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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After playing two out of its first three games on the road, Penn State (3-0) returns home on Saturday for its first game against UMass (0-3). The Nittany Lions and Minutemen will collide at 4 p.m. inside Beaver Stadium (BTN).
Thanks to a superb defensive performance in the second half and a game-winning drive orchestrated by sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the Nittany Lions moved to 3-0 in a dramatic victory at Rutgers last week. Senior Bill Belton scored a game-winning touchdown with 1:13 to play inside sold out Highpoint Solutions Stadium to lift the Lions past the Scarlet Knights, 13-10, in the first Big Ten game of 2014.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions have been tremendous to start the season. Penn State ranks among the nation's elite in three major statistical categories heading into this weekend. Penn State is seventh in the country in rushing defense at 68.3 yards per game allowed. The Lions are 11th in scoring defense (12.3 ppg) and 13th in total defense (275.7 ypg). Thanks to five interceptions on Saturday night, Penn State is also sixth in the nation in passes intercepted.
UMass enters the game following back-to-back three-point losses to Colorado and at Vanderbilt. Led by veteran head coach Mark Whipple, the Minutemen, took the Commodores down to the wire in Nashville last week. UMass led for most of the game before a late score from Vanderbilt and a missed field goal in final seconds sealed a 34-31 setback.
Saturday's gameday will feature two major events off the field. Throughout the 2014-15 academic year, Penn State will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Women's Athletics on the University Park campus. Some of Penn State's current and former head coaches and student-athletes will be recognized at the UMass games for their accomplishments during the past 50 years of varsity women's sports.
Additionally, Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics and the Penn State Marching Blue Band will host the Unrivaled Band Jam, which will highlight Band Day activities on Saturday. Several high school bands will perform with the storied Blue Band and the UMass Minuteman Marching Band pre-game in the Bryce Jordan Center. The Unrivaled Band Jam will begin at 2 p.m. in the Jordan Center. There is no admission fee.
Welcome to the Gameday Preview for week four matchup against UMass.
What to Watch For - Penn State
1. So much has been written about the talent and skill level of sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. And it is deservedly so. Hackenberg is an incredibly gifted athlete with all the things you look for in an elite quarterback. But his leadership and maturity level for a player his age cannot be overstated enough. Sure, Hackenberg has already etched his place in the Penn State record book with a plethora of accolades, but his demeanor in the huddle, leadership on and off the field and poise are all attributes that a coach cannot teach a player. Hackenberg has been terrific during the first three games of the season, throwing for 1,082 yards and four touchdowns. But his impact on the team goes far beyond the numbers and two game-winning drives in the final minutes.
2. Penn State's defense has been stout during the first three weeks of the season, allowing opponents just 12.3 points per game and 272.3 yards of total offense. A big piece to the Nittany Lions' success on the defensive side of the ball is the standout play from the group in the trenches. Junior defensive tackle Anthony Zettel has been the catalyst along the front line. The Michigan native enters the UMass game ranked fifth nationally with 7.0 tackles for loss. Zettel has been disruptive constantly during the first three weeks. He leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss and also has 3.0 sacks this season. What he lacks in prototypical defensive tackle size, Zettel makes up with a tenacious attitude, relentless motor and standout quickness. Keep a close eye on No. 98.
3. Prior to last week's game at Rutgers, the Nittany Lions had gained just one turnover during the first two games. However, the defense answered coordinator Bob Shoop's challenge by snagging five interceptions against the Scarlet Knights, including two from Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Trevor Williams. The five interceptions in the Rutgers game from the Nittany Lion are most by one team in a game this season. It was the first time Penn State had notched five interceptions in a game since 2004 against Michigan State. Turnovers will continue to play a paramount role in Penn State's success on both sides of the ball. Keep an eye on the turnover battle.
What to Watch For - UMass
1. Graduate student Blake Frohnapfel leads the UMass offense. A Marshall transfer (undergrad degree from Marshall), Frohnapfel was named the starting quarterback for the Minutemen during training camp. He has led UMass to 34.5 points per game during the last two games and an average of 358.5 yards. Frohnapfel has thrown for 619 yards and five touchdowns this season. Wide receiver Tajae Sharpe and 6-foot-7 tight end Jean Sifrin are among Frohnapfel's top targets.
2. The UMass defense enters the week looking to take a step forward defending the run. The Minutemen have allowed an average of 218 rushing yards per game during the first three weeks. Sophomore linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox leads the nation in tackling at 14.0 hits per game. Santos-Knox had a career-high 15 stops at Vanderbilt last week. Senior Stanley Andre is the leader of the UMass defense. The fifth-year player has started in 27 consecutive games.
3. On the heels of a narrow loss at Vanderbilt last week, head coach Mark Whipple will take over the duties of special teams play for the Minutemen. Junior Trey Dudley-Giles is second the nation in kickoff return yardage (35.4 yards per return). Another player to keep an eye on when UMass takes the field on offense and special teams is hybrid fullback/tight end Rodney Mills. Mills has three touchdowns to start the season, including a 53-yard touchdown reception on a fake punt at Vanderbilt last week. Coach Franklin noted earlier in the week that UMass provides a number of different looks on offense. Mills is a player to keep an eye on in the formations.
The Final Word:
Dating back to 1887, Penn State's football tradition stretches 128 years. During that time frame, the Nittany Lions have played 153 different teams on the gridiron. UMass will become the 154th squad the Nittany Lions have played against when the two teams take the field on Saturday. Penn State is 112-33-8 in first games against opponents. The Minutemen mark the first new team on the Penn State schedule since the Lions played against Indiana State in 2011. Saturday's game also marks the second in a string of three-straight contests televised by Big Ten Network. Kickoff is slated for 4:01 p.m. in the first of two-straight Saturdays inside Beaver Stadium.
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