Georgia-Penn State sets defensive showdown in TaxSlayer Bowl
Big-Ten collides with SEC in the TaxSlayer Bowl as Penn State meet Georgia to wrap up a season that won’t be remembered long in the storied history of either program. The two teams combined for eight losses on the season and neither looked likely to rank among the contenders all season long.
Penn State went 4-4 within the Big-Ten and the season was more a study in why Christian Hackenberg was ever thought to be a top prospect than it was a demonstration of his obvious physical tools at quarterback. The Nittany Lions were supposed to be a team focused on quarterback Christian Hackenberg, but despite some impressive weapons they became a team that went as far as freshman Saquon Barkley could take them at running back. The defense was a far better unit, led by a formidable D-line and some solid performers at all levels of the defense.
Georgia’s season was over the second Nick Chubb went down. They had already lost a game, but it was to Alabama and they had dominated the other two SEC teams they had played by that point in the year. The Chubb injury sparked their second loss to Tennessee in that game and then two weeks later they dropped another to Florida. Georgia’s defense is strong, but the loss of their best offensive weapon neutralized this offense and made them a one-dimensional side overall.
Players to watch
Georgia sent one injured star runner to the NFL last season in Todd Gurley and only had Chubb for 183 snaps before he went down with a bad knee injury of his own. Chubb fell awkwardly at the end of a play and was lost for the season having been grading as well as anybody over the first few games.
He had 744 rushing yards from 92 carries and while Sony Michel proved to be an able stand in, he took 106 more carries to post his 1,068 yards. Chubb was earning 8.1 yards per carry, while Michel (5.4) and Keith Marshall (5.3) were solid if unspectacular in his stead.
Georgia’s offense isn’t a bad unit, but it was elevated by Chubb. Michel has graded well over the season, but he is nothing like the player Chubb was and he will be running into the teeth of a strong defense. He isn’t a key player in this game because he’s one of the best on display, but because he will be key to how successful Georgia’s offense can be. If Michel gets some success on the ground, Georgia can compete on this side of the ball, but if he has no running room then it will be a long, low-scoring day for the Bulldogs.
Georgia’s strength lies on defense, with several standout players there. Sterling Bailey has been a formidable run defender on the line, notching 30 defensive stops and batting down three passes at the line.
They may not have a single dominant sack-artist, but Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins have combined for 62 total pressures.
Penn State’s defense is also the strength of the team, led by Carl Nassib who will be playing on Sundays before too long. Nassib had 16 sacks this season and 52 total pressures on his own, but he has support on the line with Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel chipping in with 48 total pressures over the season. They have added significant pressure from the linebackers on the blitz, with three different players notching double-digit pressures.
If there’s a weakness in the Penn State defense it’s on the back end, with multiple negatively graded defenders in coverage.
SS Marcus Allen has missed 14 tackles on the season and given up multiple big plays over the year while some of the depth players have been spotty at best.
On offense Penn State should be all about Christian Hackenberg, but in reality this team is all about Saquon Barkley, who has been one of the most impressive players in the nation when you consider how average at best the O-line has been. As a unit the line has been far better in run blocking than pass-protection, but Barkley’s rushing is still more about him than it is the holes being opened for him. To have posted 6.1 yards per carry with the blocking he has faced is remarkable, and he is the determining factor for this offense.
Hackenberg has been extremely poor this season, especially when pressured. When kept clean he has completed 61.5 percent of his passes but that number plummets to 35.1 when he is pressured and 46.0 percent when blitzed.
This game figures to be a defensive battle with both teams struggling for offensive success and consistency. The most impactful players are almost all on the defensive side of the ball, and I’m not expecting big scores.
Georgia 15, Penn State 10