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Interviewing the Enemy: Q&A with PennLive’s Dustin Hockensmith

Get more familiar with the loaded Nittany Lions before tomorrow (if you dare).

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern fans know (a little too) well about the team and, in particular, its three-game skid against non-conference opponents. Aside from reading the AP Top 25 rankings or casually perusing scores, however, it can be challenging to go in-depth on any given team.

No. 11 Penn State is a talented squad, as the Nittany Lions’ 4-0 record and ranking reflect. But what in particular makes James Franklin’s group so mighty? Can PSU return to Lucas Oil Stadium and claim the Big Ten East?

Before NU battles Penn State in Happy Valley tomorrow, Inside NU had a chance to discuss such topics with PennLive’s Dustin Hockensmith, who covers the Lions. Read his thoughts on the Beaver Blue side below.

Inside NU: Is Penn State as good as the records and rankings indicate?

Dustin Hockensmith: This is the million-dollar question, and I do think the answer is yes. Penn State still skews young and is growing in certain areas, but the speed, talent and depth are legitimate.

I don’t think anybody associated with the program is celebrating anything yet, though. Remember, the Lions were 5-0 and holding a comfortable lead at Iowa last season, when injuries mounted and the whole thing unraveled. That experience has inspired coach James Franklin’s approach this season of prioritizing game experience for younger contributors with the hopes of building better depth. So far, so good on that front.

INU: We know about the stars like Nicholas Singleton and Joey Porter Jr., but who are other Nittany Lions that have been catching your eye?

DH: Penn State’s “other” running back, Kaytron Allen, is a good place to start. He is arguably a better pure runner than Singleton at this stage of his young career, but simply lacks Singleton’s explosion and splash plays. Tight end Brenton Strange is also off to a fantastic start and leads the team in yards per catch. Don’t be surprised if he hurdles a Northwestern defender or two on Saturday.

Defensively, edge rushers Chop Robinson and Adisa Isaac are high-ceiling guys who are starting to terrorize quarterbacks, and linebacker Curtis Jacobs and safety Ji’Ayir Brown are two of the Lions’ best overall players.

INU: PSU has a brutal schedule following Saturday, traveling to No. 4 Michigan, hosting No. 21 Minnesota and playing No. 3 Ohio State. Can James Franklin’s team realistically win the Big Ten East and make it back to Indy?

DH: Michigan is a real wild card, especially on the road, because there’s no good way to evaluate its performance against really bad competition so far. But the Wolverines’ throwback power run game has the ability to test the collective will of the Penn State defense unlike anyone else on the schedule.

Ohio State is Ohio State, though Penn State has a history of playing the Buckeyes tough. Minnesota is another one to watch after torching Michigan State, but the Golden Gophers might lack the athletes to do the same against this PSU secondary. They also have to beat a Whiteout crowd.

The short answer is “yes,” but Penn State has a ton of work to do.

INU: What transitions have you seen defensively with former Miami head man Manny Diaz becoming Franklin’s defensive coordinator?

DH: This unit under Diaz is much more willing to take risks and bring pressure from all angles than the previous rock-solid group that Brent Pry led before taking the head job at Virginia Tech. Diaz has athletes, and he’s getting all of them involved, all while having a constant ace up in his sleeve in the fact that his corners can cover just about anyone one-on-one.

The fact that the math skews in his favor allows him to dial up new ways to speed up the decision-making of opposing quarterbacks and dare opponents to pass. Nobody in the nation has faced more pass attempts or been credited with more pass breakups than the PSU defense.

INU: If a team is to upset Penn State, what must it do?

DH: Start with the obvious: an opponent at least has to be competitive in the turnover battle, which is a tough task on both sides of the ball. Penn State’s takeaway potential on defense is for real, and quarterback Sean Clifford is making good decisions and adjustments leading the offense.

Opponents also had success last season when going all-in with the run game, with Illinois and Arkansas serving as the best examples. Defensively, Central Michigan might have exposed an opportunity to crowd the short part of the field and force Penn State to attack over the top, which the Lions haven’t done well this season.

INU: What’s your score prediction for Saturday?

DH: It’s hard to pick a blowout, even though early results scream for it. Northwestern has long-running Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tendencies under Pat Fitzgerald and should at least find a way to gum up the works for stretches on Saturday.

In the end, I think it looks and feels an awful lot like Penn State’s 33-14 win over Central Michigan, where the Beaver Stadium crowd gets restless because Northwestern strings together a few 10- or 12-play drives. I’ve got it Penn State 35, Northwestern 12.