Navy's rushing attack will provide the ultimate challenge on Military Appreciation Day at Beaver Stadium for the Nittany Lions, who need to improve in a number of areas, including moving the ball in the red zone, stopping the opponent on key third-down plays, and kicking field goals.
The Lions must be fundamentally strong on defense against Navy. The Midshipmen are 16-4 when rushing for 300 or more yards since Ken Niumatalolo took over as head coach in 2008, but they managed 149 yards in their 50-10 loss to Notre Dame in Ireland two weeks ago.
"Navy is so good at what they do," O'Brien said. "They're attacking your discipline and they're attacking your toughness. In my opinion, we have a tough football team and we have a tough defense. But what we've got to do defensively is that we've got to play responsibility football."
Notre Dame bottled up Navy quarterback Trey Miller, a 6-foot, 199-pound junior, limiting him to just 16 yards on 20 carries. A huge early deficit forced Miller to pass, and he went 14 of 19 for 192 yards, but Navy prefers the ground route.
The Midshipmen have had two weeks to prepare for the Lions and correct a number of mistakes that included four turnovers against the Fighting Irish. They aren't fooled by the Lions' 0-2 start.
"We can't turn the ball over and we have to get turnovers," Niumatalolo said. "The ball has got to bounce our way. From a talent standpoint, they are more talented than we are and we're going to have to play a perfect game to have a chance."
The Penn State defense will have to do a much better job on third down than it has in the first two games. Opponents' 61.1 percent conversion rate against the Lions is the nation's fourth-worst among the 120 teams in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision.
Offensively, the Nittany Lions have to do a better job in the red zone, where they have converted points only four times in seven trips. The Lions netted just three points off four turnovers in last week's 17-16 loss at Virginia.
"It's just something we've got to keep practicing," quarterback Matt McGloin said this week. "We're going to go over some plays, different plays against the defense that we're going to see. We'll figure it out."
Of course, the Lions would have defeated Virginia had sophomore Sam Ficken connected on just one of his four missed attempts. O'Brien said he has been happy with Ficken's work ethic and that coaches have worked with him on technique, but how much confidence Ficken has after last week will be seen on Saturday.
Navy at Penn State
When: Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
Records: Navy, 0-1; Penn State, 0-2.
TV/Radio: 6ABC; WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).
Coaches: Penn State, Bill O'Brien (first season, 0-2); Navy, Ken Niumatalolo (fifth season, 32-22).
Series: Penn State leads, 18-17-1, in a series that began in 1894. The two teams last played in 1974 when Navy claimed a 7-6 victory at Beaver Stadium.
Betting line: Penn State by 7.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
The Penn State secondary, which has struggled, would seem to be getting a break this week against Navy's run-oriented offense. But will the Midshipmen try to throw them off with the pass?
The Nittany Lions played as if they were stuck in the mud in the red zone last week, gaining 18 yards in 12 plays against Virginia. The improvement must be immediate and substantial. And O'Brien has promised a surprise in the backfield.
Check out Sam Ficken, who missed four field goal attempts last week. If he should miss early and the fans at Beaver Stadium get on him, it could be a long afternoon and a long season.
THREE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW
Walk-on fullback P.J. Byers, 27, has spent seven years on active duty in the Navy. He learned how to make underwater repairs on submarines and trained dolphins to find search out explosives before enrolling at Penn State. He will become a Navy officer after graduating in May.
Niumatalolo holds the Navy record for most wins in his first four years of coaching at the academy with 32. Former Temple coach Wayne Hardin is third on the list with 26 wins in his first four years.
The Nittany Lions are 5 of 7 on fourth-down conversions. Of FBS teams, only Louisiana-Monroe and Air Force (six each) have had more successes, and Air Force and Southern California (nine each) have had more attempts.
- Joe Juliano
Contact Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @joejulesinq. Read his blog, "Lion Eyes," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/