For Penn State and Indiana, it’s a matter of time. Or, at least, a matter of tempo.
Both teams enter today’s Big Ten opener trying to control the pace of what could be very fast and very high-scoring game. And whoever is able to dictate that pace is likely to start conference play with a win.
“Number one (priority) is to be able to handle their tempo,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “They do a fantastic job. … (They’re) trying to run 90 to 100 plays a game. So you have to get lined up, communicate properly and handle the tempo.
“They get you into situations where you’re going to have to make plays in space, so handling the tempo and being able to tackle in space and not give up a ton of explosive plays is a big part of the game plan.”
The Hoosiers will look to run as many plays as possible, practically sprinting to the line of scrimmage for the next snap.
The Nittany Lions will look to mix in their no-huddle NASCAR package while remaining wary of their own defense’s stamina.
“I think that’s really important,” O’Brien said. “You have to gauge that during the game. You don’t want to put your defense in bad situations where they’ve just been out there for a while, and you go up‑tempo — it’s a 30‑second drive, you’re three-and-out — and your defense is right back out there.
“That’s not being a very good head coach or offensive coordinator.”
In O’Brien’s first year at the helm, the Lions did an excellent job of controlling the flow of the game against a pair of no-huddle teams in Northwestern and Indiana, winning both games.
Penn State was able to turn the tables on the Wildcats, running 99 plays and controlling the clock, nearly doubling Northwestern’s time of possession.
“They beat us at our own game,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said at the time.
Indiana’s breakneck pace saw the Hoosiers run more plays than the Lions a year ago — 85 to Penn State’s 76 — but Penn State held a seven-minute edge in time of possession. In both instances, it was the Lions who dictated the pace of the game.
Through four games in 2013, the Lions (74.3) aren’t far behind the Hoosiers (76.5) in plays run per game. And going up against Penn State’s own fast-moving offense in practice helps the Lions defense prepare for a game like this.
“Yeah, it helps us a lot,” junior safety Adrian Amos said. “I feel like our NASCAR (package) seems normal to us now. Up-tempo is what we see everyday in practice. Even in normal periods, we move fast. So it’s not as big an adjustment.”
But it is still an adjustment.
Veterans like Amos and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said this week that the Hoosiers offense run by coach Kevin Wilson is the fastest-paced attack they’ve ever faced.
Wilson and the Hoosiers will also test how much the Lions’ tackling has improved. Penn State struggled to bring down players in space in a loss to Central Florida. Indiana’s offense is certainly different than UCF’s, but the Hoosiers will try to spread the Lions out by throwing to the perimeter and forcing them to make some one-on-one plays.
Those quick passes out of the no-huddle put particular strain on defensive linemen, who have little time to catch their breath or get to the quarterback.
“You just do what you can, really,” Jones said. “You know it’s going to be a quick passing game, so we just have to get our hands up on those short passes if we can’t get to the quarterback.
“The main thing is just to get your hands up and get into the throwing lanes and disrupt the pass. Just be as disruptive as possible.”
It all adds up to a dangerous opponent for Penn State to open Big Ten play against. The Lions have never lost to Indiana in 16 meetings, so a victory likely wouldn’t be met with great fanfare.
But a loss would threaten to drop the Lions into a deep hole indeed with unbeaten Michigan and Ohio State up next on the schedule.
“With their style of offensive football … we have to make sure that we’re scoring,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think we can come out of this game with a bunch of field goals.”