Penn State travels to Tuscaloosa to battle Alabama in the nightcap of an excellent second Saturday of college football.  Penn State enters the game ranked 18th in the AP poll and 14th in the Coaches after a 44-14 win over Youngstown State.  Defending National Champions Alabama sit atop both polls after their 48-3 thrashing of San Jose State.

This game is yet another National Championship rematch, the 1979 Sugar Bowl, when #2 Alabama stopped #1 Penn State on the goal line to give Bear Bryant his fifth National Championship.

The schools had a heated series of games from 1981-90 with Alabama holding a 6-4 edge over the span, and an 8-5 record overall against the Nittany Lions.  This will be the first meeting between the schools since Penn State’s 9-0 win on the road in 1990.

Despite huge opening week victories, both teams enter this reincarnated rivalry with some question marks.

Alabama’s Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram will likely miss his second straight game recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery to repair his left knee.  Ingram sustained the injury in practice early last week.

Filling in for Ingram will be sophomore Trent Richardson, this week’s Sports Illustrated cover boy.  Last week Richardson had ten carries for 66 yards and two scores, as well as three catches for 46 yards, and didn’t play in the second half.  Don’t expect those kind of numbers against Penn State’s notoriously hard-nosed defense who held Youngstown State to 75 rushing yards on 33 carries, just 2.2 yards per rush.  The Nittany Lions haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Iowa’s Shonn Greene in 2008.

Will Richardson pass the century mark against Penn State?

Not only will Alabama be without their best offensive player, they lack one of their most important players on the other side of the ball.  Defensive end Marcell Dareus will sit out as part of a two-game NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits from an agent on two trips to Miami.  Coach Nick Saban originally planned to appeal and attempt to reduce the suspension to one game, but decided against it because there isn’t enough precedent in similar cases.

Penn State’s biggest concern entering the game is at quarterback.  Rob Bolden is the first true freshman to ever start under center for Joe Paterno.  The 6’4″, 208 lbs Orchard Lake, Michigan, native has big shoes to fill, replacing Daryll Clark, who set Penn State’s single-season passing yards and touchdowns records last year.

Bolden looked impressive in his debut, completing 20 of his 29 attempts for 239 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.  However, that was in Beaver Stadium with over 100,000 supporters and against an FCS team.  This will be a true test for the freshman away from the friendly confines of Happy Valley and against the top-ranked team in the nation.

The good news for Bolden is he has an excellent corp of running backs to support him, led by senior Evan Royster.  Royster needs just 441 more yards this season to become Penn State’s all-time leading rusher.  He’ll be hard pressed to gain yards against the Tide, who held San Jose State to just 89 rushing yards.

Expect an old-school, hard-fought clash between two of the most historic programs in the nation.  Look for Penn State to establish their ground game first to give Bolden time to adjust in his first road game.  Alabama will also try to get it done on the ground early and then rely on the experience of senior quarterback Greg McElroy to march the Tide along.

Yards, and more importantly, points may be hard to come by in this game so both sides must capitalize on early opportunities to build confidence.  These defenses are relentless and will try to clog up the lanes to prevent runs.  Play action passes will be vital for both teams in order to build successful drives.

Alabama will want to force Bolden into passing situations early to make him uncomfortable.  He showed great poise, even after throwing a pick against Youngstown State, but it could all change on the road.  Penn State will probably call a few short passes and screens early to help Bolden establish himself before he airs it deep, which he is fully capable of doing.

Prediction

Ingram and Dareus’s absences could spell trouble for the Tide.  Richardson may be good, but he’s no Heisman Trophy winner.  I don’t see him repeating his opening week success in this game.  Royster and the other Penn State running backs will slowly wear down the Tide defense, who will miss Dareus’s presence on the line.  If Bolden can keep his composure in hostile Bryant-Denny Stadium, I think the Nittany Lions have a real chance of pulling off the upset.  I think Penn State will score in the middle of the 4th quarter to give them a 23-20 edge and then hold off the last couple Alabama possessions, ending with a dramatic final drive by Alabama which Penn State stops around midfield on 4th down.  Not as dramatic Alabama’s 1979 Sugar Bowl goal-line stand, but still an intense game from start to finish.

Tyler

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