By Annie Ross
Penn State hosts No. 2-ranked Ohio State Saturday night at Beaver Stadium, and the Nits are 20-point underdogs.
While head coach James Franklin said during his weekly press conference yesterday that there is “a chance” the Nittany Lions will have linebackers Jason Cabinda, Brandon Bell and Jake Cooper available against the mighty Buckeyes, that’s potentially a far cry from having any of them at their very best.
“(They) haven’t played football or practiced in a long time,” Franklin acknowledged. “So to think you’re just going to jump back in there after missing that amount of time, it is going to be a challenge. We’ll see how it plays out. … It’s not like, last week they practiced and this week we’re hoping to get them back. They haven’t practiced at all.
“To think that they are just going to be able to jump back in and be the type of players they were when they left, I don’t know if that’s realistic.”
Penn State has been working with a patchwork linebacking crew since the Pittsburgh game Sept. 10. The junior who opened the season as the starting middle linebacker, Cabinda suffered an apparent hand injury against Kent State and has missed all five games since. Bell, a senior who started the opener at strong side linebacker, left the Pitt game with a leg injury and has spent more time on crutches than on the football field. A top backup, Cooper got hurt in the blowout loss at Michigan and missed the last two games.
Combined with season-ending knee injuries suffered by Nyeem Wartman-White and little-used backup Jan Johnson, Penn State has been making due with walk-on middle linebacker Brandon Smith and youngsters Manny Bowen, Koa Farmer and Cam Brown.
Franklin said getting any of those injured players back would be “a nice bonus,” but he conceded that their availability ultimately rests on how much the team’s medical staff ultimately allows them to do in practice for the rest of the week.
“They may even be a nonfactor this week,” he said.
Penn State does have one immediate change to make on offense, with right tackle Andrew Nelson (above) out for the season with a knee injury suffered in the win over Maryland on Oct 8.
Franklin said the coaching staff has not yet decided who will take Nelson’s spot, or if any other changes will have to be made up front to accommodate that move. But put it this way: He didn’t talk like a coach not expecting to give senior Paris Palmer a long look.
“Paris has played a lot of football, Franklin said of the Lackawanna College product. “Not necessarily this year, but he has played a lot of football for us. It’s not like we’re putting a guy in there that has not had experience playing big time football before. So that’s a positive.”
Palmer played the second half of the Maryland game at left tackle, with Brendan Mahon moving to the right side.
Palmer, sophomore Chasz Wright and true freshman Will Fries are the players Franklin mentioned as candidates to help fill in for Nelson.
Speaking of Wright, Franklin confirmed he will practice this week exclusively at tackle, which does affect one other player on the offensive line.
Right guard and Lake-Lehman product Connor McGovern had been sharing some playing time the last two games with Wright, but the situation at tackle might completely cede all playing time at right guard to McGovern, at least for the time being.
“We felt like moving Chasz into guard because he had shown some really good signs. We felt like we needed a little bit more mass and a little bit more length in there and he was doing some nice things,” Franklin said. “But I don’t know if, with Chasz’s experience, we can kind of bump him back and forth from tackle to guard all week long. I don’t think that’s fair to him or fair to our team.”
Seniors Derek Dowrey and Wendy Laurent, along with redshirt freshman Steven Gonzalez, would back up McGovern on Saturday.