushes, a figure that included scrambles by Sean Clifford on pass plays, against 44 passes. They’ll need to run the ball more Saturday.

Journey Brown got most of the carries last week, gaining 124 yards on 14 carries that included back-to-back bursts of 45 and 39 yards. Freshman Devyn Ford and sophomore Ricky Slade each saw limited action, and Franklin decided to keep a “90%” Noah Cain on the bench. Let’s see how the rotation goes.

Indiana at Penn State

Saturday, noon, Beaver Stadium, State College

TV/radio: 6ABC; KYW-AM (1060), WNPV-AM (1440)

Records: Penn State, 8-1, 5-1 Big Ten, No. 9 in College Football Playoff and AP rankings; Indiana, 7-2, 4-2, ranked No. 24 AP.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (sixth season, 53-22; 77-37 overall). Indiana, Tom Allen (third season, 17-17 and overall).

Series: Penn State holds a 21-1 advantage, including a 10-0 mark at Beaver Stadium. Indiana’s only win in the series, 44-24, came on its home field in 2013.