Penn State Blog

August 14, 2011

Penn State Football Season Preview 2011
by Mike Pettigano

Coming off a 7-6 disappointment last season, a campaign featuring four losses by 20 points or more--something Penn State had not allowed in all of Joe Paterno's 45 years as head football coach in Happy Valley--the Nittany Lions are looking to rebound in a big way in 2011. With nearly all of the major parts returning, and talent anything but lacking at the vacant starting spots, Penn State will be facing some pretty high expectations for this season. Those expectations are held no higher than by head coach Joe Paterno--once again getting accidentally slammed by a player running practice drills, only to return to the field the very next day--who has been more active and enthusiastic about this year's squad since the Big Ten title teams in 2005 and 2008.

On offense, it's all about the quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin. While both could be considered incumbents, each enter the season expecting to earn the job. No matter which quarterback earns the starting role by the opener, this is a position that has nowhere to go but up. The tailbacks are far from lacking the talent to possibly surpass the production from the 2010 corps. Silas Redd emerged as an explosive No. 2 back last fall, but now he is the undisputed No. 1 tailback for 2011. On the offensive line, three starters return, including a left side any team would want in tackle Quinn Barham and guard Johnnie Troutman. The weapons inventory doesn't end in the backfield for Penn State, as receiver Derek Moye is coming off an all-Big Ten performance a year ago, and could be looking for national recognition in 2011.

The defense is where Penn State has made its living for nearly the entirety of the program's history. It's not called "Linebacker U" for nothing. One of the weakest positions on the team in 2010, the linebackers are one of the few places where the loss of last year's starters will mean improvement for 2011. Outside linebackers Gerald Hodges, Nate Stupar and Khairi Fortt, and inside 'backer Michael Mauti form a dynamic set of playmakers that should have little trouble upholding the tradition of their position. Behind them, Penn State's defensive backfield returns six players who started games in 2010. Corner D'Anton Lynn and safety Nick Sukay lead the veteran and talented group, which has the potential to be the best in the Big Ten this season. Much of the defensive line returns, with more depth and more experience--and hopefully fewer injuries--as tackle Devon Still and end Jack Crawford are hoping they can lead a return for what's typically a strong unit for the Lions.

Though it will be tough to for a team with this much talent to repeat such a mediocre performance, Penn State's success in 2011 will all depend on the schedule, with the Alabama Crimson Tide rolling into Happy Valley on Sept. 10, then an absolutely brutal November slate featuring a visit from the Nebraska Cornhuskers, followed immediately by trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin. It's a long, rough road to travel, but the pieces are in place for the Nittany Lions to make a legitimate run at the Big Ten championship.

February 17, 2011

Pre-Spring Preview Defense
by Mike Pettigano

Today is part two of our look inside the projected spring depth chart. As the Penn State offense struggled to find any sort of consistency in 2010, the defense was surprisingly not as bad as many will remember. There were plenty of breakdowns on a defense that's planted its flag among the elite units in college football the past six to seven years, but the overall production from the unit has some major upside looking back and then realizing what returns for 2011.

 

Michael Mauti (42) and Nick Sukay (1) celebrate a big play
Michael Mauti (42) and Nick Sukay (1) both return after missing parts of last year. Both are expected to be leaders of Penn State's 2011 defense.

But if there was one major, critical problem on the Penn State defense last year, it was the uncharacteristically horrid tackling displayed right off the bat in week two at Alabama. Trent Richardson never had any flashy runs or long jaunts to the end zone. What he did have against Penn State was much, much worse: a soul-crushing ability to break away from four, five, six Nittany Lion tacklers at a time. Sure, it was only for an eight-yard gain, but those eight yards ripped the life out of Penn State's defense. Things weren't much better as the season went on, but the tackling demonstration in Tuscaloosa would remain a negative theme for the rest of the season on defense. Probably the second-worst game defensively was the Great Homecoming Debacle of 2010, when Illinois ran roughshod over, around, and through the Penn State defense, again mostly on the ground for chunks at a time. Ohio State and Michigan State would later do the same. But looking back, was the Penn State defense really all that bad when the final scores were recorded? Not really. Against Alabama and Iowa, Penn State gave up only 14 total points in the third and fourth quarters. Ohio State scored 14 of its 35 second half points by running back interceptions. Northwestern was shut out in the second half, after going up 21-0. Penn State's defense didn't to the team many favors this past season, including allowing opposing offenses to score 100 percent of the time inside the red zone in all but the Michigan and Florida games. There is a ton of improvement needed on defense if Penn State expects to compete for the 2011 Big Ten title. Luckily, there is a heap of returning talent on this side of the ball, with some actual addition by subtraction possible if the right players get on the field. Before we get to the defensive chart itself, here are a few quantifiers:

  • Returning starters are listed in bold, and CAPITALIZED. Players who started more than 10 games are marked with an asterisk(*). Players who started all 13 games in 2010 are marked with a double asterisk(**).
  • Returning major contributors who did not start a game are listed in bold, and not capitalized.
  • Returning from last year's depth chart, but not considered a major contributor from 2010, are listed in plain text.
  • New additions to this year's depth chart--i.e. redshirt freshmen, players coming off a medical redshirt year--are italicized.
  • The offensive line is a horrible thing to project, due to the fact that we only know of maybe two players who are going to start/play at the same position as 2010. So take the entire O-line with a grain of salt.
  • Not everyone is included below. This is not a roster. It's a depth chart, reflecting the projected pecking order for the spring, not just which players are at which positions.
  • I've changed up the categorization for each level of the depth chart. It used to be "First Team, Second Team, Reserves," but now goes with "1's, 2's, and 3's" to better reflect the terminology for a practice session depth chart. It's usually "So-And-So is running with the 1's today..." 
  • I'll have a brief breakdown for each position beneath the depth chart.
DEF 1's 2's 3's
DE #81JACK CRAWFORD #56 ERIC LATIMORE #86 C.J. Olaniyan
DT #71 DEVON STILL* #93 JAMES TERRY #75 Evan Hailes, #94 Mikel Berry
DT #47JORDAN HILL #91 DaQuan Jones #99 Brandon Ware
DE #59 PETE MASSARO* #90 Sean Stanley #84 Kyle Baublitz
Frz #42 MICHAEL MAUTI #34 NATE STUPAR #54 James Van Fleet
Bkr #33 Mike Yancich #43 Mike Hull #40 Glenn Carson
Sam #6 GERALD HODGES #11 KHAIRI FORTT #32 Dakota Royer
CB #12 STEPHON MORRIS* #2 CHAZ POWELL #14 Mike Wallace
Hero #1 NICK SUKAY #10 MALCOLM WILLIS #27 Jacob Fagnano
FS #28 DREW ASTORINO* #23 Stephen Obeng-Agyapong #38 Tyler Ahrenhold, #36 Kyle Johnson
CB #8 D'ANTON LYNN** #2 CHAZ POWELL #5 Derrick Thomas
PS #30 ANTHONY FERA* #45 Alex Butterworth #49 A.J. Firestone
PR #19 Justin Brown #28 Drew Astorino --
PR #20 Devon Smith #28 Drew Astorino --

DEFENSE Returning from 2010: 

  • 89 (62%) Starts (of 143 possible: 11 starters x 13 games = 143 possible starts)
  • 15 Players with Starting Experience

The problem with the defensive line is that, while there is good experience in the two-deep, the three-deep isn't as experienced as Penn State prefers in its front line. But overall it's a very good group returning this season.

Devon Still, Jack Crawford [1]
Tackle Devon Still (71) and end Jack Crawford (81) should anchor the strong side of the defensive front.

On the interior defensive line, we could see even more improvement. Still is a powder keg ready to blow, as he started drawing more attention from offensive lines later last year than Ollie Ogbu. Hill is an interesting prospect at the other projected starting spot. He started a few games at defensive end in 2010, when Stanley was in trouble and Latimore was injured. Hill is a bit short at 6'1", but is very similar to Ogbu, who turned out pretty well. Terry ('12) and Jones ('13) are going to be really good backups, and part of the tackle rotation this spring and fall. Then there is Ware. He's been one of the most talked about players who never sees the field. His issues with weight and school work has kept him out of the regular lineup, even though the coaches have actually said he could have NFL ability if he applied himself. Hailes is coming off his redshirt year, and should have more playing time in the rotation, especially this spring. At defensive end it should be Crawford and Massaro coming back as starters, while Latimore could be part of the "starting rotation" on the ends. Behind them, there is all sorts of unknown and unrealized talent that we could only see in spurts last season. Stanley played well as a true freshman in 2009, but landed himself in JoePa's doghouse midway through 2010. He didn't have the kind of impact many had anticipated heading into the season. Baublitz was expected to redshirt, but burned it against MSU... odd. But it's done, and expect to see much more of him this spring. Olaniyan is a another really good prospect, who did keep on his redshirt last year.

Nate Stupar and Pete Massaro
Linebacker Nate Stupar (34) and defensive end Pete Massaro (59) are key returnees in the front 7.

Of course I'm excited about the position that is this site's namesake. The linebackers returning this spring--especially after such a disappointing performance by both departed seniors--are going to be that upgrade I was talking about, the addition by subtraction. There is no question about Mauti and Stupar, and their ability to make big, game-changing plays on a defense sorely in need of that exactly kind of performer. The problem this spring will be trying to figure out a way to get both of them on the field at the same time. Watch for Mauti to maybe switch or experiment with the 'Backer spot in the middle, as former outside linebackers Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny had previously. Hodges went down with injury against Alabama, not returning to full strength until the Indiana game. He should be in the mix to start at the Sam (strong) linebacker, but it depends on what the coaches do with Stupar and Mauti. Fortt was pressed into action as a true frosh last year, and depending on how the depth is this year, could redshirt. But Fortt will get tons of looks this spring. If Mauti doesn't move to the middle, expect the experienced Yancich to take over in the middle. He saw tons of time the past two seasons, but hasn't stood out. Behind Yancich is redshirt frosh Hull, a monster recruit who has been much talked about on the scout team. On what should be the third string, Van Fleet has been on the team for what feels like forever, shining bright on his punt block return for a touchdown against Indiana. Carson played on special teams last year, moving between fullback and linebacker. Royer is another big time recruit who should have ample opportunity to see the field this spring. Though the defensive secondary had trouble making big plays when the team could have really used some, it was an extremely solid season from a unit rocked by injuries and off-field issues.

 

Stephon Morris [2]
In his second year starting, junior corner Stephon Morris is primed for a breakout season.

Cornerbacks Lynn and Morris should resume their roles as starters, with Powell the obvious No. 3. Powell started in place of Morris for a few games last season, and played well. Lynn is a sure draft pick who has the tackle power of a safety, but the coverage ability to force teams' passing attacks to the other side of the field. The big question mark here is Thomas. He came into 2010 as the No. 3 corner (Powell was moved to WR over the summer), and had some good performances. But before the Iowa game he was suspended and not seen from again. Thomas is supposedly still on the team, but still no one knows what happened. If he returns, this unit gets a big upgrade in depth. Wallace and Lewis are young and saw little time last season, but should be solid in the backup roles this fall. Spring is the perfect opportunity for these guys to get quality reps in with the higher teams. The safeties were on and off throughout the season, but took a huge hit when Sukay tore a pectoral. He was starting to hit his stride at that point in the season, and should bring a big-time element to this position. But all was not lost when Sukay went down. Willis played extraordinarily well in relief, while gaining great starting experience as just a redshirt freshman. Astorino was nagged by a shoulder injury for months, but played nearly all of the season. He missed the start against Temple, but then had to leave the Florida game in the very early stages. Obeng-Agyapong has been flirting with the No. 2 safety spot for more than a year, but hasn't broken through. The redshirt sophomore is a great prospect and should get plenty of looks this spring. With Obeng-Agyapong is Fagnano, Ahrenhold and Johnson. Fagnano saw the most playing time last season, mostly on special teams and some at safety. If Obeng-Agyapong doesn't grab the backup spot behind Astorino, watch for Fagnano to be the guy. ? The specialists include the punter and punt return crew. Fera is the returning punter. As long as he gets a bit more control, he'll be lethal. In his place last year, Butterworth punted starting in the Indiana game. You probably won't see more than two punters in a regular season, but you sure will this spring. Firestone is likely the No. 3 you'll hear about and see in the Blue-White Game.

 

2010 Penn State vs Michigan State
Receiver Devon Smith showed some of his deadly speed on punt returns last season.

It's a matter of which kind of return Penn State sets up, but the PRs this year should return in Brown and Smith. Smith showed some real flashes last year--literally, he's like a flash he's so fast out there. But if a third return man gets a look, it'll be news. Astorino is the returning "hands" guy, though we didn't see him much last year, which could be a good thing. So that's all, folks. We'll have more pre-spring practice posts in the coming weeks. Until then, maybe we'll have some good (tournament, maybe???) basketball to cover for you. Mike Pettigano is the publisher of Linebacker-U.com. All photos by Mike Pettigano/Linebacker-U.com 

February 9, 2011

Pre-Spring Preview Offense
by Mike Pettigano

Penn State's projected pre-spring practice depth chart: Offense by Mike Pettigano Admit it, you've been already fighting off the football itch, and it's not even letter-of-intent signing day. So as we dive deeper into the worst part of the off season--yes, worse than after spring practice, when at least the preview magazines start rolling out--we're going to roll out a few football posts here and there looking at Penn State's 2011 spring practice. Today, we're starting off with arguably the most entertaining--albeit the most unpredictable--part of any season preview: The Depth Chart.

 

Silas Redd
Silas Redd impressed as a backup in 2010, but should really shine in a bigger role this fall.

Specifically, our two-part look at the depth chart will start today on offense. Probably the subject of the most discussion in 2010, Penn State's offense was a tale--as most fans would see it--of two seasons. The first was before the bye week, when a young unit struggled to gel against fierce opposition. With losses at Alabama and at Iowa, the first half of 2010 came crashing down with a blowout loss at home to Illinois on homecoming. Key players like left tackle Lou Eliades, tight end Garry Gilliam, joined the ranks of players out for the season with injuries. Even Joe Paterno looked worn and beat by the time the leaves began to change. The second season started after the bye week, when the offense looked renewed by the week off, and things really started to click. It was also the game--at Minnesota--where the season took it's most memorable turn, as starter Rob Bolden went down with a concussion, and Matt McGloin came in to manage the offense to a victory. From that point on, McGloin would emerge as the starter, facing arguably weaker opposition, but bringing the much-discussed "moxie" to the quarterback position. The running game was blossoming with Silas Redd storming onto the stage, while the defense also rose up to the occasion most of the rest of the season. But then everything fell back to earth. McGloin threw more interceptions in the bowl game than he had all season long, looking more like the problem at quarterback than the answer most had fallen to believe mid-season, all the while Bolden sat on the sidelines watching his team go down in flames. Come January, Bolden was looking to transfer (but didn't) along with Kevin Newsome (who also stayed), who didn't make the trip to Tampa while figuring out if he himself would transfer. Now things have settled down for the offense, as the work is ready to begin at Holuba Hall. With new and old players re-entering the depth chart, and a very good core of returning starters, a little consistency--and a little less bad luck--could be all this unit needs to excel in 2011. Before we get to the offensive chart itself, here are a few quantifiers:

  • Returning starters are listed in bold, and CAPITALIZED. Players who started more than 10 games are marked with an asterisk(*). Players who started all 13 games in 2010 are marked with a double asterisk(**).
  • Returning major contributors who did not start a game are listed in bold, and not capitalized.
  • Returning from last year's depth chart, but not considered a major contributor from 2010, are listed in plain text.
  • New additions to this year's depth chart--i.e. redshirt freshmen, players coming off a medical redshirt year--are italicized.
  • The offensive line is a horrible thing to project, due to the fact that we only know of maybe two players who are going to start/play at the same position as 2010. So take the entire O-line with a grain of salt.
  • Not everyone is included below. This is not a roster. It's a depth chart, reflecting the projected pecking order for the spring, not just which players are at which positions.
  • I've changed up the categorization for each level of the depth chart. It used to be "First Team, Second Team, Reserves," but now goes with "1's, 2's, and 3's" to better reflect the terminology for a practice session depth chart. It's usually "So-And-So is running with the 1's today..." 
  • I'll have a brief breakdown for each position beneath the depth chart.
OFF 1's 2's 3's
QB #11 MATT MCGLOIN #1 ROBERT BOLDEN #10 Paul Jones, #12 Kevin Newsome
RB #25 Silas Redd #21 Stephfon Green #3 Brandon Beachum, #26 Curtis Dukes
FB #37 JOE SUHEY #9 Mike Zordich #40 Zack Zwinak
FL #6 DEREK MOYE** #8 Brandon Moesby-Felder #17 Christian Kuntz, #18 Andrew Goodman
SL #7 Curtis Drake #15 Alex Kenney #81 Ryan Scherer
SE #19 JUSTIN BROWN* #20 Devon Smith #4 Shawney Kersey
TE #82 KEVIN HAPLEA #80 Andrew Sczcerba #89 GARRY GILLIAM
LT #67 QUINN BARHAM** #78 Mike Farrell #76 Nate Cadogan
LG #50 DE'ONTAE PANNELL #74 JOHNNIE TROUTMAN* #75 Eric Shrive, #62 Frank Figueroa
C #54 Matt Stankiewitch #60 Ty Howle #73 Mark Arcidiacono
RG #64 John Urschel #50 DE'ONTAE PANNELL #65 Miles Deiffenbach
RT #52 CHIMA OKOLI* #58 Adam Gress #55 Tom Ricketts, #79 Luke Graham
LS #60 TY HOWLE #57 Emery Etter #54 Matt Stankiewitch
K #30 Anthony Fera #28 David Soldner --
KOS #30 ANTHONY FERA* #28 David Soldner --
KR #2 CHAZ POWELL #25 Silas Redd #4 Shawney Kersey
KR #21 STEPHFON GREEN #20 Devon Smith --
Hold TBD -- --

OFFENSE Returning from 2010: 

  • 95 (66%) Starts (of 143 possible: 11 starters x 13 games = 143 possible starts)
  • 14 Players with Starting Experience

The quarterback situation is going to remain muddled until August. There is no reason to expect this competition to get resolved this spring, or even summer. While my bet would be on Bolden or Jones to grab the job this off season, it's still and open battle between the four contenders for the starting job.

Paul Jones scrambles
For all the talk of McGloin and Bolden, Paul Jones is a forgotten force in Penn State's 2011 QB battle.

Running back is setting up very nicely for Penn State in 2011. True sophomore Redd should have little problem winning the job, barring some explosion of productivity from 5th-year senior Green. Green should share a good deal of carries with Redd, but the young gun showed a flash of brilliance unseen at Penn State in decades. But the real fun comes with the reserves. Too many fans probably forget how good Beachum was before his ACL tear in 2009. He's a big bruising back that should be great for short-yardage situations. With Beachum is Dukes, who has a great chance to emerge as the solid mop-up back before really getting some time in 2012. The Suhey/Zordich one-two punch at fullback is reminding many of the John Whitman/Brian Milne combo from the mid-1990s. Suhey is a great receiving threat out of the backfield, while Zordich has thrived in the goal-line back everyone has trouble stopping. With Suhey a senior and Zordich a junior, watch for redshirt frosh Zwinak to get some mop-up carries/blocks in preparation for next year and 2013. Moye and Brown are bucking for All-Big Ten honors at wide receiver in 2011. Moye is almost a near-lock for conference recognition, and with a half-competent passing game, should be able to break 800 receiving yards for the 2nd straight season. But the most important part of the receiving corps in 2011 is the ability of the second and third receivers to make plays when called upon. Drake is returning from a medical redshirt last season, after contributing greatly in 2009, including a touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless against Michigan State.

Derek Moye
Derek Moye just needs someone who can get him the ball in 2011.

Smith, Kersey and Moesby-Felder should continue to gain touches, particularly Smith after a good 2010 season, but not one where many felt he reached his potential. Kenney is a real playmaker everyone is looking forward to seeing on the field, though it's still up in the air whether he will remain on offense, go to defense, or play both ways. He reminds me of a taller version of Smith. It will be very interesting to see how the coaches use Kenney, if they differentiate what he can do and what Smith can do. That's partly why I believe he'll get looks on defense, ala bizarro-Chaz Powell, until Smith graduates. Tight end was a complete disaster in 2010. Sczcerba never saw the field due to a pre-season back injury. Then Gilliam tore his ACL just as he was growing into the starting role. And Haplea was practically all alone by the end of the season, leaving little emphasis on the tight end spot by the coaches. But this spring, the position could turn into a real force on offense. The 2009 offense really utilized the tight ends to max their abilities on the field. While I really like Sczcerba's chances to remain the default starter for the spring, I really like Gilliam to rise up with a good spring and grab the job by the end of the session.

Garry Gilliam breaking through tackles [3]
Penn State couldn't keep its tight ends on the field last year, but Garry Gilliam & Co. should give the offense a real boost in 2011.

Initially, I thought there was less to worry about along the offensive line than met the eye. But that was before Troutman had to go get charged with DUI. That changes his status for the spring--if not into the fall--and sends him into JoePa's doghouse for a while. Many of us had been saying going into 2010 that the line would be alright, when four players with starting experience, including Stefen Wisniewski, returned from the Capital One Bowl lineup. In 2010, it felt like the coaching staff tried to do way to much tinkering with the offensive line in the off-season, leading to massive cohesion issues once the season began, particularly in the line's ability--or lack thereof--to block for the running game. If there is a big shakeup once again along the line, watch out for more inconsistent play, at least through the spring and summer practice sessions. But for now, things are looking pretty solid up front. Four players have starting experience, including two--guard Troutman and tackle Okoli--who started 10 games last season, and another--left tackle Barham--who started all 13 from a year ago. Pannell has been floating in and out of the starting lineup for two years now, playing everywhere from both tackles, to both guard positions. He's a good lineman, but seemed to never quite click where he was stuck. At first, before the Troutman situation, I felt Pannell would land at the right guard position to replace Wiz, leaving Troutman where he played well on the left side. But Urschel has come on the past year, and will definitely be one of the top candidates for the position this spring. All of that is now up in the air.

Quinn Barham
Quinn Barham went from a huge question mark at left tackle, to a huge positive going into 2011.

Considering spring practice is weeks away, there's no way to know for sure whether I'm even in the right ball park putting Stankiewitch at center. He was taking snaps at the position as recently as August of last year, when Doug Klopacz was injured for a brief time. Howle has been the long-snapper, which gives him a slight inside track to start spring practice at center. But Stank has been bucking for the job for nearly a year and a half. The rest of the chart is almost a total crap shoot. Farrell, Gress, Shrive, and Figueroa are the only players I'm sure will get looks at being solid No. 2's in the spring, with maybe Gress and Farrell swapping time with the No. 1's. But unless one of the projected starters suffers some serious setback, we're looking at very solid second and third offensive lines. I'm particularly excited to see how the very young group of redshirt freshmen--mainly Deiffenbach, Ricketts, and Arcidiacono--develop together this spring. After 2011 and 2012, they could very well have two years to start as one unit together. Oops, almost forgot the offensive specialists. Not much to see here. Spring should be a "let's just get through this" point in the team's development, with not much emphasis on special teams until the summer sessions. Fera will be back 100 percent after his appendectomy, and incoming freshman Sam Ficken indicated the coaches want him to handle placekicking duties this fall. But for the spring, expect Fera and Soldner to rotate on field goals. For the return team, Powell was "benched" from returning kickoffs late in the season, in favor of Redd. Green was so-so, but not terrible through the year. With Smith and Kersey viable options, let's hope there is serious competition for the starting kick returners, especially for a unit with so much speed and talent at its disposal.  Stay tuned for a look at the defensive depth chart. Mike Pettigano is the publisher of Linebacker-U.com. All photos by Mike Pettigano/Linebacker-U.com 

August 30, 2010

Penn State season preview 2010
by Mike Pettigano


For all the hype surrounding Big Ten expansion, and the ever-present "JoePa death watch" by the media, Penn State football has seen a relatively quiet off-season in 2010. But that doesn't mean changes weren't abound in Happy Valley, and in today's update, we will play some catch up with the goings-on in Penn State football.

Probably the biggest storyline is the quarterback controversy, the flames stoked by Joe Paterno's decision to allow a true freshman, Robert Bolden, to seriously content for the starting role this season. Not only has Bolden come to impress the coaching staff and observers, but he has been in position for some few weeks now to actually capture the job from pseudo-incumbent true sophomore Kevin Newsome. And while quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno has not been quick to count out underrated walk-on Matt McGloin, it appears from a recent practice scrimmage that McGloin will be reserved as the definite No. 2 this season. But how could that be? Since Bolden and Newsome are the two best, how could McGloin be a No. 2? That's because the quarterback race became a whole lot more interesting when in mid-August, Joe Paterno told media that he was open to a dual-quarterback offense for 2010.

During that most recent scrimmage--the final scrimmage of the pre-season practice session--Newsome looked much sharper and played like the more experienced quarterback in the group, most likely forcing himself ahead of Bolden. But that doesn't mean each won't play a significant amount in the opener against Youngstown State on Sept. 4 in Beaver Stadium. If we do see a split-QB system this year, expect Newsome to run an offense based on a QB-run spread, while Bolden will see a more QB-pass spread. Both should be dangerous if run well.

The rest of the offense will be centered on the offensive line, which hasn't seen nearly as much turnover as expected, when during the Blue-White Game the lineup was changed from the 2009 edition of the front five. Since the spring game, the lineup has been: LT Quinn Barham, LG DeOn'tae Pannell, C Doug Klopacz, RG Stefen Wisniewski, and RT Lou Eliades.

If there were to be any changes to that lineup this late in the pre-season, it would most likely happen on the interior. Should 2009 starter Johnnie Troutman--in Joe Paterno's doghouse much of the off-season, for weight and academic reasons--continue his climb back to the starting lineup, it would mean Pannell would shift to Wisniewski's RG position, while Wisniewski would return to his 2009 position at center. Troutman would return to his LG position from 2009. But speculation is just what it is, and there is a good chance no changes will be made prior to the opener. It's still an area on this team to keep an eye on.

The Penn State defense has never been a major concern, even when attrition and graduation have taken heavy tolls. In 2010, Penn State returns only five full-time starters on defense. However, with defensive coordinator Tom Bradley leading the group, along with one of the best defensive staffs in the nation, this unit will continue to rank as one of the top groups in college football.

A glaring void on defense is the linebacker corps, which lost an amazing three 2010 NFL Draft selections in Navorro Bowman, Sean Lee and former walk-on Josh Hull. All three have also been impressive in the NFL preseason, so the talent loss has been big. But this is Penn State, and the talent waiting in the wings could start for just about any other BCS-caliber program.

Outside linebackers Nate Stupar and Bani Gbadyu (pronounced "Bah-ju") and middle linebacker Chris Colasanti all came to Penn State as VHT recruits, all seeing moderate action so far in their Penn State careers. Stupar and Gbadyu started several games between 2007 and 2009, mostly due to injuries to the starters. Those are the knowns in this unit, but the unknowns are quite impressive, and we could see more of the backups than expected this year.

Middle linebacker (called "The Backer" at Penn State) position is backed up by former VHT recruit Mike Yancich, who has impressed the staff this off-season with his work ethic. He will be Colasanti's main replacement, should a sub be needed.
On the outside, former VHT safety Gerald Hodges will man the backup "Sam" strongside linebacker spot, while former VHT linebacker Mike Mauti (missed 2009 with ACL) will backup Stupar at the "Fritz" weakside linebacker position. It's been speculated that Penn State will play its backup linebacker rotation much more than normal, since all six linebackers are good enough to be starters.

Other positions to watch this season are tight end, 3-technique defensive tacke, and slot receiver.

Sophomore tight end Andrew Sczcerba has been battling chronic back pain this summer, and will probably lose his job to true freshman Garry Gilliam, who was impressive in the Blue-White Game back in April. Gilliam has great raw talent, and could end up being a four-year starter.

Replacing Jared Odrick, the 2009 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, will be former VHT (but injury-plagued) sophomore Devon Still. Still, who's towering 6-5 frame will fill in nicely for Odrick, has been completely healthy this year, and should be able to make up for much of what was lost with Odrick's graduation and selection by the Miami Dolphins in round one of the 2010 NFL Draft. Odrick will be the starting defensive tackle in Miami this season.

The slot receiver took a major hit when true sophomore Curtis Drake broke his leg in early August. He was slated to continue his role as a "slash" player, similar to Derrick Williams from 2005-2008. Last season Drake grew his role gradually as the season progressed, eventually tossing a touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless on a fake end-around run at Michigan State. Now, it appears that former record-setting sprinter Devon Smith will assume the slot receiver role, even with his diminutive stature at just 5-foot-7, 160 pounds. The coaches will use him in the passing game, on ends-around, and probably in the return game. He has legit speed, running a 4.2 40.

That wraps up our season overview. If you're wondering why we didn't cover Joe Paterno's health, that's because there is no way to tell what will happen. He could either retire early, or last another five seasons. No one knows. So we will deal with it when the time comes.

Stay tuned for the weekly game preview. Penn State will host FCS opponent Youngstown State on Sept. 4.

August 26, 2010

Joe, Not Your Year
By Eric Healy (www.jumponthefanwagon.com )

Yo Joe, This is NOT Your Year

Penn State is going to have problems this year.  They have substantial talent, yet lack experience in some pretty important areas.  Their two big question marks are the offensive line and quarterback positions.  This is not a combo of uncertainty any football program desires.  A murderer’s row road schedule is staring the Nits down – Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State – all three have BCS bowl potential.  Yet, this is not the reason for the title of this article. 

I love Joe – I hated Penn State prior to attending the university in 2004 – but I’ve always respected Joe.  It was ironic as a Miami fan hearing the incessant cries of “Joe must go” from the Penn State faithful (or faithless at the time) as I argued with them about the merits of Joe staying until HE was done.  Then they ALL shut up when Penn State grew back to college football prominence (though admittedly not elite). 

The way I see it, Penn State is due about 3-5 losses this year.  It’s not IF, it’s when.  What’s scary is a 7-5 season will start to bring the echoes of earlier this century calling again and I hope Joe has enough tread in his Nikes to withstand the unwarranted swarm of criticism about  to fly all over his Coke bottle glasses.   Then again, Penn State plays the underdog role EXTREMELY well – we shall see.

The Big Ten conference had their meeting two weeks ago and JoePa spoke with the media.   He sounded bad.  It’s like the relative you haven’t seen or heard from in a few months and you see them again and are like “damn, you’ve aged”.   I’m still not of the persuasion that demands his retirement – Joe should go when HE decides.  His physical appearance and sound coupled with a 7-5 season could bring a legend to his knees. 

Dear Joe – the end of this season is NOT the time to retire.  Regardless of the outcome, you owe it to us and more importantly yourself to stick around through the 2011 season.  Hang in there Grand(Joe)Pa.  These 2010 Nittany Lions will be tested this year like no other team in the country.  Steel sharpens steel.  They will fail, they will get up, they will fail, they will get up – just like you’ve taught them.  And next year, those terrible road losses of 2010(Alabama, Ohio State and Iowa) will have to venture into Happy Valley (Beaver Stadium).  Michigan is off the schedule in 2011.  The Nittany Lion Club (PSU Donation Arm) will have secured 25 million additional dollars due to the seating realignment.  This smells of a national championship run. 
Sincerely,
Confused Miami fan

Joe’s legacy will not be defined by the 400+ wins he will amass.  It won’t be in the two national titles (possibly 3 if PSU wasn’t contractually bound in 1995 to the Rose Bowl – still don’t know why they joined the Big Ten).  Those two facts – and that’s all they are- have allowed him to keep coaching as long as he has.  Rather, Joe’s legacy is defined by the products he puts into the field – of life.  He wins, and he teaches his student-athletes how to win the right way.  He has run a spotless program with extremely high graduation rates.  His players always speak highly of him.  He didn’t donate money to the school to build a new workout facility in his name – he built a freakin’ library. 

After reading the last paragraph, I hope you realize that anyone who demands “Joe must go” is most likely discriminating on the basis of age and should be ashamed.  My 10 month old son is a season ticket holder and I hope Joe is still around for Gavin’s first game on September 12, 2015 against Rutgers. 

April 17, 2010

Penn State Spring Practice Outlook: Defense
by Mike Pettigano


Over the last decade, Penn State has produced three Bednarik Award winners, a Butkus Award winner, three All-America defensive linemen, and four All-America linebackers. Even that doesn't tell the whole story of just how dominant the Nittany Lions defense has been under the leadership of coach Tom Bradley (who has yet to win a Broyles Award for best coordinator) the last 10 years.

Since 2000, Penn State has given up more than 18 points per game in a season only three times--all losing seasons--but even during those years, the defense only gave up an average of 23.7 points per game. During the seven winning seasons since 2000, Bradley's unit has surrendered a ridiculous 15.5 points per game, including a scoring defense last season that gave up 12.2 points per game, good for third-best in the FBS.

But with the loss of all three starting linebackers and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, defensive tackle Jared Odrick, Bradley will have yet another rebuilding job to do. He's been faced with this situation plenty of times over his career, always seeming to know how to construct a formidable defense from scratch. As always, though, it starts in the spring.

LINEBACKER-WHO?

Replacing an All-American linebacker isn't a new venture in Happy Valley. Jack Ham. Shane Conlan. LaVar Arrington. Paul Posluszny. Dan Connor. It's been done before. But what could be a relatively unfamiliar, and possibly unpleasant, transition for the Nittany Lions this off-season, Penn State must replace all three starting linebackers, including All-Americans Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee, and two-year starter and All-Big Ten performer Josh Hull. That trio, had it not been for some nagging injuries to Bowman and Lee throughout 2009, might have gone down as the greatest starting linebacker unit in the history of "Linebacker U."

Regardless of the "what ifs" here, the three will be tough to lose. There is some hope, though, thanks to some terrific recruiting by Penn State the last five seasons.

Michael Mauti was supposed to be the next star for Penn State, but went down with an ACL tear before the season opener against Akron. Mauti played as a true freshman in the Nittany Lions' run to the Rose Bowl in 2008. His rehab is ahead of schedule, but will remain in non-contact drills probably until late summer.

Behind Mauti are grayshirt freshmen Khairi Fortt, Glenn Carson (delayed enrolling, originally class of 2008), true sophomore Gerald Hodges, and redshirt sophomore Mike Yancich. Of those four players, Hodges and Yancich seem to have the best chance to grab a second-team spot this spring. Hodges is a former VHT safety who moved to linebacker this off-season. Yancich is also a former HT recruit, who's been described as having really ramped up his efforts this spring.

As Penn State enters the final week of spring practice, it seems like the three starters going into the summer will be Nate Stupar, Bani Gbadyu, and Chris Colasanti in the middle. It a very capable unit, but one that isn't set in stone by any means. Both seniors, Gbadyu and Colasanti have played sparingly in their careers, but enough to call them experienced. Stupar is a redshirt junior, who gained a positive reputation on special teams in 2008. The State College native took over for Navorro Bowman for a few games last season, before going down with an ankle injury himself before the Iowa game. I have no qualms about this starting lineup, but wouldn't be devastated should a change be made before the season begins.

STUFFING THE MIDDLE

If there is one position at Penn State, besides linebacker, that has gained a reputation for being outstanding year in and year out, it's along the defensive line. Since 2002, Penn State has had four All-American defensive ends, three All-American defensive tackles, and three Big Ten defensive linemen of the year. The tradition could continue in 2010, as end Jack Crawford and tackle Ollie Ogbu are primed for big seasons. But how much of their success last season was due to the fact that they were working alongside Jared Odrick?

The presumed replacement for Odrick will be Devon Still. The redshirt junior has been plagued by injuries, tearing his ACL in 2007, then breaking his ankle just before the 2008 season. Still was finally healthy for a full season in 2009, getting significant playing time as Odrick and Ogbu's primary backup (Penn State rotates its linemen frequently). By all accounts leading up to the spring game, Still is the hands-down leader to take over the 3-technique defensive tackle position.

Like replacing great linebackers, Penn State never seems to suffer much along the front four.

PUNTER, ANYONE?

In the most surprising move this off-season, rising junior punter Ryan Breen--the lock to replace the graduating Jeremy Boone--left the team. He was apparently unhappy with the program, but that's not important. Penn State is now left with no scholarship punter, or even one that has the talent to earn a scholarship. The Nittany Lions did invite former Temple punter Russell Nye to walk-on, but there hasn't been much word on how he will develop. Everyone will be waiting to see him in action for the first time in the Blue-White Game.

If there is one hope for the punter situation, it's former VHT placekicker Anthony Fera. The Michigan de-commit signed with the Nittany Lions in the class of 2009, and redshirted last season. Fans were clamoring for Fera to assume the starting role, since it was between him and the now-incumbent Collin Wagner. With Wagner's job secure (he nailed all four field goal attempts in the 2010 Captial One Bowl, a 19-17 Penn State win over LSU), Fera is looking for any way to get on the field. As a former punter in high school, it could be plausible that Fera will start the Blue-White Game at punter. I would go so far as to say that if Nye doesn't impress the staff enough, they won't hesitate to stick Fera in for the seasons opener.

Fera has also been handling kickoff duties this spring, since his leg is stronger than Wagner's.

GOALS

With the defensive secondary and ends relatively secure, all concentration will be on the interior line and linebackers. Finding a suitable replacement for Boone at punter is the biggest chore on special teams this season. Unlike the offensive side of the ball, Penn State somehow reloads on defense like no other team outside of the LA Coliseum. Tom Bradley hasn't let Joe Paterno down since becoming the defensive coordinator in 2000. He should continue that trend in 2010.

Mike Pettigano is the publisher of Linebacker-U.com, and has been a PhilSteele.com contributor since 2009.

April 10, 2010

Penn State Spring Practice Outlook: Offense
by Mike Pettigano

The Nittany Lions' offense must replace its starting two-time All-Big Ten quarterback, All-Big Ten left tackle, All-Big Ten tight end, and two of three players who started at right tackle last season. Not a fun situation to look forward to this spring practice session. But with several very good recruiting classes, and the enduring determination of Joe Paterno and his staff, Penn State should be able to absorb some of those losses, and put together another good offensive football team in 2010.

While those four positions I mentioned will be the main focus for this entry, they're not the only ones that will need attention this spring. So, let's dig in with some spring football.

OPEN SEASON FOR QB

Penn State has three legitimate contenders for the quarterback job heading into the fall. Sophomore Kevin Newsome, redshirt sophomore Matt McGloin, and true freshman (grayshirt) Paul Jones will all make their play for the starting job.

Early, Newsome has the edge, as the only returning signal caller to have seen live game action in 2009. He's a fantastic athlete, but needs to work on becoming a better passer. Newsome reminds many of the Nittany Lions' 2005 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Mike Robinson.

Behind Newsome, McGloin has gained quite a bit of favor with the coaching staff, particularly since Joe Paterno loves to say any quarterback on the roster has a shot to win the job in an open race. McGloin is a traditional drop-back passer, but has the legs to get out of trouble or run the occasional roll-out play.

Jones is the VHT recruit out of McKees Rocks, Pa. He comes into the spring having enrolled early at Penn State. Though he's a fantastic talent with a rocket arm, it would be a long-shot prediction to say he'll grab the starting job away from either Newsome or McGloin by the Blue-White Game (spring scrimmage) on April 24.

FILLING THE BLIND SIDE

Dennis Landolt started at right tackle for a few seasons, before moving over to the left in 2009, where he garnered all-conference honors during his final season in blue and white. His departure, along with senior right tackles Ako Poti and Nerraw McCormack, leave big spots to fill on both sides of the offensive line this spring.

Early scouting reports have true junior DeOn'tae Pannell starting at left tackle. He was given the chance at right tackle last season, but was replaced after a bad outing against Iowa (L 21-10). It was a big learning experience for Pannell, who should be better suited this year to start on the left.

On the right, two redshirt freshmen, Eric Shrive and Adam Gress are projected to have a fight on their hands for the starting role this spring. Shrive is a formerly VHT recruit, who was redshirted last season to avoid wasting a season playing sparingly behind Landolt and the others. Gress wasn't nearly as highly-recruited as Shrive, but has a similar frame, and just as much time on the team. Gress was given the nod early this spring, starting at right tackle to begin the first practice session last month.

But don't think the outer line is the only facing a shakeup this spring. At an April 10 coaches clinic scrimmage in Beaver Stadium, All-Big Ten center Stefen Wisniewski started at guard, while senior Doug Klopacz took over at center. This could have been just an experiment, or a chance for Klopacz to get time on the first team. Either way, this could be something bigger, should the staff like Wisniewski back at guard, where he began his Penn State career.

TIGHT END TROUBLE

Andrew Quarless left Penn State this winter as the all-time receptions leader at tight end. His partner in crime, Mickey Shuler, Jr., didn't put up the same kind of dynamic numbers, but was a valuable blocker and receiver for Clark and the passing game. The pair combined for 625 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2009.

Losing the top two at any position is tough, but the dropoff at this position will be particularly pointed this spring for the Nittany Lions. That's not to say there aren't talented young players ready to come in, but the inexperience factor is always difficult to compensate for.

Highly-touted true freshman Kevin Haplea is in for he spring, and has been cleared after a case of mononucleosis. Competing with him is redshirt freshman Garry Gilliam. They both have great heigh, at 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6, respectively. The odds-on favorite is Gilliam, but Haplea should get plenty of reps as the No. 2 tight end.

Finally, there is wide receiver-quarterback-tight end Brett Brackett. The senior is entering his final season for Penn State, and hasn't been able to lock up a starting job. At 6-foot-6, the coaches have tried to incorporate him into a flex-TE around the goal line, with some success. Should any of the freshmen not work out at tight end early, watch for Brackett to play a bigger role.

GOALS

This spring should be all about getting reps to as many players as possible, especially at the key open spots. There's no need to rush to find starters, as there are so many talented players on this team. Clark wasn't named the starting quarterback until August 2008. Penn State and Joe Paterno have a great eye for which players fit at certain positions. I don't expect that to change this spring.

Mike Pettigano is the publisher of Linebacker-U.com, and has been a PhilSteele.com contributor since 2009

January 5, 2010

Capital One Bowl Review: PSU 19, LSU 17
By Mike Pettigano


Let's not kid ourselves. There's only one thing that really matters: Penn State beat the SEC's third-best team.

Other than that, however, here are some observations on the win.

Stat of the game: 38:21

That's how long the Penn State offense held onto the ball. While it was quite painful to see the Nittany Lions fail time and again to punch it into the end zone, keeping the ball away from Jordan Jefferson was critically important. The ball-control objective seemed to become even more critical as the game progressed, when Jefferson and the Tigers scored 14 unanswered points to take the lead. Had Penn State not run off at least five minutes (it ran off 5:57) on its final drive, LSU might not have had to panic the way it did in the final minute.

Offensive player of the game: Daryll Clark

Collin Wagner's performance is so close, but the final drive by Clark sealed the deal for me. Specifically, the five yard pass to Graham Zug on 3rd-and-four was a thing of poised beauty. Clark went out on the highest note next to a national title. He exorcised the comeback demons, while proving to the nation that Penn State was far from overrated in 2009.

Defensive player of the game: Navorro Bowman

The sentimental pick here would have been Sean Lee, who did play a fantastic final game in the Blue and White. I must go with Bowman, however. Not only did he lead the team in tackles (7) and TFL (1.5), Bowman made the single best decision of the game by taking his sweet time getting off the pile, with precious seconds ticking away on LSU's final drive. Propelling Bowman's decision from just a good one to an all-timer, he drew the crucial personal foul which moved LSU back 15 yards.

Play of the game: Moye's 37-yard touchdown catch

Oh, how we all thought the Penn State offense would actually score touchdowns from then on. Tigers cornerback Patrick Peterson was playing press coverage -- as was most of the LSU secondary -- so Derek Moye and the offense took immediate advantage. Moye's double move to break behind Peterson was eerily reminiscent of the one he used to score against Northwestern. The result was the identical, however. Six points. (I'm sure many of you will disagree strongly with me picking this play, but I think it really sent an early message to LSU that Penn State came to play ball)

Final Thoughts

When Penn State played aggressive football, the Nittany Lions roared to a 16-3 lead. Clark was allowed to throw on first down, while multiple receivers ran free, even if they didn't always haul in the pass. The success through the air allowed for some decent runs by Evan Royster and Stephfon Green. Penn State was dominating the LSU defense. All the while, the Nittany Lion defenders were having a field day of their own against a weak Tiger offensive line and thin running back corps.

But just when Penn State extended its lead to 13, old fashioned Paterno-Ball took over. It was way too soon against a way too talented team. Runs on first down, obvious passing situations on third and long. I nearly wanted to puke when the LSU offense woke up just as Penn State was winding itself into its conservative shell. We know what happened next.

I guess it was a good thing that LSU was allowed to come back and take a fourth-quarter lead. If Penn State wasn't forced to stage that comeback, would Clark's legacy ever have been vindicated with a legendary final drive? Probably not. I'll admit that I wanted a great, tough game; but Christ, that was a bit much.

Going into the 2010 preseason (holy crap, it's already preseason!), Penn State is in great shape, even with the loss of Navorro Bowman early to the NFL. Depending on whether or not any other juniors leave (Evan Royster), this team has a very strong core returning for next season. There's every reason to look forward to 2010.

December 31, 2009

Captial One Bowl Preview: No. 13 Penn State vs
No. 12 Louisiana State
By Mike Pettigano


Kickoff/TV: Friday, January 1, 2010; 1 p.m. ET/ABC (Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge and Erin Andrews)
Weather Forecast: Scattered showers.
Series Record: Penn State leads, 1-0.

Host: Louisiana State Tigers
Record: 9-3 (5-3, SEC)
Last Game: Beat Arkansas, 33-30(OT)
Injuries: RB Charles Scott (clavicle) - out for season; RB Keiland Williams (ankle) - out for season; RB Richard Murphy (knee) - out for season; WR RJ Jackson (foot) - out; DT Akiem Hicks (undisclosed) - out
Key Players: (offense) QB Jordan Jefferson, WR Trindon Holliday, WR Brandon LaFell; (defense) LB Kelvin Sheppard, CB Patrick Peterson, DT Drake Nevis
Head Coach: Les Miles, 5th season at LSU, 51-14; 9th season overall, 79-35; 5-2 bowl record.
Season Statistics:
Offense - 129.6 rush/180.1 pass/25.5 points per game
Defense - 134.2 rush/192.4 pass/16.0 points per game
TO Margin - (+7)/(0.58) per game

Louisiana State, on paper -- For a team that has been out gained by 16 yards per game this season, the Tigers are quite fortunate to have reached nine wins. Louisiana State has lived off of its fantastic turnover margin (+7), and ability to start offensive drives with short fields, courtesy of probably the best return game in the nation (18.6 yds per punt return). That stat will be sure to strike fear into Penn State, particularly since speedster Trindon Holliday isn't the only one responsible for LSU's punt return success; Holliday averages 17.7 yards on 18 returns and one touchdown, while Chad Jones also added a score to his 21.5 yards per return on six attempts. But that's about as explosive as this LSU team has been in 2009.

Defensively, the Tigers have been stout, but not nearly as transmittable as in recent seasons. In the five seasons previous to 2009, LSU ranked 17th, 12th, 14th, 6th, and 7th in rush defense; the Tigers rank 44th coming into this game. LSU has given up more than 23 points on five different occasions this year, including 26 to Mississippi State and 30 in overtime to Arkansas in the season finale. The Tigers have plenty of talent on this side of the ball, but are definitely pregnable.

Going from decent to just plain mediocre, the LSU offense struggled in 2009 to just break 300 yards per game. Injuries were a huge factor in the lack of production, as the Tigers lost their top two running backs before the end of the season. With a lack of a run game, and an already shaky offensive line (Jordan Jefferson has been sacked 24 times), opposing defenses have been able to tee off on the Tigers' passing game.

Visitor: Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 10-2 (6-2 Big Ten)
Last Game: Beat Michigan State, 42-14
Injuries: RB Brandon Beachum (ACL) - out for season; FB Josh Matzkin (foot) - out; DE Pete Massaro (knee) - out for season; LB Michael Mauti (knee) - out for season; DT Brandon Ware (n/a) - out
Key Players: (offense) QB Daryll Clark, RB Evan Royster, WR Derek Moye; (defense) DT Jared Odrick, LB Navorro Bowman, LB Sean Lee
Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 393-129-3; 23-11 bowl record
Season Statistics:
Offense - 173.6 rush/238.9 pass/29.7 points per game
Defense - 93.9 rush/183.2 pass/11.8 points per game
TO Margin - (+3)/(0.25) per game

Penn State, on paper -- The Lions are a good team, but most definitely not a great one. Penn State beat the teams it should have. In another fantastic job done by defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, the defense has posted its best statistical season in years, even with the loss of three defensive ends (one All-American) and four senior starters in the secondary from last season. The linebackers have been banged up this year, as Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman didn't play a full game together until mid-way through the season. Had both been healthy all year, one or both would have been given All-America recognition. Even in losses to Iowa and Ohio State, the Penn State defense held its own, even in the face of short fields and a sometimes anemic Lions offense.

On that offensive side of the ball, Penn State had some fantastic games this season (Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, Michigan State), but also some putrid outings (Iowa, Ohio State). Against good defensive fronts, the Nittany Lions had trouble containing opponents' pass and run blitzes. That left Daryll Clark with little time to throw, and Evan Royster even less room to run. Much of the offensive woes have been centered around the constantly changing offensive line, which saw three different players at right tackle, and two different at left guard over the course of 2009. Yet, some bright spots have emerged for Penn State, specifically in the wide receivers and tight ends. Derek Moye has become a go-to guy on the outside, while Andrew Quarless finally played like the tight end everyone was hoping for the previous three seasons. Penn State will be looking to give Clark more than two seconds to throw.

Of course, none of that matters if the special teams break down, as they did in dramatic fashion against Iowa and Ohio State. The Hawkeyes were able to score on a blocked punt, and kept Penn State pinned deep in its own territory all game long, leading to a momentum-swinging safety. The Buckeyes tore apart Penn State's coverage teams, virtually winning the game solely on field position. The Nittany Lions should not be relied upon to win any game this season on field position.

On the field -- Penn State and LSU match up very well on both sides of the ball, with the slight edge to Penn State's defense over the Tigers' offense. I could totally see the Lions' front seven harass Jefferson into several mistakes, while Clark and the PSU offense should be able to move the ball well enough to score some points in this one. But if there's one glaring weakness in this year's Penn State team, it's the special teams and return coverage. How does a team like LSU win nine games while being out gained by 16 yards per game? Field position. That matchup scares the crap out of me. However...

The turf could be even scarier for both teams. Bad weather, combined with several football games in the Citrus Bowl this week alone, has left the field in horrid, if not dangerous condition. For a team like LSU, which relies solely on a speed player like Holliday, a chippy field could spell doom. One slip could ruin what should have been a big punt return, which could ruin LSU's chances for victory. Penn State doesn't rely on one specific facet of the game to win. With a healthy stable of running backs, and a defense that might be better than the Tigers' unit, the Lions should have enough in the tank to sneak out of Orlando with a much-needed Big Ten win over the SEC.

Prediction: No. 13 Penn State, 24 - No. 12 LSU, 20

November 21, 2009

Penn State blasts Spartans, 42-14
By Mike Pettigano

Daryll Clark won't be missed by Michigan State fans, as the senior quarterback and Penn State overcame a slow start Saturday night in East Lansing to pound the Spartans 42-14. In two career games against Michigan State, Clark has thrown for 650 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Nittany Lions earned their 10th win of the season, and made a big statement for BCS bowl scouts looking at Penn State for a possible at-large bid.

But despite the final score, for nearly two full quarters, the battle for the Land Grant Trophy was a slugfest, with both teams held off the scoreboard until Penn State scored with 2:10 left in before halftime. Clark found a wide open Andrew Quarless for a 29-yard catch and run into the end zone, as Michigan State's secondary, which had shown some promise early, failed to stop Penn State's pass attack the rest of the game.

Clark finished the night by breaking Penn State records for career passing touchdowns (42), single season pass touchdowns (23), and single season pass yardage (2,770).

Michigan State was able to tie the game at seven going into halftime, putting together its best drive of the night, going 87 yards in only eight plays, capped by a reaching touchdown grab by tight end Charlie Gantt.

But the tie wouldn't last long after the teams trotted out of the locker rooms for the second half. True freshman wide receiver Curtis Drake -- a quarterback in high school -- took an end around from Clark, ran three steps, the lofted a pass into the end zone for Quarless. Penn State's scoring drive would only take three plays to go 66 yards, though 15 of those yards came courtesy of a Michigan State penalty. The score would launch a 28-0 run by the Nittany Lions in the third quarter, effectively ending any chance for the Spartans to pull the upset.

Penn State amassed 512 total yards on offense, while holding Michigan State to only 333 yards, which included a late touchdown bomb by the Spartans that gained 71 yards.

The Nittany Lions came into the game with the lingering sour taste of four first-half turnovers against Indiana the previous week, but would leave East Lansing error-free on offense, while senior linebacker Sean Lee and safety Nick Sukay each picked off a Spartan pass.

Junior linebacker Navorro Bowman -- possible first round 2010 NFL Draft pick -- led Penn State's defense with another spectacular game, logging a team-high 10 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss (minus-17 yards), a pass breakup and a sack.

With the victory, Penn State locked up a tie with Iowa for second place in the Big Ten. Northwestern's upset of Wisconsin helps to narrow Penn State's competition for an at-large BCS selection to just the Hawkeyes. Ohio State beat Michigan to claim the outright Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth.

The Nittany Lions are looking at possible bowl bids in the Orange, Fiesta, Capital One, or Outback Bowls. For Penn State, it will be the fourth January bowl game in five seasons.

November 19, 2009

Preview: No. 14 Penn Preview: No. 14 Penn State at Michigan State
By Mike Pettigano

 

Kickoff/TV: Sat., Nov. 21, 3:30 p.m. ET/ESPN (Mike Patrick, Craig James and Heather Cox)
Weather Forecast: Cool, clear.
Series Record: Penn State leads, 13-12-1.

Host: Michigan State Spartans
Record: 6-5 (4-3, Big Ten)
Last Game: Beat Purdue, 40-37
Injuries: LB Drew Stevens (knee) - possible; RB Glenn Winston (knee) - out for season; S Roderick Jenrette (foot) - out for season
Key Players: (offense) QB Kevin Cousins, WR Blair White, WR BJ Cunningham; (defense) LB Greg Jones, S Chris Rucker, DL Jerel Worthy
Head Coach: Mark D'Antonio, 3rd season, 22-15; 0-2 bowl record.
Season Statistics:
Offense - 139.7 rush/274.1 pass/31.0 points per game
Defense - 105.9 rush/245.0 pass/23.5 points per game
TO Margin - (-4)/(-0.36) per game

Michigan State, on paper -- The Spartans are a funky team this season, losing a ton of very, very close games, but winning a few more that were made more difficult than necessary. Michigan State was coming off its first New Year's Day bowl game in 10 years, and had enough talent returning or rising to figure on another successful campaign. That, however, would depend on if the team could do one thing: win some games it wasn't supposed to. Well, that never happened, and the Spartans now sit at 6-5, clinging to bowl eligibility. It's not like Michigan State has been a bad team this season. Far, far from it. In three losses to Central Michigan, Notre Dame and Iowa, the total margin of victory was seven, SEVEN, points, and Michigan State even had control of each one of those games heading into the final few minutes. Wisconsin turned out to be much better than anyone had projected, but Michigan State still put up 30 on the Badgers in Camp Randall. Really, the only inexplicable loss for the Spartans came in a weird, wild upset at Minnesota. The only other close game was last week against a better-than-you-think Purdue team, but the Spartans prevailed by three.

Michigan State tried to use the two-quarterback system early this season, surprisingly enough, to decent success. But this is now Kirk Cousins' offense, even if Keith Nicol still comes in for a few series here or there. The Spartans are 0.3 points per game away from leading the conference in scoring offense; they lead the Big Ten in total offense, pass offense, pass efficiency, and kickoff return average. Wonder how Michigan State has been able to stay in every game this season? There's your answer. The Spartans can turn it on offensively against any team, even if sometimes it comes a bit too late. And you can chalk much of that up to the defense, which can't seem to figure out how to make a big stop to save its team's life. The Spartans are allowing a not-terrible 23 points per game, but Michigan State is dead last in red-zone defense, and near the bottom in third-down conversions allowed. Probably more frustrating, and similarly to some of Penn State's issues, Michigan State has been fantastic at creating negative-yardage situations for its opponents (2nd in the Big Ten in sacks), but has forced a league-worst 12 turnovers. Big, game-changing plays on defense have been few and far between for Michigan State, in a season where just one or two might have made a huge difference.

Visitor: Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 9-2 (5-2 Big Ten)
Last Game: Beat Indiana, 31-20
Injuries: CB AJ Wallace (shoulder) - possible; WR Chaz Powell (shoulder) - possible; RB Brandon Beachum (ACL) - out for season; DB Jacob Fagnano (ankle) - out; FB Josh Matzkin (foot) - out; DE Pete Massaro (knee) - out for season; LB Michael Mauti (knee) - out for season; DT Brandon Ware (foot) - out
Key Players: (offense) QB Daryll Clark, RB Evan Royster, WR Derek Moye; (defense) DT Jared Odrick, LB Navorro Bowman, LB Sean Lee
Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 392-129-3; 23-11 bowl record
Season Statistics:
Offense - 172.3 rush/231.2 pass/28.5 points per game
Defense - 93.9 rush/178.1 pass/11.6 points per game
TO Margin - (+1)/(0.09) per game

Penn State, on paper -- Entering the final week of the season, 9-2 feels much worse than it actually is for the Penn State faithful. The Nittany Lions have had only two opportunities this season to beat premier teams, with both games coming in Beaver Stadium. But Penn State failed miserably in both tests, both on national television. No other final score has even come close to a Penn State loss, which might make the season feel even worse, knowing this team has the ability to play well. That ability just hasn't shown up in big games. The average margin of victory for Penn State this season has been 16.9. However, against all teams not named Iowa or Ohio State, that margin jumps to 23.8 per win. Penn State hasn't reached 10 wins in consecutive seasons since 1994. The Nittany Lions could very easily reach that plateau in 2009, as almost everyone pegged this team for 10 wins just as long as it got off the bus each Saturday. But with suspect special teams and a propensity for turning the ball over at key moments in big games, that goal isn't so certain with two games left against good teams.

In 2008, Penn State averaged 24.5 yards per kick return, 10.4 yards per punt return, while Derrick Williams scored two touchdowns on kick returns and another on a punt return. On punt coverage, Penn State allowed 5.3 yards per return. The Nittany Lions also did not allow a blocked punt in 2008. Now fast forward to 2009. With 11 games in the books, Penn State is averaging 18.4 yards per kick return, 5.3 yards per punt return, while scoring not a single return touchdown. This year on punt coverage, Penn State is allowing a ghastly 16.4 yards per return. Also, the punt team has allowed two blocked punts this season, including the game-changing scoop-and-score by Iowa. Against Ohio State two weeks ago, Penn State allowed punt returns of 43, 19 and 45 yards. With an offense that doesn't trust its offensive line any more, a quarterback that pushes in big games leading to mistakes, and special teams that have become the biggest single liability this season, Penn State could have a much tougher time reaching those 10 wins that were thought to be so easily attainable.

On the field -- East Lansing hasn't been kind to Penn State. The last outing westward, the Nittany Lions were eying a January bowl game, and holding a comfortable 24-7 third-quarter lead, everything was hunky-dory. That is, until everyone realized that John L. Smith was no longer Michigan State's head coach. Mark D'Antonio would have none of what Penn State was serving, and called for one aggressive play after another. Penn State lost 35-31, due to exactly what this year's game could hinge on: pass defense and special teams. In that game two years ago, the Spartans faked a punt in their own territory to gain a huge first down (and momentum), and bombed away to take the lead, forcing a stunned Penn State offense to wake up form its nap. This season, Penn State can't fall asleep, or it'll be a rerun of 2007.

In case you haven't noticed, special teams special team will be a pretty big deal in this game. So, I'm going to call for this game to come down to exactly that: each team's ability to play mistake-free special teams. But that comes in two ways. Penn State should take it literally. The Nittany Lions must hold Michigan State's return teams in check, while not turning the ball over or getting stuck in terrible field position. The Spartans, however, have to take advantage of Penn State's special teams woes, by exploiting the Lions' poor return games and propensity to turn the ball over. It's not a complex formula for either team. And both could end up playing well on special teams. But there will be at least one play that will make or break both teams, depending on which one steps up to seize the moment. In this kind of situation, I just don't trust Penn State.

Extra Points: The two teams play for what's probably the worst trophy in college football: The Land Grant Trophy... Penn State started out going 1-8-1 against Michigan State, but since joining the Big Ten, has gone 12-4... all four Big Ten losses to MSU have come in East Lansing... Average score between the two teams in Big Ten meetings: 35-27... Attendance prediction: 75,235

Prediction: No. 14 Penn State, 21 - Michigan State, 24

November 14, 2009

Penn State rides underclassmen to senior day win
By Mike Pettigano


For the third week in a row, Penn State's offense came out flat. So, tied at 10 entering the second half, the Nittany Lions' defense, which had played valiantly despite working against a minus-four turnover margin, took matters into its own hands. Junior linebacker Navorro Bowman intercepted a tipped pass and ran 73 yards to pay dirt, giving Penn state its first lead of the ballgame. The Nittany Lions offense followed up Bowman's pick-six with two consecutive scoring drives of its own, as Penn State (9-2, 5-2) emerged with a 31-20 win on senior day in Happy Valley.

But the valley was hardly happy most of the game, particularly when the Nittany Lions' not-so-special teams trotted onto the field. Penn State lost two fumbles on first half punt returns, and nearly lost another on the second half kickoff return. It became such a debacle by the third quarter, fans cheered when Graham Zug successfully fair-caught a punt. He and co-punt return specialist Drew Astorino each lost a fumble fielding punts. Penn State entered the game with one of the nation's worst punt return unit, and surely didn't help itself after today's performance. The Nittany Lions have spent all season unsuccessfully finding a replacement for 2008 All-American return specialist Derrick Williams.

As if the special teams weren't giving Penn Staters a big enough headache, the offense played its worst single quarter of the season. Senior quarterback Daryll Clark, who entered the game having thrown only eight interceptions for the season, tossed two picks in just four first quarter attempts. Clark would rebound, however, finishing his Beaver Stadium career with a 17-for-28, 194-yard performance, including a rush touchdown and a 13-yard touchdown pass to Evan Royster.

For Indiana, it's been a season-long trend of lost opportunities. The Hoosiers forced four turnovers in the first half, but only entered the locker room with 10 points to show for it. Indiana's offense held the ball for nearly 10 minutes in the first quarter, courtesy of the continuous giveaways by Penn State.

The Hoosiers had a tough time running on Penn State, finishing the game with only 48 net yards. This came despite giving up only two sacks for minus-11 yards. Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell had good protection against the Nittany Lions' pass rush, but after an early touchdown strike to Demarlo Belcher, couldn't lead the offense to another point until Penn State was working with a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead. Following two scores to open the game, Indiana failed to score on seven straight drives, including four punts, a missed field goal, and an interception. The Hoosiers entered the red zone only twice.

Chappell completed 32 of 51 passes for 298 yards -- all opponent single-game highs against the Penn State defense this season -- and two touchdowns.

The Penn State defense was a big part of forcing Indiana out of its early rhythm, as the Nittany Lions said good bye to five senior defensive starters, including two All-American candidates, linebacker and captain Sean Lee and defensive tackle Jared Odrick. Lee would end the game with 10 tackles and four pass breakups, while Odrick continued to be the rock of the defensive front.

However, some of the biggest plays for Penn State came from the underclassmen.

On defense, Bowman added a team-high 12 tackles, two tackles for loss, a pass breakup and a sack, to go along with his pick-six. Defensive linemen Devon Still and Sean Stanley each made stops behind the line, including a sack by the freshman Stanley. End Jack Crawford batted down two Indiana passes, and safety Nick Sukay came up big, breaking up what looked like a sure touchdown pass for Indiana.

When the Lions had the ball, it was another underclassman who provided some much-needed spark. True freshman receiver Curtis Drake finished with a career-high 60 total yards, including a 26-yard end around to propel on its first touchdown drive of the game.

Penn State improved its senior day record to 19-1 since 1990, and pushed its win streak to nine straight in home finales.  

The Nittany Lions will face Michigan State (6-5, 4-3) next week in East Lansing, as the Spartans became bowl eligible with a 40-37 win at Purdue. Indiana (4-7, 1-6) will return home with hopes of spoiling the Boilermakers' bowl hopes.

November 7, 2009

Buckeyes whack Penn State, 24-7
By Mike Pettigano

Ohio State marched into Happy Valley with nearly every pundit calling the game an easy win, for the Nittany Lions. But the Buckeyes, led by sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor, would have none of it, taking care of business on their way to a 24-7 win that looked much easier than even the final 17-point margin would suggest. Penn State has now lost two home games in the same season for the first time since 2004.

Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel brought a system of using special teams and defense to win big games, "Tressel-ball." It worked to perfection against Penn State.

Ray Small would return two punts for big yardage, setting up Ohio State's first score, and another in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes manhandled the Nittany Lions' offensive line all night. Penn State was held to 201 yards of total offense and 9 first downs. Senior quarterback Daryll Clark, who had been criticized for his lack of a signature win as a starter, was hit after almost every pass play, and sometimes before. Ohio State was able to sack Clark on multiple occasions, compared to zero for the Nittany Lions.

Penn State would force a three-and-out on Ohio State's first possession, but failed to get any points on the board until after the Buckeyes struck first. Ohio State went into the locker room up 10-7, but it felt like much more for the Nittany Lions. The game was never out of hand for the Buckeyes on either side of the ball, while Penn State looked confused and unprepared.

Earlier in the week, there was much hype around Pryor's return to his home state of Pennsylvania. That hype was magnified as a student group was preparing to print a game shirt mocking Pryor's reaction to last season's defeat to Penn State in Columbus. Pryor was photographed with head in hands on the bench as the game ended.

Rather than answering with tough talk or bulletin board material, Pryor answered with a solid night, and a win, against the No. 11 Nittany Lions (8-2, 4-2) in Beaver Stadium. This week Ohio State (8-2, 5-1) will face an Iowa squad that suffered its first loss of the season, falling 17-10 against Northwestern.

Penn State closes out its home schedule against the Indiana Hoosiers. The Nittany Lions are still in prime position for a New Year's Day bowl game, but as long as the Buckeyes win out, they will earn the conference's automatic berth in the Rose Bowl.

 

November 5, 2009

Preview: No. 16 Ohio State @ No. 11 Penn State
By Mike Pettigano

Kickoff/TV: Sat., Nov. 7, 3:30 p.m. ET/ABC and ESPN2 (Sean McDonough, Matt Millen and Holly Rowe)
Weather Forecast: Cool, clear.
Series Record: Tied, 12-12.

Host: Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 8-1 (4-1 Big Ten)
Last Game: Beat Northwestern, 34-13
Injuries: RB Stephfon Green (ankle) - probable; TB Brent Carter (knee) - probable; T Nerraw McCormack (ankle) - probable; DB Jacob Fagnano (ankle) - out; FB Josh Matzkin (foot) - out; DE Pete Massaro (knee) - out for season; LB Michael Mauti (knee) - out for season; DT Brandon Ware (foot) - out
Key Players: (offense) QB Daryll Clark, RB Evan Royster, WR Derek Moye; (defense) DT Jared Odrick, LB Navorro Bowman, LB Sean Lee
Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 391-128-3; 23-11 bowl record
Season Statistics:
Offense - 182.0 rush/247.1 pass/30.7 points per game
Defense - 84.1 rush/170.7 pass/9.3 points per game
TO Margin - (+5)/(+0.55) per game

Penn State, on paper -- With nine games in the books, this year could be described as a tale of two seasons for Penn State: pre-Iowa and post-Iowa. Not a single member of the Penn State community was comfortable with the Nittany Lions' September campaign, after not-so-impressive wins over mediocre teams, and an embarrassment on national TV at the hands of the Hawkeyes. Then something happened. Chalk it up to some average competition, or that Iowa might just be a better team than anyone had predicted. But Penn State started winning, impressively. The Nittany Lions blew away Illinois, Eastern Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan. The turnovers that had plagued Penn State earlier in the season had now vanished. The offensive line was actually opening running lanes. Daryll Clark was razor-sharp passing the ball. And the defense still hadn't let up, even in the face of better offenses. Penn State would end up on the ropes for nearly two quarters at Northwestern, going into the locker rooms trailing at halftime for the first time this season. But the Nittany Lions, helped partly by an injured Wildcats quarterback, came through with a big win on the road. Most importantly, it was a comeback win.

Much of the Nittany Lions' success can be attributed to two things, one being QB Daryll Clark, the other the defense. Clark is by far the most efficient quarterback in the conference at this stage of the season, tossing nine touchdowns to only one pick the last five games. His decision making is second to none, and only gets better each week. Many had called for him to regress this season, due to a rebuilt offensive line and brand new receivers all around. But Clark has managed to do something only great quarterbacks can, make the players around him better. The wide receivers are on track to help Clark smash the Penn State single-season passing record, while the offensive line has given up three sacks the last five games, with only 10 sacks the entire year. Topping it all off, such a potent pass attack has forced defenses to refrain from stacking the box against Evan Royster and the rushing attack.

There's not much to say about the Penn State defense, except that it's now leading the nation in scoring defense, while leading the Big Ten in every single major defensive category. But the scary thing for Penn State's final four opponents? Linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee are both 100 percent, with Lee leading the team in tackles last week in his first start back from injury.

Visitor: Ohio State Buckeyes
Record: 7-2 (4-1, Big Ten)
Last Game: Beat New Mexico St, 45-0
Injuries: K Aaron Pettrey (knee) - out; LB Andrew Sweat (knee) - out; QB Terrelle Pryor (hamstring) - probable; RB Jaamal Berry (hamstring) - possible; OL Mike Adams (knee) - out; DB Aaron Gant (N/A) - out; RB Marcus Williams (knee) - out
Key Players: (offense) QB Terrelle Pryor, WR DeVier Posey, WR Dane Sanzenbacher; (defense) LB Ross Homan, DL Thaddeus Gibson, DB Curt Coleman
Head Coach: Jim Tressel, 9th season, 90-21; 4-5 bowl record.
Season Statistics:
Offense - 186.6 rush/189.6 pass/31.0 points per game
Defense - 86.4 rush/173.6 pass/11.7 points per game
TO Margin - (+1)/(+0.12) per game

Ohio State, on paper -- The Buckeyes have been anything but consistent for any stretch this season, avoiding an upset at the hands of Navy--a team that just lost to Temple--losing a close contest in Ohio Stadium to USC--a team that lost to Washington and was just blown away by Oregon--followed by two shutout wins and two more blowout wins. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor, after what was supposed to be a breakthrough spring practice, didn't look nearly as sharp has many in Buckeyeland had hoped to see. In the three-week span covering wins over Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, Pryor completed just 30 of 54 passes for 335 total yards. Then there was the Purdue debacle. Ohio State went into West Lafayette feeling good, but left feeling sick, as the Boilermakers emerged with a 26-18 victory. Since then, it's been more of the same mind-boggling inconsistency, as the Buckeyes have outscored its last two opponents 83-7, but have had to do it with turnovers and trick plays.

Pryor is by far not the only culprit in Ohio State's lack of consistency through the first nine games. Long the stalwart force for the Buckeyes, the defense could not stop USC on its game-winning drive, or the Purdue offense. This unit was faced with replacing linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, and corner Malcolm Jenkins. No easy task by any means, but it's not a young or inexperienced group in any sense. The defensive line trio of Cameron Heyward, Doug Worthington and Thaddeus Gibson have more than 70 starts under their belts, while veterans like Chimdi Chekwa, Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell were all starters in 2008. Surprisingly enough, the one unit that has underperformed has been the linebackers. With the loss of last year's stars, the Buckeye 'backers haven't been able to reload with the same speed as we saw in 2006.

How can anyone analyze Ohio State without looking into its special teams situation? Well, it's not looking nearly as good as needed for "Tressel-ball" to be successful. The Buckeyes' two punters are combining for only 38 yards per punt, while on the flip side, the punt return average is a terrible 6.1 yards. The kickoff return unit hasn't been bad, but its 24.8 yards per return average is padded by Ray Small's 96-yard touchdown against Wisconsin. But the biggest hit to this unit came just last week, when kicker Aaron Pettrey was knocked out for the rest of the season with a leg injury.

On the field -- Ohio State rakes in five-star recruits better than any team that doesn't play in Gainesville or Los Angeles. But talent doesn't always guarantee a win each week. Heading into Beaver Stadium, against an extra hostile crowd due to Pryor's triumphant return to his home state, facing a Penn State squad that's playing better, cleaner football than any team in the Big Ten, I just can't see this going the Buckeyes' way. Penn State has been able to fix its problems much faster than Ohio State, particularly along the offensive line and filling the defensive holes left from last season's departures.

Despite falling behind the Buckeyes and Michigan in scoring offense, Penn State still leads the conference in total offense, is third in passing, and fourth in rushing. Ohio State, meanwhile, is the second-worst pass offense in the conference, while only sixth in rushing. This would support the assertion that Ohio State gains most of its offensive points this season through short fields, non-offensive touchdowns, and running up the score on weak opponents. There might not be any cheap or easy points in this game, but one or two turnovers could end up making the difference in which team comes out alive. I'll take the team with the senior quarterback and the top scoring defense in college football.

Extra points -- Did I mention that I correctly predicted the EXACT score of last week's win over Northwestern? Well, I did... Ohio State will be held to its lowest scoring output of the season... Terrelle Pryor will throw two interceptions, but not fumble the ball... Ohio State won't reach 300 total yards... Penn State will not turn the ball over for the fourth-straight week, but will fall on its own fumble once or twice... Penn State hasn't won consecutive games against Ohio State since beating the Buckeyes in 1978 and 1980... Attendance: 110,256

Prediction: No. 11 Penn State, 26 - No. 16 Ohio State, 9

November 2, 2009

Review: Penn State 34, Northwestern 13
By Mike Pettigano

Penn State woke up after halftime at Northwestern, just in time to pull off the closest blowout wins you’ll ever see. The game really swung in the Nittany Lions’ after Wildcat QB Mike Kafka went down. But Penn State didn’t play a poor game. Northwestern just played better, for a half.

In today’s game review, we’ll break down Penn State’s unit by unit performance.

Offense

• Offensive Line: In the game preview, I said Northwestern DE Corey Wootton would play his best game of the season. The star lineman was extremely active against Penn State, and if he wasn’t directly responsible for a big play, he usually had something to do with it. This isn’t a review of Northwestern’s defense, so I’ll explain why Wootton was so important to how the Penn State offensive line played this week. It almost looked like the Nittany Lions weren’t prepared to face a full-strength Wootton, as he had been struggling to regain his 2008 for after an injury in the bowl game. On a third-and-short play in the first half, Penn State ran the ball right at Wootton, only to be stopped short. Wootton didn’t make the tackle, but he was so quick to beat the block, the play was doomed from the snap. It wasn’t until after halftime that Penn State was able to account for Wootton on running plays.

In pass protection, not much went wrong for Penn State. Daryll Clark was given plenty of time to get rid of the ball. That’s why the run blocking problems were so important to the early stages of the game. Penn State’s coaches were reverting to their pre-2005 stubbornness, trying to run the ball down the opponent’s throat, even though the offensive line couldn’t get the blocking job done. The right side of the line remains a weakness, so I fully expect Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan State -- all teams with good front lines -- to attack that side in the coming weeks.

Stats: 6.0 yards per rush; Sack allowed

• Receivers: It’s hard to criticize the receivers when this unit was able to cut through the Northwestern defense like a knife. However, the Graham Zug (3/28) issue needs to be addressed before I go on to the positives. Zug had two opportunities to make huge, if not gigantic plays before halftime: a dropped touchdown, and the dropped crossing route. Zug is normally a great set of hands out there, which leads me to believe this is nothing more than an off day on his part. But it was still very disappointing to see Penn State’s top possession receiver fail so badly at what he does best.

Now for the good. The rest of this unit, including Zug outside of his two big drops, played a fantastic game for Penn State. Derek Moye (6/123, TD) came up with another gem, and might have pushed himself into the conversation for best Big Ten wide receiver this season (now that Minnesota’s Eric Decker is out). Chaz Powell (4/36) ran for some tough yards after catch on the bubble screens, while even two freshmen -- Justin Brown and Curtis Drake -- made big plays to spark the offense. This unit ran all the right routes and was able to get open for Clark.

Stats: 18 receptions, 255 yards, TD

• Running Backs: I feel bad for Evan Royster (15/118, TD), having to run behind an offensive line that only shows up most of the time. That being said, Royster seemed to always be that one step away from breaking a big run, until he finally did in the fourth quarter. I say one step because the way Penn State was blocking, Royster was frequently hit either at the line or behind the line, only to emerge with a three or four-yard gain. Northwestern was able to disrupt the running game enough to hold Royster under 30 yards in the first half, directly leading to the Wildcats’ halftime lead.

The backfield is in good shape, even without Stephfon Green. Royster has come on in recent weeks, currently second in the Big Ten in rush yards per game. His backup, Brandon Beachum (4/25, TD) has taken full advantage of his carries in Green’s stead. Beachum is a tough, between the tackles runner that I think has shown great vision in short-yardage situations. We could end up seeing Beachum subbing in for Royster once Penn State gets inside the five, or on short conversion plays.

Stats: (RB/QB only) 26 attempts, 166 yards

• Quarterbacks: Daryll Clark’s “best game of the season” now seems to happen on a weekly basis. Some will point to an injury-riddled Northwestern secondary as the main contributor to Clark’s success this week, but I think it ran deeper this week. Clark not only showed he could hit all the throws (even if they were dropped), but that he could go a full game without making a single poor decision, either throwing or running. It was Clark’s leadership on the field that made this game his best of the season. Penn State was down, but Clark never pressed, never threw a risky pass, or got happy feet when the pass rush was closing in. In every game prior to this one, Clark had thrown at least one pass that should’ve been an interception, or worse. But this week, I couldn’t count one.

Kevin Newsome (no pass stats) came in late, and only ran for seven yards.

Stats: 22-31, 274 yards, TD

Defense

• Defensive Line: Penn State wasn’t utilizing its superior talent on the defensive line through the first half of the game. By playing the defensive backs and linebackers off the receivers, it allowed Mike Kafka to get rid of the ball way before the pass rush could do anything. It wasn’t until Penn State mixed up its coverages and disguised some of its blitz packages that the defensive front could get to the passer. I don’t blame the line for losing contain on Kafka for some big scrambles. Penn State should have spied Kafka with a linebacker, like they did with Tate Forcier at Michigan.

Run defense was another story. The line was playing at a high level all day, not allowing Northwestern to gain any considerable traction on the ground. Most of the Wildcats’ rush yards came via quarterback scrambling. Jared Odrick (5 tkl, TFL, Sack, Blkd) and Jack Crawford (2 tkl, TFL, Sack, PBU, FR) set an early tone, but guys like the always-unsung Ollie Ogbu (4 tkl, TFL, Sack, QBH) and Jerome Hayes (3 tkl, 1.5 TFL, Sack) made this a good day for the entire front wall.

Stats: 3.2 yards per rush allowed; 20 tackles, 7.5 TFL (-37), 6.0 sacks (-31), Forced Fumble, Fumble Recovered, 2 Pass Breakups, Block Kick, 4 QB Hurries

• Linebackers: The defensive game plan was too vanilla the first 30 minutes to allow the linebackers to do much. As I said in the DL section, it was obvious that Penn State made a big mistake not playing a similar scheme to the one used against Michigan. In fact, that scheme should have been expanded upon for a veteran spread-QB like Kafka. Penn State failed to attack the back end of the zone-read plays, like the one Kafka ran in for the touchdown, and allowed Kafka to break contain with no linebacker spying him.

Of course, it was great to see Sean Lee (12 tkl, 0.5 TFL, PBU) not only return to the starting lineup, but lead the team in tackles. Lee and Navorro Bowman (9 tkl, QBH) did the best they could with the defense they were given to work with. For the first time this season, Josh Hull (3 tkl) didn’t do much of anything. I think the linebackers in particular benefited from Penn State’s tightening of its defensive game towards the end of the first half.

Stats: 29 tackles, 0.5 TFL (0), 2 Sack (-10), Pass Breakup, QB Hurry

• Defensive Backfield: See a common theme developing here? Penn State played such a soft zone for the entire first half, Northwestern became the first team to enter the locker room with a halftime lead on the Nittany Lions. The Wildcats weren’t doing anything special. They didn’t have better players. Penn State just let Kafka and his receivers run wild underneath for 8-10 yards per completion, sometimes more earlier in the game.

But tackling isn’t something one can blame on the coaches, and tackling was a big problem for this unit in the first half. Drew Astorino (6 tkl, FR) has been great when defending the short passes into the flats, but missed on what should have been a one or two-yard gain by Northwestern. The play went for a first down. But I shouldn’t pick on Astorino alone, as the rest of the secondary whiffed on a good number of tackles.

It wasn’t all bad, though. Astorino made up for a poor first half by staying quiet and not making any mistakes the rest of the game. D’Anton Lynn (8 tkl, TFL) is easily the best all-around corner on this team, and was probably the only one who didn’t miss a big tackle. I just wonder how this unit would have handled Kafka for a full 60 minutes.

Stats: 28 Tkl, TFL (-2), Fumble Recovered, 2 Pass Breakup

Special Teams

• Kicking/Punting: Here’s an area of special teams play that seems to have settled down. Collin Wagner (2-2, lng 32; 64.3 KO) has now hit eight of his last nine attempts, and is getting better at kickoffs each week. Jeremy Boone (42 YPP) is still taking an extra step sometimes on punts, but had a good day.

• Returns/Coverage: There’s good and bad here. The good being Chaz Powell’s 36-yard kickoff return to spark the second half offensive rally. That’s two weeks in a row that Powell has taken a kickoff past midfield, both times a key points in the game. Northwestern decided to kick away from Penn State’s return specialists, so even the two returns Powell was given were surprising. The punt return unit is still terrible. And when the flag for 12 men on the field is factored in, this part of the special teams just got worse, as if it seemed possible.

The coverage teams were decent, not allowing anything big to come back when it mattered. Northwestern had one decent return on a punt, but that was about it.

Overall

For all the mistakes by the players, the coaches shoulder equal blame for the tough time Penn State had at Northwestern. The offense was bland and inconsistent, while the defense was even more bland and more inconsistent. The coaches and players after the game admitted that they were unprepared for Northwestern to come out and play so well. That isn’t a good sign for the next three weeks. Penn State plays three very dangerous opponents, each of whom should not be underestimated the way the Wildcats were this past weekend.

That being said, I was very pleased with Penn State this week, as the Nittany Lions were faced with adversity, but were able to fight through it, adapt, and win the game. Penn State remains the No. 1 scoring defense in college football, while the offense hasn’t turned it over in three weeks. If the Nittany Lions can be a little more consistent on offense, and somehow maintain their ridiculously high level of play on defense, it should be off to a third BCS bowl game in five seasons.

 

November 1, 2009

Penn State defeats Kafka-less Cats
By Mike Pettigano

Northwestern pulled a few tricks on Penn State early, but the Nittany Lions enjoyed all the treats at the end of a 34-13 Halloween victory in Evanston.

Wildcat quarterback Mike Kafka was on fire, hitting 14 of 18 for 128 yards, while rushing for 42 yards and a go-ahead touchdown, in less than two quarters of work against a Penn State defense that hadn’t given up much of anything the last four weeks. Then Kafka went down with a leg injury, taking Northwestern’s offensive firepower, and any chance for an upset, with him to the sideline. Penn State would storm back over the final two and a half quarters.

Northwestern went to work on offense with surgical precision. Kafka led the Wildcats on a 17-play, 65-yard drive to start the game with a field goal. But then one-upped himself by marching his team 80 yards down the field in eight plays, capped off by a Kafka touchdown run up the middle. It was 10-3, and Penn State couldn’t answer anything Northwestern was doing.

Daryll Clark had something to say about that. Penn State’s senior quarterback made big plays on almost every drive, including a 93-yard march in the second quarter to tie the game at ten on Clark’s scramble into the end zone. Penn State wouldn’t take its first lead until the fourth quarter, but the entire dynamic of the game changed once Kafka left and Clark surged.

All-America candidate defensive tackle Jared Odrick blocked a Northwestern field goal attempt on the next possession. The Wildcats would force a three-and-out, and get the ball back in Penn State territory. But Northwestern wasn’t able to punch it into the end zone, allowing the Nittany Lions to hang around, only down by three. It would also be Northwestern’s last points for the night.

Penn State had a tough time running against an active Northwestern defensive front, but Clark’s passing was sharp enough to make up for any shortcoming on the ground.

Clark finished the day completing 22 of 31 for 274 yards and a touchdown, throwing in 16 yards and a score rushing. He hooked up with 11 different receivers, but has developed an explosive relationship with Derek Moye, who hauled in six passes for 123 yards and a 53-yard touchdown. It was Moye’s third 100-yard day this season.

As Northwestern’s offense sputtered, Penn State took over, tying the game at 13 on Collin Wagner’s 23-yard field goal, followed up by a 58-yard touchdown drive capped by backup tailback Brandon Beachum’s short power run up the middle. Penn State was stepping on the gas, and wouldn’t let up the rest of the game.

Royster would find the end zone after Clark’s bomb to Moye, as the scoring closed with Penn State up by the final 21-point margin of victory.

Penn State finished with 163 rushing yards, part of 437 total offensive yards. But most importantly, the Nittany Lions did not commit a turnover for the third-straight game. The last five games, Penn State has lost just two turnovers, while forcing 11.

The Penn State defense pulled it together between the first and second halves, holding the Wildcats to less than 40 total yards in the third quarter. Six different Nittany Lions logged a sack, the most sacks by Penn State in a game this season.

Penn State (8-1, 5-1) hosts Ohio State next week, while Northwestern (5-4, 2-3) travels to unbeaten Iowa.

 

October 30, 2009

Preview: No. 12 Penn State at Northwestern

By Mike Pettigano

 

 

 

Kickoff/TV: Sat., Oct. 31, 4:30 p.m. ET/ESPN (Carter Blackburn and Chris Spielman)

Weather Forecast: Cool, breezy.

Series Record: Penn State leads, 9-3.

 

Host: Northwestern Wildcats

Record: 5-3 (2-2, Big Ten)

Last Game: Beat Indiana, 29-28

Injuries: CB Sherrick McManis (leg) - possible; RB Stephen Simmons (ankle) - doubtful; S Brendan Smith (thumb) - possible; OL Mike Boyle (back) - out; LB Bryce McNaul (knee) - out; DT Jack DiNardo (shoulder) - out

Key Players: (offense) QB Mike Kafka, WR Zeke Markshausen, WR Andrew Brewer; (defense) LB Quentin Davie, LB Nate Williams, CB Sherrick McManis

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 4th season, 24-21; 0-1 bowl record.

Season Statistics:

Offense - 122.2 rush/270.4 pass/27.2 points per game

Defense - 117.9 rush/220.2 pass/23.6 points per game

TO Margin - (+1)/(+0.12) per game

 

Northwestern, on paper -- This was supposed to be the season for Northwestern. The Wildcats were coming off a nine-win season, topped off by the hard-fought overtime loss to Missouri in the Alamo Bowl. But 2009 hasn't had the good fortune many hoped to see. The Cats have had to earn every one of their five wins coming into this week. Most of Northwestern's issues have come from injuries at key positions. Fourth-string running back Scott Concannon is expected to get the start this week, while 2008 All-American end Corey Wootton hasn't been the same since breaking his ankle in the bowl game. Consider this year's Northwestern squad the definition of snake-bitten.

 

It hasn't been all doom and gloom in Evanston, at least in the passing game. Senior QB Mike Kafka is one of the most dynamic signal callers in the Big Ten, yet one of the most underrated. Kafka leads the league in total offense per game (284.1) and pass yards per game (258.4). The Wildcats have also been great in the clutch the last four weeks, pulling out fantastic comebacks against Purdue and Indiana, the latter being the most astounding from a 28-3 deficit. Northwestern is a perfect example of one-dimensional offensive football, ranking No. 2 in pass yards per game, yet No. 10 in rush yards per game. But if one thing worries the purple-clad folks, it's turnovers. Northwestern has given away 17 total, good for fourth-worst in the Big Ten. At this stage in the season, Northwestern could be, offensively, the most unpredictable, yet dangerous team in the conference.

 

The defense has been a different story, though, as injuries stringing all the way back to 2008 have gutted this unit to a nearly unrecognizable state. It all started with Wootton's ankle injury and subsequent surgery. Earlier this week, Lake The Posts said, "Wootton is a shadow of his former self." The loss of such a dynamic talent along the front line has also taken a toll on what was expected to be a really good secondary this season. The Cats lost safety Brendan Smith last week, forcing little-used Ricky Weina in for the entire second half. Northwestern's pass defense is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.3 percent of their passes, tenth-worst in the conference this season. But for all the defensive shortcomings so far, the Cats are tied with Penn State for third in the conference in interceptions (10), and are also tied with Indiana for third in total turnovers gained (18).

 

Visitor: Penn State Nittany Lions

Record: 7-1 (3-1 Big Ten)

Last Game: Beat Michigan, 35-10

Injuries: LB Sean Lee (knee) - probable; RB Stephfon Green (ankle) - doubtful; TB Brent Carter (knee) - probable; T Nerraw McCormack (ankle) - probable; DB Jacob Fagnano (ankle) - out; FB Josh Matzkin (foot) - out; DE Pete Massaro (knee) - out for season; LB Michael Mauti (knee) - out for season; DT Brandon Ware (foot) - out

Key Players: (offense) QB Daryll Clark, RB Evan Royster, WR Derek Moye; (defense) DT Jared Odrick, LB Navorro Bowman, LB Sean Lee

Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 390-128-3; 23-11 bowl record

Season Statistics:

Offense - 184.4 rush/243.8 pass/30.2 points per game

Defense - 79.8 rush/160.5 pass/8.9 points per game

TO Margin - (+3)/(+0.37) per game

 

Penn State, on paper -- In last week's preview, I predicted that Michigan would not only allow the most points in a game thus far, but that the Wolverines would be held to their lowest point output of the year. I was dead right on both, as Penn State pummeled Michigan in the Big House. This Nittany Lions team has grown stronger each week since the Iowa loss back in September. One could even argue that Penn State is, right now, the most impressive team in the Big Ten. The scoring offense is second in the league behind Michigan (33 ppg), but the total offense (No. 1 Big Ten) is cranking out nearly 30 more yards per game than the Wolverines. And this hasn't been some fluky, short-field via turnovers scoring offense. Penn State has frequently marched the ball from its own territory into the end zone. But the turnover factor has been a big part of Penn State's success of late, as in the Lions have turned the ball over only twice in four games, with no giveaways at Michigan. Daryll Clark as been ruthlessly efficient during his team's winning streak, tossing eight touchdowns to only one pick. He can thank a vastly improved offensive line, and an increasingly powerful running game.

 

As much has been made about Penn State's offensive production, it's the defense that has stolen the show. The Nittany Lions jumped Florida as the No. 1 scoring defense in college football, and are allowing 44 yards and six touchdowns fewer than the Big Ten's No. 2 defense, Ohio State (284.8 ypg, 10 TD). Hell, even in the loss to Iowa, only 12 of the Hawkeyes 21 points came against the Lions' defense. This season has been a defensive masterpiece by coach Tom Bradley, who should be on everyone's short list for the Broyles Award for top assistant in college football. Penn State came into this season having lost seven defensive starters from a 2008 unit that allowed 14.4 points per game. So how are things going this season? Well, Penn State's defense is having its best season this decade, and if it's kept up until the end, one of its best seasons in the Joe Paterno era.

 

However, this late in the season, most teams have suffered from the injury bug, and Penn State hasn't been immune. The right tackle situation has been erratic at best, with third-stringer Ako Poti getting the start the last two weeks. All-America candidates Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman have only recently been able to get on the field at the same time, as Lee in particular has been hampered by a strained knee. Now, it appears Stephfon Green, the "two" in Penn State's one-two running attack, won't be ready to go for a while due to a bad ankle. I wouldn't go so far to say this team is beat up, but the injuries have, and could, cause some problems during the home stretch of the schedule.

 

On the field -- Northwestern usually gets up for Penn State, actually pouncing on the Lions for a two-game win streak in 2003-04. While I like what Pat Fitzgerald is doing in Evanston, this year's Cats probably don't have enough in the tank to pull off an epic upset this week. Penn State had little problem shutting down the top offense in the Big Ten, and even though Northwestern has a great senior quarterback and playmaking wide receivers, the lack of a running game will doom the Wildcats in this one. The Nittany Lions's defensive front seven can get pressure on a quarterback and stuff the run with just five rushing, but it might not even require that much this week. Penn State should be able to rush four and focus on blitzing for pass rush purposes only, while dropping six and seven back into coverage. Northwestern is one of those dink-and-dunk passing games, which Penn State feeds off of, not allowing any substantial yards after catch.

 

For Penn State's offense, it should end up coming down to holding onto the ball and not settling for field goals. The past few weeks, Penn State hasn't been its usual conservative self on the road, so I'm not expecting that to change now. Michigan had some success slowing down the Nittany Lions running game, but not enough. Northwestern could frustrate Penn State for a while, at least through the first quarter. That's where Clark comes in, against a suspect Northwestern secondary. Sherrick McManis leads the Cats in interceptions (3), but is hampered by a leg injury and might not have the kind of impact he would have without the injury. If Northwestern can't force Penn State into a few miscues at key junctures in this game, I just don't see the upset happening.

 

Extra points Penn State will jump out to a substantial lead, but Northwestern will creep back into the game before halftime... Daryll Clark will throw for at least two scores, but an interception, too... Corey Wootton will play his best game of the season, catching many off guard... Mike Kafka will lead the Wildcats in rushing... Penn State is only 4-2 vs NU this decade... Penn State's last trip to Evanston became an instant classic, comeback win that propelled the Lions to the Big Ten title... Attendance prediction: 21,310

 

Prediction: No. 12 Penn State, 34 - Northwestern, 13

 

October 26, 2009

Review: Penn State 35, Michigan 10
By Mike Pettigano


Penn State, at long last, beat Michigan in the Big House. But the real thrill might not have been where the Nittany Lions won, or who they beat. It was that Penn State came out to win the game on the road, and didn't let off the gas until victory was well in hand. This game was a far cry from past performances on the road, particularly in Michigan Stadium.

In today's game review, we'll break down Penn State's unit by unit performance.  

Offense

Offensive Line:It's easy to come down on this unit, particularly after it committed so many penalties, had trouble containing Brandon Graham, and wasn't exactly explosive in run blocking schemes. However, I really thought that the line played well at Michigan, coming up with enough key blocks to allow the Penn State offense to work its way to 33 points. I discount the safety, since it wasn't via the offense.

Just imagine what this team could do down the road if the line continues to improve. It can't be forgotten that RT Ako Poti is THIRD on the depth chart. He was the glaring weak spot on the line, but what else should be expected? Penn State really likes to run off the right tackle, which was unfortunately not the line's strongest side this week. Yet on pass plays, Daryll Clark had plenty of time to throw, which made all the difference through the first three quarters Saturday. I like this unit to come on even stronger once DeOn'Tae Pannell and Nerraw McCormack return at RT.

Stats: 4.2 yards per rush; 2 sacks allowed

Receivers: I'm still waiting for this unit to have one of "those days," but it hasn't come so far this season. This is one of the most impressive units on the team, considering all three of last year's starters had to be replaced. I know I harp on this each week, but it can't be overlooked. Graham Zug (5/59, 3 TD) and Derek Moye (6/53) had a field day when Michigan went into soft zones and man coverage. Did anyone else notice that Penn State ran the same play twice to Zug in the end zone, both times resulting in touchdowns? It was all set up by Moye's ability to catch and run with the quick bubble routes, which eventually drew the Michigan corners upfield, allowing Zug to run open in the corner of the end zone.

With all that, Penn State's most impressive play call was the seam route to Andrew Quarless (2/91, TD) for a 60-yard touchdown. It came right after the safety, and was easily the most aggressive I've seen Penn State attack Michigan in the Big House. Quarless was also one of the best blockers on the field when it came to running plays. He was instrumental in allowing Evan Royster to rumble for 41 yards on the second offensive play.

Stats: 13 receptions, 203 yards, 4 TD

Running Backs: The running lanes weren't always wide open, but Royster (20/100) and Brandon Beachum (7/23) made the most of what they had, usually running for extra yards on their own strength. Not to come down to much on the run blocking, but it did directly affect how this unit performed. Royster seemed to gain an extra two yards when it looked like he would only get three or four. Beachum and fullback-turned-running back Joe Suhey (3/18) did a great job on run plays designed to hit the line quickly. The call to Suhey early on for 13 yards really caught the defense off guard, and displayed Suhey's deceptive quickness up the gut.

The backups were key to Penn State's ground game. They really stepped up to the plate this week. With Stephfon Green hopefully returning by the Ohio State game, this unit is growing deeper by the week.

Stats: (RB/QB only) 38 attempts, 153 yards

Quarterbacks: While not the best game of his career (that would be Michigan State '08), Clark put up the best numbers this season. The yardage might not look like much on paper, but Clark was razor sharp inside the red zone and on quick hitting pass plays, like the touchdown strike to Quarless. I was very impressed by Clark's ability to see the winnable matchups, and take what the defense was giving him. In Saturday's case, what the Wolverines' defense gave Clark was a lot of open space to exploit.

Earning Big Ten Offensive POW shouldn't warrant much criticism, but some is due here. Clark was off on more throws than I was comfortable with. He forced two very bad throws deep into double and triple coverage. Against a better defense, those would've been picked off. I know Clark can't be perfect on every play, but with two of the better Big Ten defenses waiting down the road, gift-wrapped interceptions aren't an option.

Stats: 16-27, 230 yards, 4 TD

Defense

Defensive Line: Last season, Michigan ran the ball for more than 200 yards on Penn State, including a 100-yard, two-score day by Brandon Minor. Things didn't work out quite so well this time around, at least not right away. Penn State fans were cringing once again as Minor and the Wolverines stormed down the field for a 70-yard touchdown drive, 39 of those yards coming on the ground. But that would be the last of any Michigan offensive firepower, as Penn State's front seven clamped down, limiting the Wolverines to a paltry 71 rush yards the rest of the afternoon.

After that first Michigan drive, the defensive line changed its approach to stopping the Wolverines, by attacking up-field and straight ahead, instead of allowing blockers to stretch the play and allow runners to cut back. Once Penn State was able to penetrate and disrupt Michigan's backfield, allowing the linebackers to attack the open gaps, it was all over. But run defense wasn't the only highlight of the Nittany Lions' performance up front. Pressure all day on Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson forced them out of the pocket, usually into the waiting arms of more Nittany Lions.

Stats: 2.8 yards per rush allowed; 13 tackles, 6.5 TFL (-21), 3.0 sacks (-16), Forced Fumble, Pass Breakup

Linebackers: Statistically, Penn State's linebackers were the best of all the units. Navorro Bowman (11 tkl, TFL, Sack, INT, FR) and Josh Hull (10 tkl, 2.5 TFL, Sack) decided early which defense would control the game... Linebacker U's. Both performed like players possessed, as if the Big Ten title itself was on the line (in a way, it is every week for PSU).

I have to say, Bani Gbadyu (5 tkl, FF, PBU), filling in most of the game when Sean Lee (3 tkl, PBU) was out, played a great game. I'd gladly challenge anyone in the nation to name a better, deeper linebacking corps than the one Penn State is fielding right now.

Stats: 31 tackles, 3.5 TFL (-13), 2 Sack (-10), INT, Fumble Forced, 2 Pass Breakups
 
Defensive Backfield: Penn State couldn't have asked for a better performance from its secondary against one of the better passing attacks in the Big Ten. Did Michigan's receivers help out a bit by dropping some passes? Of course. But dropped passes don't cause coverage sacks or breakups. Penn State did both, and more in the Big House.

When the entire defense is playing so well, it doesn't take much for one unit to play well off another. That's exactly how the Nittany Lions' secondary played so well this week. Michigan has little time to throw the ball, but when there was, Penn State never broke coverage on the receivers. Forcier had no one to throw to when a play broke down. Apart from a few missed tackles, and some soft spots in the zone coverage, Penn State's defensive backfield played a great game.

Stats: 13 Tkl, TFL, INT, Fumble Recovered, Pass Breakup

Special Teams

Kicking/Punting: Colin Wagner (2-2, lng 34; 2 TB) came through with a great game all around, giving Penn State some crucial points while keeping Michigan's return game in check. But Jeremy Boone (35.8 YPP, 1 blk) had another punt blocked, the second this season. Some of that can be attributed to poor protection, but some also falls on Boone, who hasn't adapted to his protection by speeding up his motion. It wasn't all bad, though, as Boone dropped the one punt inside the 15, which eventually led to the safety.

Returns/Coverage: The kickoff returns are steadily getting better. Chaz Powell's 54-yarder to start the second half was a big money play, keeping the spark lit for Penn State's offense. But... the punt return unit is still the worse part of the entire team. I'd rather Penn State just go for the all-out block every time, and just let it roll dead where it does. Not being able to gain back a decent amount of yards per return could really haunt Penn State the next few weeks. Ohio State loves them some good defensive field position, just like Iowa did four weeks ago.

Coverage of both punt and kickoffs was decent to good this week.

Overall

Iowa might be the scrappiest team in the Big Ten right now (not to mention, undefeated), but Penn State could be the most dangerous. This week's dominating performance in Ann Arbor has pushed the Nittany Lions into leading the conference in every major defensive statistic, to go along with the No. 1 scoring defense in college football. Penn State hasn't turned the ball over the last two games, and only twice in the last four, as the offense is hammering out a league-best 428 yards per game. I thought this week would be the summit of Penn State's season, and that it would just be a matter of how long this team could stay atop the mountain. But after seeing the offense and defense just have their way with Michigan, in the Big House, there might be greater heights for Penn State to reach this season.

With two-thirds of the season gone, Penn State enters the back portion of its schedule facing four teams with .500 or better records. Northwestern just came off a gutsy win over Indiana, while Ohio State put a solid beatdown on Minnesota. And who could forget Michigan State's effort against Iowa this past weekend? If Penn State makes it through the end of November unscathed, it will say more about this team than the previous eight games combined.
Mike Pettigano is the publisher of the Penn State football blog Zombie Nation. Visit his website at www.ZombieNationPSU.com <http://www.ZombieNationPSU.com>

 

October 24, 2009

Penn State (finally) wins in Ann Arbor, 35-10
By Mike Pettigano



"That was easy!"

ESPN announcer Sean McDonough couldn't have called it any better, as Penn State's Daryll Clark hit Graham Zug for the duo's second of three touchdown connections of the night against Michigan. The Nittany Lions cruised 35-10 to their first win in Ann Arbor since 1996, and remained in contention for the BCS, with a 7-1 record for the season. 

Clark passed his way to what was easily the best performance of the season for the fifth-year senior quarterback, who completed 16-of-27 for 230 yards and four touchdowns. 

But Clark didn't log this win all by himself. Penn State put together a solid team effort, using sure hands, good blocking, and menacing defense to stuff the Wolverines, a team coming in averaging a Big Ten-best 37 points per game on offense. 

"Linebacker U" lived up to its reputation, as All-Big Ten candidates Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull made life miserable for the Wolverines offense. The duo finished as the top tacklers for the Lions, including a combined 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery, the latter two coming from Bowman. Along the defensive line, three players logged a sack, as sophomore Jack Crawford continued to haunt opposing backfields, finishing the day with three tackles for loss and a sack. 

The game started out slowly enough for the Nittany Lions, as Michigan running back Brandon Minor tore apart Penn State's vaunted defense for a touchdown -- Penn State's first given up before halftime all season -- on an 11-play, 70-yard drive, eerily similar to the 2008 contest, when Michigan charged to a 17-7 lead.

However, this time, the Wolverine's momentum stalled almost immediately following the first score. Penn State launched an extremely impressive first drive of its own, soaring down the field on four plays for 63 yards and a Clark's first touchdown pass to Zug. 

Penn State barely looked back, as Michigan couldn't get out of its own way. Leading 10-7, the Nittany Lions had Michigan pinned deep near its own end zone. Following two penalties that drove Michigan into the shadows of the goal posts, an errant snap flew past true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier. Penn State got two points, the ball, and didn't take long to capitalize on the swing, as Clark lofted a perfectly thrown bomb to tight end Andrew Quarless for 60 yards into the end zone. The rout was on in the Big House. 

Michigan seemed to save face a bit going into the half, tacking on a field goal with a few seconds left in the second quarter. But it wouldn't be enough. 

Penn State, which has been notoriously conservative on the road in the past, opened up the offense all afternoon. The pass was used to set up the run game. Quarless led the team in yards with 91, while Zug would haul in five for 59 yards and the three scores. Derek Moye pulled down six passes of his own for 53 yards. The production through the air allowed tailback Evan Royster to churn out 100 yards on the ground, as the Lions ran for 165 total yards on 40 carries. Penn State is now 10-0 when Royster tops 100 yards. 

As good as it was for Penn State on offense, it was equally bad for the Wolverines. The Nittany Lions' vicious pass rush forced several bad throws, while sacking Forcier five times. Including the 10 points surrendered to Michigan, the Penn State defense is averaging a mere 8.8 points per game allowed. 

While the loss was Michigan's worst of the season, the win was Penn State's best. Since the home loss to Iowa in September, the Nittany Lions have grown stronger each week, and it showed under the Michigan Stadium lights. 

Penn State stays on the road next week, as the Lions travel to Northwestern for another nationally-televised matchup. The Wolverines hit the road to play an imploding Illinois team. 

October 22, 2009

Preview: No. 13 Penn State at Michigan

By Mike Pettigano

Kickoff/TV: Sat., Oct. 24, 3:30 p.m. ET/ABC Regional/ESPN Mirror (Sean McDonough, Matt Millen and Holly Rowe)

Weather Forecast: Cold, rain.

Series Record: Michigan leads, 10-4.

Host: Michigan Wolverines

Record: 5-2 (1-2, Big Ten)

Last Game: Beat Delaware State (FCS), 63-3

Injuries: RB Carlos Brown (concussion) - probable; RB Brandon Minor (ankle) - probable; C David Molk (foot) - possible; CB Boubacar Cissoko (susp.) - out; RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (shoulder) - out

Key Players: (offense) QB Tate Forcier, RB Brandon Minor, RB Carlos Brown; (defense) LB Obi Ezeh, DE Brandon Graham, CB Donovan Warren

Head Coach: Rich Rodriguez, 2nd season at Michigan, 8-11; 68-37 career overall, 2-3 bowl record.

Season Statistics:

Offense - 235.0 rush/191.6 pass/37.3 points per game

Defense - 130.4 rush/232.9 pass/21.9 points per game

TO Margin - (-3)/(-0.43) per game

 

Michigan, on paper -- The Wolverines are one win away from bowl eligibility, which would be a major accomplishment for Rich Rodriguez in year two of his Michigan tenure. Of course, being minus-10 in turnovers last season would suggest the team was better than its 3-9 record, but 2009 has been a success in no understated terms. Much of the success has been the emergence of Rodriguez's patented spread-run attack that was so dangerous at West Virginia. This year, true frosh Tate Forcier has taken the reigns of the offense, and has already etched his name into Michigan football lore for the comeback win over Notre Dame in week two. But that game is far in the past now. Since, the Wolverines have gone 2-2, including two critical conference losses to Iowa and Michigan State. Forcier was benched against Iowa, partially due to a slight concussion, but backup speedster Denard Robinson couldn't get it done in the two-point defeat. Forcier should be back this week, along with his 1,027 pass yards and 9/4 ratio. Yet, for all his success this season, Forcier would have a much tougher time without some good running backs in Carlos Brown (336 yds) and Brandon Minor (274 yds) to lean on. This Michigan offense is No. 2 in the Big Ten in yardage, and leads the conference in points per game.

For all the statistical success the Michigan offense has enjoyed this season, the defense hasn't fared so well. The Wolverines are seventh in the Big Ten in total yardage, and fifth in points allowed. That's not to say Michigan doesn't have its share of star power on this side of the ball. LB Obi Ezeh and DE Brandon Graham have been causing headaches for opposing offenses all season long, while CB Donovan Warren is tied for second in the conference for interceptions with three. Warren also came up huge in the near-upset at Iowa, with a pick-six in the game's first minute. However, a few great players can't always make up for the rest of a unit that has given up big play after big play, in the air and on the ground. Michigan's defense has also been terribly ineffective at getting to the quarterback (10 sacks), despite plenty of talent in the front seven.

Offense and defense aren't the only units that have been key to Michigan's successes and failures this season. Kickoff coverage hasn't exactly been stellar, ranking eighth in the conference. Time of possession has been even worse for the Wolverines, who lead only a Minnesota team that was limited to less than 20 minutes last week against Penn State. Some bright spots, however, are Daryl Stonum's fantastic 27.2 average on kickoff returns (one TD), and Zoltan Mesko's 45.6 yards per punt.

Visitor: Penn State Nittany Lions

Record: 6-1 (2-1 Big Ten)

Last Game: Beat Minnesota, 20-0

Injuries: TB Brent Carter (knee) - possible; T Nerraw McCormack (ankle) - possible; T Stephfon Green (ankle) - possible; DB Jacob Fagnano (ankle) - out; FB Josh Matzkin (foot) - out; DE Pete Massaro (knee) - out for season; LB Michael Mauti (knee) - out for season; DT Brandon Ware (foot) - out

Key Players: (offense) QB Daryll Clark, RB Evan Royster, WR Derek Moye; (defense) DT Jared Odrick, LB Navorro Bowman, LB Sean Lee

Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 389-128-3; 23-11 bowl record

Season Statistics:

Offense - 187.0 rush/245.7 pass/29.6 points per game

Defense - 75.4 rush/163.4 pass/8.7 points per game

TO Margin - (-1)/(-0.14) per game

Penn State, on paper -- Oh how Penn State would love to get back a few of those turnovers in the loss to Iowa. Outside of it's one very poor showing against the Hawkeyes, the Nittany Lions offense has been able to move the ball with relative ease this season, and oddly enough, it's been the passing game that has led the way. Penn State's hefty 245 yards per game through the air has landed the Lions at fourth in the conference in pass offense. But more importantly, it has allowed the Penn State ground game to break out of its funk from earlier this season. For weeks, Penn State couldn't run the ball nearly as effectively as many had hoped coming into 2009, lingering in the bottom half of the conference's statistical rankings. However, with a whopping 338 yards against Illinois, Evan Royster and Stephfon Green haven't looked back. Going into this week, Penn State is now the No. 2 rushing team in the Big Ten. The emergence of a powerful run game has also pushed Penn State to be the No. 1 Big Ten offense, with the best yards-per-play average (6.4) of any conference team. But that's not all, folks. Just some other offensive statistics in which Penn State leads the conference or is the runner up: first downs, third down conversions, penalties, time of possession, sacks allowed, pass efficiency and scoring offense.

What more, the Penn State defense is making the offense look like amateurs. Penn State leads the Big Ten in every major defensive statistic, along with a few others like sacks, fourth down conversions, red zone defense, and opponent first downs. The Nittany Lions' scoring defense is No. 2 nationally, trailing Florida by only 0.04 points per game. Mind you, this has all be accomplished despite the Lions missing its two best defensive players for most of the season so far. Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee, prior to last week, had been on the field together for only three plays. Both missed several weeks with nagging injuries. It says a great deal about this unit, when two super stars are missing, that it can still play at the highest of levels. This Penn State defense was supposed to be a real Achilles' Heel coming into 2009, as both graduation and early NFL entries hit hard at key positions. The entire secondary needed to be replaced, while three great defensive ends were gone. Now, Penn State is only leading the Big Ten defensively in rush, pass and sacks. Not to shabby.

However, as good as the offense and defense have been, Penn State's special teams, particularly the return units, are leaving much to be desired. The Nittany Lions are eighth in the Big Ten in punt return average, and dead last in kickoff returns. Penn State has enjoyed great success in these areas the past few seasons, but is severely lacking in 2009. On the special teams' positive side, Penn State has done well on covering kickoffs and punts, even though much of those statistics are skewed by the Lions' large number of kickoffs and relatively few punts. Not to mention, Penn State boasts the top statistical punter in the conference, Jeremy Boone (Michigan's Mesko is second).

On the field -- When pundits see two conference-leading offenses going up against one another, their usual reaction is "YAY, SHOOTOUT!" Well, not so fast, my fiends. Michigan has been able to squeak by against decent competition, and are a Ricki Stanzi brain fart away from being blown out at Iowa. That's not to say the Wolverines haven't earned their 5-2 record; they've just been very lucky to get there, no thanks to the defense. On the other side, Penn State has lived by leaning on its defense when in a jam, which hasn't been all that often this season. Only one opponent, Iowa, has scored more than seven points when it mattered, and that was mostly due to Penn State's inability to hold onto the football.

Look for the biggest matchup of this game to happen up front, when both teams have the football. Michigan's offensive line, while very talented, hasn't faced a defensive front seven nearly as good as Penn State's, which now returns Sean Lee full-force. The Wolverines don't have a very dangerous passing game like, say, Minnesota does with Eric Decker, and the Lions held the Gophers to 100 yards passing. Penn State held the Gophers in check by blitzing the hell out of Adam Weber, and the same formula should work against Michigan. Tom Bradley's defense will try to force Tate Forcier to win it with his arm. Then for Michigan's defensive front, things will be tough sledding against a greatly improved Penn State offensive line and a more confident Daryll Clark. Unless Greg Robinson's boys can keep Clark on his back after every pass attempt, watch for the steady demolition of the Wolverines' secondary. When two offenses come into a game with nearly equal offensive numbers, the game usually boils down to which defense plays better and how the field position game develops. Michigan will want to neutralize its defensive shortcomings by giving Penn State a very long field. That shouldn't be too difficult, as long as Penn State only gets the ball on kickoffs and punts. Give the Nittany Lions a short field off a turnover, and this game will be over by halftime. Then again, with this year's Michigan team, no game is over by halftime, no matter the score.

But I just don't see Penn State choking in this one the way it did in 2005 or 2007. In those seasons, both teams were very much equal in talent. This season, it just looks like that gap is too wide for the Wolverines to overcome. If Penn State's running game doesn't get going right away, look for Clark and the pass game to loosen up the Michigan defense. Meanwhile, the Penn State defense will force the Wolverines into just enough mistakes to keep this one out of reach after the band plays.

Extra points -- Penn State will hold Michigan to its lowest point total of the season... Michigan will surrender the most points of the season... The score will be close in the second quarter... Michigan will commit three turnovers, to Penn State's two... The rainy, cold weather will contribute to at least three important plays... This will be the largest crowd Penn State will have played in front of all season, until the Ohio State game... Prior to last season's blowout, this game was decided by seven points or fewer four meetings in a row, all Michigan wins... Despite being 4-10 against Michigan, two of Penn State's wins have come in the Big House... Attendance prediction: 109,750

Prediction: No. 13 Penn State, 27 - Michigan, 9

 

October 19, 2009

Review: Penn State 20, Minnesota 0
By Mike Pettigano


Most pundits are describing Penn State's shutout win over Minnesota as "near perfect." Well, they're probably correct in their assessment of the Nittany Lions' performance in snow-covered Happy Valley Saturday. Penn State has shown incredible progress the last three weeks, since the bad loss to Iowa under the lights. This week's game ball would have to go to the defense. But you could say the night-and-day improvement along the offensive line has been the difference for this team.

In today's game review, we'll break down Penn State's unit by unit performance. I apologize for the delay in getting this posted.

Offense

Offensive Line: Penn State held the ball for 41:59, the highest time of possession since 1991. There were several penalties by the line, but this was one of the two best performances by this unit this season (at Illinois). One could argue that the Minnesota win was the best overall day for the line this season, particularly looking at the sustained drives and time of possession.

A grinding, pounding effort wasn't the only one given by the offense. The line was a big part of Penn State's season-high eight plays of at least 20 yards. The pass protection gave Daryll Clark time to make big plays, and the run blocking opened holes all day for Evan Royster and the backs. Like many pundits out there, I have been hesitant to say the offensive line has totally turned the corner, but after their most recent outing, I might be ready to make that leap.

Stats: 4.1 yards per rush; NO sacks allowed

Receivers: If Daryll Clark is named First Team All-Big Ten again this season, he should send his receiving corps a fruit basket. Against Minnesota, Penn State's receivers had their best game of the year, making fantastic catches all day. Derek Moye (6/120, TD) turned in his second 100-yard day of the year (vs Akron). But this time, it was against a conference foe with a winning record. Penn State hasn't had a big-time receiver like Moye since probably Bryant Johnson in 2002. But Moye is only a sophomore, while Johnson didn't emerge until his senior season.

It wasn't only Moye's effort this week that made Clark look like a world-beater. Chaz Powell (2/24) and Graham Zug (5/52) each made some really athletic catches, including some on third down and near the goal line. The tight ends also got into the action, with Andrew Quarless (3/35) and Mickey Shuler (2/27) churning out some big plays of their own.

Stats: 18 receptions, 258 yards, TD

Running Backs: Welcome back, Evan Royster! Joe Paterno said following the game that Royster (23/137) ran a bit harder against Minnesota, with a little extra spring in his step. Paterno attributed Royster's lowered level of play this year to his suffering from the flu for a few weeks. It now looks that he is healthy and ready to pace Penn State's ground attack the rest of the season.

Stephfon Green (4/0) didn't get much going for the day, and is apparently injured, according to Paterno's post-game press conference. We'll see if that becomes a bigger issue this week going into Michigan. But I have been very pleased with Brandon Beachum (4/20) so far this year. He runs in similar fashion to Tony Hunt, more power than finesse. Brent Carter was out this week with an injury, so Beachum got the nod as the No. 3 back.

Stats: (RB/QB only) 41 attempts, 169 yards, TD

Quarterbacks: Daryll Clark started a bit slow, but had a very nice day overall. Again, much of that had to do with the outstanding performance by Penn State's receivers and offensive line. Clark (21-32/287, TD) had the luxury of throwing the ball up a few times with a prayer. But there were plenty of really sharp tosses, even a few that weren't caught. One of the most impressive plays by Clark was on third down and 12 midway through the third quarter, when he rolled to his right to find Chaz Powell on a crossing pattern for the first down. He made something out of very little for a big conversion.

Clark and the offense did not commit a turnover for the first time this season, which is a huge stat going into two consecutive Big Ten road games, then Ohio State at home. Clark is looking better, more confident than earlier this season, allowing him to concentrate on just being the leader of this offense.

Stats: 21-32, 287 yards, TD

Defense

Defensive Line: When the line wasn't making plays on its own, it was doing what it could to allow other defenders the chance. Jared Odrick (4 tkl, 1.5 TFL, Sack) is pushing hard for All-Big Ten again this season, and has had two outstanding games in a row. Plus, had it not been for Adam Weber's nifty footwork, Odrick might have had two more sacks for the day. His partner in crime, Ollie Ogbu (3 tkl, TFL) chipped in another solid outing.

I said the line allowed other units to make big plays. That directly refers to the goal-line stand by the Nittany Lions in the fourth quarter. From the one on fourth down, Minnesota ran a toss to the wide side. While Navorro Bowman and AJ Wallace made the tackle, it was Jerome Hayes (Tkl) that made the difference. He jammed up two of the lead blockers on the play, preventing them from engaging Bowman or Wallace. Hayes didn't make the play, but he allowed his teammates the opportunity. They took it.

Stats: 2.1 yards per rush allowed; 12 tackles, 3.0 TFL (-15), 1.0 sacks (-11)

Linebackers: Sean Lee took the field early on, but I'm not sure the crowd noticed him, because there wasn't an extra cheer to be found. That was remedied a few plays later when Lee (2 tkl) leveled a Gopher on third down. Although he was flagged for some bogus high hit penalty, Lee made it known that he was back. He was being gradually eased back into playing, but we should see more of him this week at Michigan.

Of course, this shouldn't at all take away from the top-notch performances by Josh Hull and Navorro Bowman. It would be Hull's first-quarter interception that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the game, that Penn State's defense came to play. Hull (6 tkl, INT) finished the day as the second-leading tackler. The team leader was Bowman (8 tkl, 2 TFL), who seemed hell bent on crushing the Minnesota offense all by his lonesome. With Bowman at 100 percent, and Lee poised to follow suit, this unit can reclaim its position as the No. 1 linebacking corps in college football.

Stats: 19 tackles, 2.0 TFL (-4), INT

Defensive Backfield: Tom Bradley said it was the defensive plan to pressure Adam Weber so much, he wouldn't have time to get the ball to Eric Decker. It worked to near perfection, but the Penn State secondary mopped up any left overs. This unit is coming along each week, and despite some skeptics still lurking out there, have not had a bad day yet this season. We all figured Minnesota would be a great test, but the Lions' defensive backs surely aced it.

AJ Wallace (2 tkl) was assigned to cover Decker exclusively. Due to Wallace's size at 6'1", he was the only corner Penn State had who had a shot to match Decker on jump balls. He ended the day limiting Decker to a single catch, albeit for 42 yards. But that one catch was the result of Penn State's safeties not making a play. I was very impressed by Wallace this week, and hope he can continue his high level of play. Expect Penn State to run much more nickel coverage against Michigan's multiple-receiver sets.

Stats: 10 Tkl, PBU

Special Teams

Kicking/Punting: Colin Wagner (2-3, lng 47; 2 TB) had a very good day, missing only on a 49-yarder that even the best kickers would have trouble with. But more impressively, he was able to contribute to holding down Minnesota's fantastic return game, by booting two touchbacks on kickoffs.

Jeremy Boone (34 YPP) had an off day, but he's allowed one every so often. Still, none of his punts were shanked, so it wasn't necessarily a "bad" day.

Returns/Coverage: This might have been the difference-maker for the game. We found out on Friday that Paterno called an unusual Friday practice to just work on kicking and coverage. That's how much respect Minnesota's return game garners from opposing coaches.

The Nittany Lions' extra work did the job, as Minnesota was held without a single long return, with the biggest being a 19-yarder. Penn State did not allow the Gophers to return a single punt, either. Basically, Penn State completely neutralized a major weapon in Minnesota's arsenal.

Overall

Penn State announced a crowd of 107,981. Yeah, right. If there were 90,000 in the stand, I'd be impressed. I'm only addressing the crowd thing not because of the lack of butts in the seats, but because of which butts weren't in said seats. The students section never reached 3/4 full, and that's despicable. The south end zone was the other lightly-populated section of the stadium, but you have to consider that most of those folks were coming from hours away with nowhere to park their cars. Where were the students coming from? Minutes away. I get it; the new ticketing system makes it harder to sell your tickets, especially if you're coming from a branch campus. But it was an embarrassing statement to send on national television that the supposedly "best student section in the nation" can't even show up to watch their nationally-ranked defending Big Ten champs take on a conference foe entering with a winning record. Ok, my rant on that is done.

The team overall played great this week, and looks like its growing stronger every week it plays. One also can't ignore that Iowa is now 7-0 and ranked in the top-10 of every major poll. Penn State has the talent and the schedule to finish the season very strong, possibly positioning itself for another BCS run. But first is a trip to Michigan, followed by Northwestern and then home for Ohio State. The coaching staff has worked wonders since the Iowa loss. The team has created its own identity the past three weeks, due in no small part to its senior leaders and maturing depth. The Nittany Lions are on the right track, but can they stay there?

 

October 16, 2009

Preview: Minnesota at No. 13/14 Penn State
By Mike Pettigano

 

 

Kickoff/TV: Sat., Oct. 17, 3:30 p.m. ET/ABC Regional/ESPN Mirror (Sean McDonough, Matt Millen and Holly Rowe)

Weather Forecast: Cold, Constant Rain/Snow mix all weekend.

Series Record: Penn State leads, 6-4.

 

Host: Penn State Nittany Lions

Record: 5-1 (1-1 Big Ten)

Last Game: Beat Eastern Illinois, 52-3

Injuries: TB Brent Carter (knee) - possible; DB Jacob Fagnano (ankle) - out; LB Sean Lee (knee) - possible; FB Josh Matzkin (foot) - out; DE Pete Massaro (knee) - out for season; LB Michael Mauti (knee) - out for season; T Nerraw McCormack (ankle) - possible; RT DeOn'Tae Pannell - possible; WR Devon Smith - possible; DT Brandon Ware (foot) - out

Key Players: (offense) QB Daryll Clark, RB Evan Royster, RB Stephfon Green; (defense) The entire secondary, DT Jared Odrick, LB Navorro Bowman

Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 388-128-3; 23-11 bowl record

Season Statistics:

Offense - 188.7 rush/238.8 pass/31.2 points per game

Defense - 81.8 rush/173.8 pass/10.2 points per game

TO Margin - (-2)/(-0.33) per game

 

Penn State, on paper -- The Nittany Lions are teetering on being a really good football team. The first three weeks of the season, Penn State was horribly average, especially in the second half of games. Most of the scores were blowouts by halftime, but virtually nothing would happen in the final two quarters. The defense was smothering mediocre and bad teams, while the offense left much to be desired. Then came the Iowa game. Penn State's flaws were exposed in painful fashion, as the Nittany Lions' inability to close out games came back to haunt them. The Hawkeyes hung around for three quarters, just waiting for Penn State to screw up. The Lions did, and Iowa walked away with a 16-point fourth quarter and 21-10 win.

 

However, since that loss, Penn State has seemed to turn things around. A trip to Illinois seemed to bare much of the same for Penn State, as the Lions led by only a 7-3 margin at halftime. Then the light went on, as Penn State went on to rush for more than 300 yards, including two 100-yard backs and an 82-yard day on the ground by Daryll Clark. Penn State's defense was also very impressive in the road victory, as the patented (yet sometimes gut-wrenching) bend-but-don't-break gave up a few big plays, but only 10 points before the game was well in hand.

 

Evan Royster (87 att, 5.8 ypc, 4 TD) and Stephfon Green (45 att, 5.5 ypc, 3 TD) are emerging as one of the premier one-two punches in the Big Ten, as the two have combined for 377 yards on the ground the last two games. Clark (228 ypg, 12/7 ratio) hasn't been nearly as explosive as he was at this point last season, but he has been a great steadying force for a young team. Of course, much of the last two weeks' production on offense can be attribute to the greatly improves play from the offensive line. Clark hasn't been sacked since the Iowa loss, while the run game has nearly doubled its production.

 

Visitor: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Record: 4-2 (2-1, Big Ten)

Last Game: Beat Purdue, 35-20

Injuries: LB Nate Triplett (N/A) - probable; OL Trey Davis (N/A) - probable; P Dan Orseske (mono) - probable; S Mike Rallis (leg) - out for season;

Key Players: (offense) QB Adam Weber, WR Eric Decker, RB Duane Bennett; (defense) LB Lee Campbell, LB Nate Triplett, DT Eric Small

Head Coach: Tim Brewster, 3rd season at Minnesota, 12-19 overall.

Season Statistics:

Offense - 114.5 rush/205.2 pass/27.0 points per game

Defense - 162.7 rush/218.5 pass/23.8 points per game

TO Margin - (-1)/(-0.2) per game

 

Minnesota, on paper -- The Gophers have been a tough team to figure out this season. This is a team that's been out-gained by opponents by 61 yards per game, yet has found ways to win four of six games. The opener at Syracuse was about as big a headache as you could imagine, as the Gophers scored nine unanswered points after halftime to beat the Orange in overtime. It took another comeback to beat Air Force at home, a game in which the Falcons ran for 261 yards out of its wishbone offense. The Gophers were able to give Cal a run for its money, but four turnovers, including three picks by Adam Weber, doomed Minnesota's chance for a win. The Gophers have split their last four games, but have been out-gained in all of them. Add in the Air Force win, and Minnesota has been out-gained in five of six games this season.

 

Weber (204 ypg, 6/8 ratio) has been somewhat maligned this season by fans, but it hasn't been completely his fault. The offensive line has been terrible in pass protection, giving up 15 sacks in six games, while the running game hasn't made nearly the impact many were hoping for in the off-season. Turnovers have been Minnesota's biggest problem, though, particularly in both losses, to Cal and Wisconsin. On the flip side of that, the Minnesota defense hasn't been great, but continues to force key mistakes by opponents. In the Syracuse win, the defense set up the offense at the Orange 16 for an easy early touchdown. Against Wisconsin, a fumble return for a score gave the Gophers new life late. Last week against Purdue, three Boilermaker turnovers helped Minnesota secure the win in the second half.

 

With the Gophers offense taking its time to figure out how to be anything close to consistent, it will be up to the defense to step up and play big. The talent is there, but the unit hasn't come up with any sort of dominant, or even very good, performance this season. As the weather gets worse, and the new outdoor digs in Minneapolis, Tim Brewster's boys will lean more and more on the defense to, at the very least, make a big stop here or there in the clutch.

 

On the field -- You would think a team from Minnesota would have little issue playing in cold, wet, snowy conditions. That's not the case here, as the Gophers will face their first significant weather of the season. Of course, that doesn't exclude Penn State, which hasn't exactly overcome difficult conditions in any games so far. The forecast is for a mix of rain and snow, which has already hunkered down over the entire commonwealth. It could become very cold once the skies dim, sometime during the second half.

 

I'm looking closely at both teams' rushing games and rush defenses. Penn State doesn't just have an edge in these matchups; it's not even close. The Nittany Lions rank eighth in the nation in rush defense, while the Gophers are 99th in rush offense. Conversely, Minnesota's rush defense is ranked only 83rd nationally, while Penn State's rush attack is 32nd. Then again, both of those statistics are shaky. Minnesota had a terrible day against Air Force; Penn State has been roaring on the ground the last two weeks. This game will be a great gauge for both teams on the ground.

 

Then there's the special teams. Minnesota blocked a Purdue field goal and returned it for a touchdown last week. Penn State fans have been trying to forget what a blocked kick can do to the momentum of a game. But there's even more bad news for the Lions. Minnesota has been not just good, but phenomenal on special teams this season, which has been a huge factor in why they've been able to win four games despite being out-gained in five. The Gophers have averaged 19 yards per punt return. Penn State? 4.9, and no, that's not a typo. The Lions have been pathetic returning punts, just as they have been returning kickoffs. Penn State has stumbled its way to only 15 yards per kickoff return. Minnesota has been great, ripping off 27 yards per return. If the Gophers are going to win this game, it will more likely than not come down to special teams play.

 

While turnovers and special teams can be great equalizers in games that appear to be mismatches on paper, most of the time, the more talented teams will win the game. Penn State looks like that more talented team this week. I really like the Lions rushing attack against the Gophers defense. And while I won't doubt that Eric Decker will catch a few big passes, the Minnesota offense could sputter at key junctures in the game, similar to what happened to Illinois. Penn State doesn't look often at home the last five seasons, so I don't expect this game to buck that trend.

 

Extra points -- Daryll Clark might not throw for a touchdown, but could run for several... Penn State will score a defensive touchdown for the second straight week... But, so will Minnesota... Eric Decker will catch fewer than five passes... Minnesota will allow more than 200 rush yards, but less than 200 pass yards... Penn State will allow more than 100 rush yards, but less than 200 pass yards... The weather will keep this game from being sold out... Piles of snow might line the sidelines and end zones... The score at halftime will not be indicative of how each team played overall... The final score will be... Attendance prediction: 107,100 (due to weather)

 

Prediction: No. 13/14 Penn State, 31 - Minnesota, 20

Mike Pettigano is the publisher of the Penn State football blog Zombie Nation. Visit his website at www.ZombieNationPSU.com

 

October 9, 2009

Preview: Eastern Illinois at No. 12/14 Penn State
By Mike Pettigano



Kickoff/TV: Sat., Oct. 10, 12:00 p.m. ET/ESPN Classic (Dave Lamont and JC Pearson)
Weather Forecast: Cool, Sunny. Ground could be wet from Friday rain.
Series Record: First ever meeting.
Host: Penn State Nittany Lions Record: 4-1 (1-1 Big Ten)
Last Game: Won at Illinois, 35-17
Injuries: LB Navorro Bowman (groin - probable), LB Nate Stupar (ankle - possible), RT DeOn'Tae Pannell (possible - ankle), LB Sean Lee (knee - doubtful), RT Nerraw McCormack (doubtful - ankle), WR Devon Smith (concussion - doubtful), DT Brandon Ware (ankle - out), DB Jacob Fagnano (ankle - out), FB Josh Matzkin (foot - out), DE Pete Massaro (ACL - out ssn), LB Mike Mauti (ACL - out ssn) Key Players: (offense) QB Daryll Clark, RB Evan Royster, QB Kevin Newsome; (defense) DT Jared Odrick, SS Nick Sukay, LB Josh Hull
Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 387-128-3; 23-11 bowl record
Season Statistics: Offense - 169.4 rush/233.0 pass/27.0 points per game
Defense - 86.4 rush/179.2 pass/11.6 points per game TO Margin - (-3)/(-0.6) per game

Penn State, on paper -- Any chance of an Eastern Illinois upset bid went out the window when Penn State's offensive line woke up from a four-week-long nap. At Illinois, Penn State was able to wear down the Illini defense, highlighted by a completely dominant third quarter, during which Penn State out-gained Illinois 208-8 in 15 minutes. Most of that was due to an offensive line that plowed holes bigger than anything the Nittany Lion running backs have run through all season. Not only did Penn State boast two 100-yard running backs for the day, but Daryll Clark chipped in for 83 yards, including a 51-yard jaunt on third down that seemed to break Illinois' collective back. It was easily the Lions' most complete game on offense all season long, after being unable to do so in any of the four previous games. While the offense had struggled before last weekend, the defense had kept Penn State in or ahead of every game. Even against Iowa, the Penn State defense surrendered only 13 of the 21 points against the Lions. Last week, the defense gave up a few big plays to Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn, but only three points going into the half. The defense was key in the game-changing third quarter, stalling drive after drive, usually in a three-and-out. It was a prime example of Penn State's "bend, but don't break" defense. However, the final numbers from Illinois are a bit misleading, as the Nittany Lions went into prevent-mode towards the end, which meant a ton of garbage yards and points for the Illini. Penn State looks like it's found an offense to go along with an already great defense.

Visitor: Eastern Illinois Panthers Record: 4-1 (2-1, Ohio Valley) Last Game: Lost vs Eastern Kentucky, 36-31 Injuries: N/A Key Players: (offense) RB Mon Williams, QB Jake Christensen; (defense) LB Cory Leman, CB CJ James Head Coach: Bob Spoo, 22nd season at EIU, 136-110-1 overall. Season Statistics: Offense - 152.2 rush/219.4 pass/29.2 points per game Defense - 94.0 rush/171.4 pass/15.2 points per game TO Margin - (-1)/(-0.2) per game Eastern Illinois, on paper -- The Panthers have more talent than a middle of the road FCS team, with transfers from Iowa, Florida and Michigan in the starting lineup. That talent has led to EIU's top 25 ranking, and a 4-1 record with the only loss by five points to no. 18 Eastern Kentucky. In last week's loss, Eastern Illinois couldn't get out of its own way. Despite several leads in the game, turnovers and poor pass protection absolutely killed the Panthers. Former Iowa quarterback Jake Christensen fumbled twice and was sacked six times, but was still able to have a good day through the air. Christensen passed for 21-of-35 for 294 yards and 3 touchdowns in the losing effort. Florida transfer Mon Williams was held under his season average coming in, rushing for only 77 yards and one score against the Colonels. This season, EIU has lost a whopping 10 fumbles, on top of three interceptions by Christensen. But with all those turnovers, the defense has been fantastic at giving the ball back to the offense, recovering eight fumbles and picking off four passes. The Panthers defense also blocked a punt last week, but the offense wasn't able to capitalize on the great field position handed to it. Cory Leman, brother of former Illinois All-American J Leman, has emerged this season as a leader on defense, topping the charts in tackles (47) from his linebacker spot.

On the field -- Eastern Illinois may be a good FCS team, but not nearly good enough to pull the mammoth upset in Happy Valley. With such a stock of FBS talent on offense, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see the Panthers hang around for a quarter or two. It will all depend on the defense Tom Bradley decides to run for Penn State. If the Nittany Lions can attack the Panthers' offense, not allowing Christensen to get into a rhythm, it should be a rough afternoon for EIU. The Nittany Lions will be missing a ton of players this week due to injuries, but with such a deep roster, particularly on defense, Penn State shouldn't miss much of a beat. With such a banged up depth chart, this is essentially the perfect week to host a team like Eastern Illinois. It will allow Penn State to rest its starting lineup, and finally give the backups some meaningful playing time. If the Lions can get out to a big lead before halftime, all eyes will be on second-string freshman quarterback Kevin Newsome. Even Joe Paterno said this week he wishes Newsome had seen more time in the first five weeks. This should be the time to do it. The biggest indicator of the talent gap between two teams is usually found on defense. Eastern Illinois could move the ball a bit against Penn State, but the real difference in this game will be the Panthers' defensive speed against the Lions' offense. Even if it takes Penn State a few drives to get things rolling, scoring points in this game won't be a problem for the Nittany Lions.

Extra points -- This will be the third time in four seasons Penn State has played an FCS opponent... Beaver Stadium has only reached capacity once this season, Sept. 26 vs Iowa... EIU has won four Ohio Valley Conference titles since 2000...
Attendance prediction: 104,800
Prediction: No. 12/14 Penn State, 38 - Eastern Illinois, 3

October 3, 2009

Lions run past Illinois 35-17
By Mike Pettigano

Penn State found its offensive line this week, much to the chagrin of the Illinois Fighting Illini. Coming off a very disappointing home loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes, Penn State started out slowly in Champaign, but was able to roll in the second half to 28-3 and 35-10 leads. The win keeps the Nittany Lions' Big Ten title hopes alive, while Illinois sinks to 1-3 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten.

Penn State rushed for more than 300 yards, including the first pair of 100-yard rushers in a game since 2005, and quarterback Daryll Clark adding 82 yards on the ground. It was easily the Lions' best performance of the season, just in time for a tough second half of the season, with dates against Minnesota, Ohio State and Indiana, and trips to Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State.

After struggling for weeks to get the ground game going, much of the heat coming down on the offensive line, Penn State looked like it would continue to struggle against Illinois, as neither team could get their offenses rolling. But Stephfon Green's 52-yard touchdown run up the middle gave the Lions a huge spark in the second quarter. And although the fire took a little longer to spread to the rest of the offense, the scoring jaunt gave Penn State some much needed confidence going into halftime.

On the day, Penn State put together drives of 80, 69, 79, and 80 yards, all ending in touchdowns. Penn State was perfect in the red zone.

While not dominant on the scoreboard, leading just 7-3, Penn State used suffocating defense and a relentless offense to hold the ball for 12 minutes in the third quarter, and out-gaining Illinois by more than 100 yards in the period.

The Lions would score early in the fourth quarter, extending their lead to 18, and essentially breaking the Illini spirit. Penn State would score 21 points in the final stanza, the strongest finish to a game this season for the Lions.

Clark finished an efficient 17 of 25, for 175 yards. He was held without a passing touchdown, but was not sacked once. Clark was one of four Lions to reach the end zone, leading with two scores. Evan Royster, Brent Carter and Green each scored, with Carter's 11-yard run sealing the win for Penn State midway through the fourth.

Penn State's defense, like the offense, began to dominate Illinois after halftime. The unit finished with seven stops behind the line of scrimmage, including three sacks, an interception, and a fumble recovery that led to the Lions' final touchdown.

But Illinois came into the game ready to fight, and was able to keep the Lions' attack contained early. The Illini offense also put a scare into Penn State's defense, as Juice Williams was able to connect on some key throws, and keep the chains moving with his feet.

Before hafltime, Illinois was pinned in the shadow of its own goal posts, starting a drive at the one. Williams took advantage of a soft Penn State defensive coverage scheme, taking his team down inside Lions territory. A score of some sort seemed certain, but timely pressure by Penn State sacked Williams, then forced an intentional grounding call, ending the Illini threat.

In the losing effort, however, Williams became Illinois' all-time leading quarterback, passing Kurt Kitner for the top spot for total career yards.

Penn State will host FCS opponent Eastern Illinois next week, before finishing out the Big Ten schedule. Illinois will face Michigan State.

Tomorrow: Unit-by-Unit game breakdown and review.

 

October 2, 2009

Preview: No. 13/15 Penn State at Illinois
By Mike Pettigano



Kickoff/TV:
Sat., Oct. 3, 3:30 p.m. ET/ESPN or ABC (Mike Patrick, Craig James and Heather Cox)
Weather Forecast: Cool, showers.
Series Record: Penn State leads Illinois, 13-3

Host: Illinois Fighting Illini
Record: 1-2 (0-1, Big Ten)
Last Game: Lost at Ohio St, 30-0
Injuries: LB Martez Wilson (neck - out ssn), CB Miami Thomas (ACL - out ssn)
Key Players: (offense) QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn; (defense) DE Clay Nurse, DB Tavon Wilson, DE Corey Liuget
Head Coach: Ron Zook, 5th season at UI, 19-32; 0-1 bowl record; 8th season overall, 42-46; 1-3 vs Penn State
Season Statistics: Offense - 192.0 rush/155.7 pass/18.0 points per game Defense - 132.3 rush/253.7 pass/28.0 points per game TO Margin - (-2)/(-0.67) per game

Illinois, on paper -- Last week's game at Ohio State really skewed Illinois' statistics, as the Buckeyes did not attempt a pass before halftime, and only 13 after the break. Even with the 82 allowed passing yards to Terrelle Pryor, the Illini are still giving up an average of 254 pass yards per game. But in Columbus, the defense wasn't at all helped out by the offense, which imploded as the game went on. Illinois finished with 170 total yards, and only four completions to Arrelious Benn for a mere 33 yards. The Illini have played a very difficult schedule so far this season, even with the Illinois State game on there. Missouri has turned out to be much better than anyone anticipated, and Ohio State looks like it could run the table after nearly defeating USC. The most anyone can say about this Illini team is that we don't really know what kind of team they are, even after three games.

Many in Illini country have pointed to a shift in offensive philosophy this season under new coordinator Mike Schultz as the reason for the inconsistency on that side of the ball. While Illinois still third in the conference in rushing per game, most of that was piled on in the Illinois State win. Juice Williams use to be asked to run the zone-read runs and down-field bombs. Now he's asked to run a more West Coast offense, with shorter, accurate passes. That's not what he's built to do. Just look at his last two trips to Columbus, and you'll see the difference.

On defense, Illinois has struggled mightily the last two seasons. Add in the loss this year of star LB Martez Wilson, and this unit is in serious need of some stability. Illinois has only totaled four sacks this season, and is allowing opponents to score on 90 percent of all red zone trips, including seven touchdowns in 10 attempts. Worse, opponents are converting 47 percent of all third downs against the Illini. This is still a dangerous team with a lot of talent, but without any sort of breather to regain its composure, Illinois could struggle for a while longer this season.

Visitor: Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 3-1 (0-1 Big Ten)
Last Game: Lost vs Iowa, 21-10
Injuries: LB Navorro Bowman (groin - probable), LB Sean Lee (knee - possible), LB Nate Stupar (ankle - possible), DT Brandon Ware (ankle - out), DB Jacob Fagnano (ankle - out), FB Josh Matzkin (foot - out), DE Pete Massaro (ACL - out ssn), LB Mike Mauti (ACL - out ssn)
Key Players: (offense) The entire offensive line; (defense) DL Jared Odrick, CB D'Anton Lynn, LB Josh Hull
Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 386-128-3; 23-11 bowl record
Season Statistics: Offense - 127.2 rush/247.5 pass/25.0 points per game Defense - 75.5 rush/158.2 pass/10.2 points per game TO Margin - (-4)/(-1) per game

Penn State, on paper -- The Nittany Lions are dead last in Big Ten turnover margin, a statistic that screams loudly when looking at Penn State's loss to Iowa last week. The five turnovers -- counting the blocked punt for a touchdowns -- made all the difference in the game, particularly considering Penn State's defense played well enough to win without the offense working against itself.

As has been the case most of the season so far, the Penn State offense hasn't been able to move the ball at will against even inferior opponents. Most of the Lions' offensive woes have been a direct consequence of sub-par line play. Penn State's offensive line has struggled in one facet or another in every game this year, whether it be run blocking against Akron and Syracuse, or pass protection against Temple and Iowa. Two linemen so far have lost their starting jobs; LG Matt Stankiewitch was replaced by Johnnie Troutman before the Temple game, and DeOn'tae Pannell was pulled from RT during the Iowa debacle, with Nerraw McCormack coming in and probably starting this week. Nearly every question mark going into the season has been answered, from the secondary to the receivers, except for the offensive line. If Penn State can't get it together here, it could be a season full of performances like that against Iowa.

The defense, probably the second-biggest question mark heading into the season, has performed well beyond expectations, particularly in a losing effort last week. The defensive line has been able to stuff the run, leading the conference in rush defense (75.5 ypg). The entire front seven has combined to lead the conference in sacks (12). While the secondary is leading the conference in yards allowed and has a superb TD/INT ratio at 2-5. The Penn State defense currently leads the Big Ten in run defense, pass defense, total defense, sacks, first downs allowed, 3rd down conversions allowed, 4th down conversions allowed, red zone scoring percentage, and tied for first with Iowa for total touchdowns allowed. Not all bad for a unit that had to replace four senior starters in the backfield, a first-team All-America defensive end, and two other veteran defensive ends.

On the field -- While the Penn State offense will garner much of the attention this weekend from analysts and fans, it could be the defense that makes or breaks the Nittany Lions in Champaign. Illinois has consistently put up big offensive numbers the last three meetings, and could very well do it again. If Penn State can take a few pointers from what the Ohio State-Illinois tape shows, the Lions have a great chance to shut down a potentially potent Illini attack. But for both offenses, it will be all about the turnover margin in this game. The team that commits the most mistakes, as in any game, will have a serious chance to lose this one. For Penn State, it will be efficiency in the red zone and pass protection for Daryll Clark. For Illinois, it will be staying on the field to keep Penn State's offense on the bench.

But the defenses aren't nearly close to each other in terms of production and talent. Penn State has been able to reload the past few years, rather than completely rebuild, something Illinois doesn't have the luxury of doing. This could turn out to be a sloppy, dreadful game for both teams, but I just don't see Illinois as having the firepower on offense, or the speed on defense to come out on top.

Extra points -- Since joining the Big Ten, Penn State has only lost twice to Illinois, both times in Champaign... The PSU-UI series has borne many memorable moments in Nittany Lions' history, including the "LaVar Leap" in 1998 and "The Drive" in 1994... Penn State's last trip to Memorial Stadium was a 27-20 loss... Attendance prediction: 62,400


Prediction: No. 13/15 Penn State, 27 - Illinois, 23

September 27, 2009

Unit-by-Unit Review: Iowa 21, Penn State 10
By Mike Pettigano



Penn State fell to Iowa last night, 21-10 in both teams' Big Ten conference openers. The Nittany Lions were stymied on offense, forcing the young defense to carry the load. Mistakes were plentiful for both teams, but Penn State's proved most costly. One could say this is the most important week of the season for Penn State. Will they step up, or step down?

In today's game review, we'll break down Penn State's unit by unit performance.

Offense

Offensive Line: A ton of questions were answered last night. Unfortunately, all the answers were negative for Penn State. The offensive line gave Daryll Clark very little time to throw early on, which led to Clark's shaky play the rest of the game. When the quarterback gets hit a lot early, he's unable to concentrate on throwing later.

The most egregious error by the line came in the second quarter, when RT DeOn'tae Pannell was beaten badly by Broderick Binns in the end zone. Binns forced Clark to fumble. Penn State recovered, but surrendered two points on the safety.

Penn State coaches decided to pull Pannell from the game, subbing in senior Nerraw McCormack at right tackle. The move didn't help all that much, as it wasn't just one player causing Penn State headaches. But none of this should take away from Iowa, as its defensive line played fantastic.

Stats: 3.3 yards per rush; 2 sacks (-7) allowed

Receivers: There wasn't much Penn State's receivers could do to help the outcome of this game. If the ball can't get to you, you can't catch it. When the ball was thrown, it was usually rushed, off balance or tipped at the line. Chaz Powell (3/96, TD) was able to burn Iowa's corner on the first play of the game for a 79-yard scoring strike, but Penn State failed to stretch the field the rest of the game.

I thought Andrew Quarless (3/35) played a fantastic game, despite the coaches not utilizing him enough. Quarless was able to gain a critical first down late in the game, when he effortlessly threw aside the Iowa defender and proceeded to steamroll over three more. The coaching staff said earlier this year that the tight ends were going to be a big part of the offense. Really? When is that supposed to kick in?

Graham Zug was held without a reception. Derek Moye (2/48) was hindered by penalties and a bad call on an incompletion (he caught the ball!). After the hugely successful first play, play-action was all but abandoned by the coaches upstairs, who opted for quicker plays that still didn't work.

Stats: 8 receptions, 179 yards, 1 TD

Running Backs: I feel bad for Evan Royster (17/69). It doesn't matter if you're Barry Sanders; if you don't have any blocking, you can't run well. And the one time Royster seemed to strike a big run late in the fourth quarter, he coughed it up. He also tipped a poorly-thrown ball that was intercepted. The coaching staff should have recognized early on that Iowa was easily pressuring Clark. Where were the screens to Royster? I can only recall one that worked, and another that didn't. That's it.

Another underutilized back was Stephfon Green (3/15), who like Royster, should have gotten the ball more on screens and passes into the flats. Penn State's running backs are fantastic in space, but were run in traditional fashion against Iowa. Without a decent offensive line, you can't run consistently against a front like the Hawkeyes'.

The quarterback runs for Clark (9/19) were supposed to loosen up the defense. They did, at first. But the inexperience of the offensive line did not allow plays to develop correctly, highlighted by the QB draws.

Stats: (RB/QB only) 31 attempts, 102 yards

Quarterbacks: Daryll Clark (12-32, 198, TD, 3 INT) went from looking like a true Heisman darkhorse, to just another college quarterback, in less than a quarter. Clark's first strike to Powell seemed to set the tone that Penn State would not be timid, as they were in Iowa City last year. But after Clark was hit a few times, and it was apparent that the line wasn't going to give him as much time as everyone thought, Clark clammed up and played excruciatingly tight.

I hate to peg this all on Clark, but he became rattled way too easily by the Iowa pressure. Again, something we thought would change from the 2008 loss. Even with the quarterback runs for Clark, the game plan wasn't designed to combat the kind of pressure he was facing all night long. Worse yet, the coaches did a very poor job of adjusting their attack during the half time break.

Stats: 12-32, 198 yards, 1 touchdowns, 3 INT, 2 sacks (-9)

Defense

Defensive Line: I was really impressed by Penn State's defense overall. Tom Bradley had his boys ready to roll early, including Larry Johnson's defensive linemen. While this unit did give up more than four yards per carry, it was able to keep Ricki Stanzi and the Iowa passing attack under pressure all game. Jack Crawford (5 tkl, TFL(-4), Sack(-4) came up with another great performance, along with Eric Latimore (4 tkl, TFL(-1), PBU) who came in off the bench.

Jared Odrick (3 tkl) wasn't very noticeable this week, but he and Ollie Ogbu (tkl, TFL(-1) kept Iowa from running up the middle, and provided very good pressure on Stanzi. Penn State's defensive line, while not dominant, did its job against a very good Iowa offensive line.

Stats: 4.4 yards per rush allowed; 16 tackles, 2.5 TFL (-6), 0.5 sacks (-4)

Linebackers: While most fans were anticipating the return of Navorro Bowman (13 tkl, 3 TFL(-7) to the lineup, it was Josh Hull (13 tkl, 2 TFL(-8), Sack(-7) who stole the show in the linebacking corps.

I was very pleased with Penn State's defensive game plan, which some might compare to the old "bend but don't break" style played under Jerry Sandusky. Tom Bradley dialed up significant pressure on blitzes all night, which really shook up Stanzi, and forced multiple mistakes by the Iowa signal caller. Fans have been calling for more blitzes by Penn State, especially with such talent at linebacker. Well, we got just that on Saturday night.

But the absence of All-American captain Sean Lee loomed large, even though the defense played well without him. Bani Gbadyu (7 tkl) did very well filling in for Lee. I was very surprised to see Nate Stupar (no stats) come in when Gbadyu went down with an injury.

Stats: 33 tackles, 5 TFL (-15), Sack (-7)
 
Defensive Backfield: Penn State's secondary gave up a few big pass plays, but none of them were particularly devastating. Again, "bend, but don't break." I thought the secondary played the best overall of any unit Penn State fielded Saturday night. Of course, that's all relative, since we have to consider that this was supposed to be the absolute biggest liability going into the season.

Looking at this unit's overall performance, they just seemed to always be in the right place at the right time. Hero (SS) Nick Sukay (9 tkl, 4 PBU, INT) had a career night against the Hawkeyes. Free safety Drew Astorino (5 tkl) was fantastic again on run support, while tipping a ball into Sukay's arms. Starting corners Knowledge Timmons (3 tkl) and D'Anton Lynn (tkl, 0.5 TFL(-4), 0.5 Sack(-4) kept the Iowa receivers in check. I absolutely loved the corner blitz by Lynn.

Even coming off the bench, AJ Wallace (4 tkl, INT) and freshman Stephon Morris (PBU) made their presence known. This unit played a great game.

Stats: 22 Tkl, 5 PBU, 2 INT, 0.5 TFL (-4), 0.5 Sack (-4).

Special Teams

Kicking/Punting: I'll get to the blocked punt in a minute. But I thought the kickers did well overall. Colin Wagner (1-2, lng 27; 4 KO, 61.8 avg) only missed on a long 47 yarder. We could get on his case about that, since he's supposed to have a strong leg, but he wasn't the reason Penn State lost this game.

Jeremy Boone (53.5 YPP) was again great on punts, including a 57-yard bomb.

Returns/Coverage: Now, the blocked punt. Joe Paterno said after the game that it was a mistake in blocking, that it wasn't Boone's fault. I agree. Boone got the ball off in time, but Iowa's Arian Clayborn shot through Nick Sukay's block with little effort. It's unfortunate, because I felt overall the special teams played well. Besides the blocked punt, the special teams did its job.

Overall

Penn State has to use this loss as a "teachable moment." Daryll Clark can't get down on himself about this. He doesn't have time. The defense can't say "what if" all week. They don't have time. And the offensive line can't sit around skulking. No one has time for that. This will be the real test for this team. Will they rise up and take control of their season, or let it spiral out of control? It will be up to the senior leadership we heard so much about this summer to get this team back on track.

Iowa came to play. There is no question the Hawkeyes are a team not to be underestimated by anyone the rest of this season. I was quite shocked to see that Iowa was ranked No. 17 in the Coaches Poll this week, a full four spots behind the Nittany Lions. Iowa has been completely impressive this season, with wins over two BCS conference foes, and then-No. 5 Penn State in Happy Valley.

But don't let it fool you. The Big Ten race is just beginning. There is still plenty of football to be played, and both of these teams have the talent to take home a title.

September 26, 2009

Hawkeyes march past Penn State, 21-10
By Mike Pettigano


Penn State choked away its momentum, its composure and a 10-point lead in Beaver Stadium tonight, falling to the Iowa Hawkeyes 21-10. Kirk Ferentz has now won seven of eight against Joe Paterno and Penn State, knocking the Lions out of the top-five for the second consecutive matchup. It was a tale of variety on the rain-soaked field, as Iowa scored on a field goal, a safety, a blocked punt for a touchdown, and a rushing touchdown -- the first given up by Penn State this season.

Quarterback Daryll Clark completed a mere 12 of 32 pass attempts for 198 yards, with one score and three interceptions, in the face of relentless pressure from the Hawkeyes' defensive front four. But the night began in nearly opposite fashion, as Clark connected to a wide open Chaz Powell for a 79-yard touchdown score on the Lions' first offensive play.

"Crap," Ferentz told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game. Simply put, crap."

But things wouldn't be so crappy when the final whistle sounded. Despite a valiant effort by Penn State's defense, holding Iowa to 298 total yards, the Hawkeyes scored any way they could, beginning with the second quarter safety by Broderick Binns, who forced a Clark fumble in the end zone. The ball was recovered by Penn State to save the touchdown, but momentum had swung in Iowa's favor, trailing 10-2. It would not swing back.

Penn State turned the ball over four times, all seemingly at the most critical junctions in the game for the Lions.

All of Clark's interceptions came in Iowa territory. Following 18 unanswered points -- 16 in the fourth quarter alone -- by the Hawkeyes, Chaz Powell returned the kickoff past midfield, and even drew a late hit call to move the Lions to inside the Iowa 35. But an Evan Royster fumble near the Iowa 25 virtually ended any real chance for Penn State to turn things around. The Nittany Lions would rush for only 109 total yards.

Iowa would run out the clock, wrapping things up with a Daniel Murray field goal to push the final to 21-10.

The story of the night was the battle in the trenches, specifically Penn State's offensive line unable to hold up against an active Iowa line. Clark had very little time to operate in the pocket, which forced Penn State out of down-and-distance schedule. The Lions were frequently in second-and-long and third-and-long situations. This left little room for an effective running game.

For the second year in a row, Iowa "just hung around" long enough for Penn State to make a critical mistake. The Lions made several of them, allotting the Hawkeyes several chances to win the game. Iowa took advantage of just enough of those opportunities for another win over Penn State.

Check back tomorrow for the full unit-by-unit breakdown of the game.

September 26, 2009

Preview: Iowa at No. 4/5 Penn State
By Mike Pettigano



Kickoff/TV: Sat., Sept. 26, 8:07 p.m. ET/ESPN on ABC (Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit and Lisa Salters)
Weather Forecast: Cool, showers.
Series Record: Penn State leads Iowa, 11-10

Host: Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 3-0 (0-0 Big Ten)
Last Game: Won vs Temple, 31-6
Injuries: LB Navorro Bowman (groin - possible), LB Sean Lee (knee - possible), DT Brandon Ware (ankle - out), DB Jacob Fagnano (ankle - out), FB Josh Matzkin (foot - out), DE Pete Massaro (ACL - out ssn), LB Mike Mauti (ACL - out ssn)
Key Players: (offense) QB Daryll Clark, RB Evan Royster, G Lou Eliades/Johnnie Troutman; (defense) DL Jared Odrick, CB D'Anton Lynn, LB Josh Hull
Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 386-127-3; 23-11 bowl record
Season Statistics:
Offense - 133.3 rush/264.0 pass/30.0 points per game
Defense - 46.3 rush/166.0 pass/6.7 points per game
TO Margin - (-2)/(-0.67) per game

Penn State, on paper -- In any other season, Daryll Clark would be a bigger name in the Heisman race. Over three games, Clark has thrown for 760 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions, one coming off a tipped pass. If Clark continues at his current pace, he will smash all the school's quarterback records with 3292 yards 35 touchdowns. No small part of Clark's success this year has been due to the unexpected emergence of his wide receiving corps, which had to be completely replaced from a year ago. Derek Moye, Graham Zug and Chaz Powell have combined for 37 receptions, 474 yards and seven touchdowns.

But the real story so far on offense has been the shaky line play. The run game has taken three weeks to emerge, even with the best pair of running backs in the conference in the backfield. Only last week against Temple did Evan Royster finally break 100 yards (134, TD), but the overall production (180 yards) wasn't what fans were looking for. However, it was a significant jump from the first two games, when Akron and Syracuse completely sold out to stop the run.

Penn State could be without its two best players this week, as All-Americans Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman have been hampered this week by injuries. Joe Paterno said this week both could play, and Bowman should be able to return this week. Most players who have spoken about the situation indicated Lee would "have to be chained to the bench" to keep him from playing this week. Aside from the linebackers, Penn State's defensive line has managed to pull off the best three-game rush defense average in the Big Ten, and has been able to get into the backfield with little problem. The secondary hasn't been tested at all, but has done its job very well so far.

Visitor: Iowa Hawkeyes
Record: 3-0 (0-0, Big Ten)
Last Game: Won vs Arizona, 27-17
Injuries: LT Bryan Bulaga (possible), TE Tony Moeaki (possible), WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (possible), RB Jewel Hampton (out ssn)
Key Players: (offense) QB Ricki Stanzi, WR Trey Stross, RB Adam Robinson; (defense) LB Pat Angerer, DB Tyler Sash, DB Brett Greenwood
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 11th season at UI, 73-53; 4-3 bowl record; 6-2 vs Penn State
Season Statistics:
Offense - 137.0 rush/237.3 pass/26.3 points per game
Defense - 140.0 rush/162.7 pass/12.0 points per game
TO Margin - (+3)/(+1) per game

Iowa, on paper
-- Hawkeyes fans began the season with their stomachs already upset, with the news that projected starter RB Jewel Hampton was lost for the season. Things only got worse in week one. It took two consecutive field goal blocks to snatch victory from FCS Northern Iowa, as the Hawkeyes pulled it out 17-16. But since that game, Iowa has played excellent football, beating two BCS conference opponents in Iowa State and a decent Arizona team.

Ricki Stanzi, the quarterback who calmly led the Hawkeyes into field goal range in last season's upset of No. 3 Penn State, hasn't played lights-out this year, throwing five touchdowns to three interceptions. He's been helped by the emergence of two quality running backs, Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher, who have combined for 380 yards and five scores. It shouldn't be difficult for Iowa to move the ball this season, no matter who's in the backfield. The Hawkeyes boast the best offensive line in the Big Ten, but that has taken a hit with the injury to star LT Bryan Bulaga. Bulaga should return this week, but it's still unclear.

The best offense is a great defense. Iowa has just that. Even after losing the best pair of defensive tackles in the nation a year ago. The defense overall hasn't lost a beat, particularly with guys like LB Pat Angerer and DL Karl Klug. But there have been two major chinks revealed in Iowa's defensive armor. The run defense has given up a disturbing 140 yards per game, and the defensive front seven have only registered four sacks over three games. Opponents have been able to get 4.6 yards per rush on the Hawkeyes.

On the field -- This is quickly growing into the fashionable upset pick of the week. I'm not buying into it. Penn State has been nearly unbeatable at home since 2004 (30-2), with the only losses coming against No. 4 Michigan (2006) and No. 1 Ohio State (2007). Atmosphere and crowd noise will never win games alone (both losses have come at night), but it can provide a significant edge to the home team. Iowa will try to pressure Clark as much as possible, especially since it's worked so well for the first three teams. Penn State hasn't given Clark a single designed run this season, but he's been given free reign by the coaches to do whatever it takes to win the game. His legs will come in handy this week, and provide a few really big plays on offense.

The Penn State defense is hands down better than any Iowa has faced so far, even with the possible voids at linebacker this week. As good as the Hawkeye offensive line has been, it's still given up eight sacks on the year. Penn State should be able to pressure Stanzi enough to force one or two big mistakes. This game will come down to the battle in the trenches; a battle in which Penn State has the upper hand, in talent and being at home.

Iowa could jump out to an early lead, or keep it scary-close for most of the game. But Penn State should wear down the Hawkeyes, and close out the win by the fourth quarter. That was something the Lions couldn't do in Iowa City last year. Evan Royster will return to the national stage with a big game, while Iowa's running backs will have trouble. A lot will depend on who returns from injuries. But if Ricki Stanzi gets back some of his missing playmakers, look for him to put up pretty impressive numbers. Again, because of those injuries, this could be the toughest game to pick so far this season.

Extra points -- It will be a full stadium WhiteOut this weekend, with the clever catch phrase "welcome to the White House"... Penn State led the series 10-4 until 2000, when Iowa went on a 6-1 run to close the gap... One of the most memorable Big Ten openers for Penn State, and later college football as a whole, was the 2002 loss to the Hawkeyes, in which two blown calls angered Joe Paterno so much, he chased after ref crew chief Dick Honig. It's been called the spark that led to replay in college... Iowa's last trip to Beaver Stadium was a 27-7 blowout loss... Attendance: 109,210

Prediction: No. 4/5 Penn State, 30 - Iowa, 20

September 20, 2009

Review: No. 5/t5 Penn State 31, Temple 6
By Mike Pettigano


The running game finally clicked for Penn State this week, with Evan Royster hitting his stride, despite battling the flu along with nearly a dozen other Nittany Lions. The defense was once again smothering. Daryll Clark was efficient. It seems Penn State has all the pieces. Now it's time to put them all together for the Big Ten opener next week against Iowa.

In today's game review, we'll break down Penn State's unit by unit performance.

Offense

Offensive Line: Temple didn't stack the box as Akron and Syracuse did in the first two games. So it was a much better situation for the front five this week. Johnnie Troutman got the start at LG in place of Matt Sankiewitch, while Quinn Barham saw playing time behind RG Lou Eliades. Whether the new starting five was the reason, or that Temple didn't sell out to stop the run (I think it was the latter), the holes were there this week for the run game, which rolled to 186 yards.

But all the success Penn State had on the ground was marred by obvious problems with pass protection this week. Against Syracuse, the Orange blitzed on almost every play, but had only moderate success against Daryll Clark. Temple harassed Clark all day, bringing a very effective zone blitz package to bear on the Lions offensive line. I'm not so sure the shaky pass protection was so much due to new personnel, than just a very good pass rush scheme from Owls defensive coordinator (and former PSU great) Mark D'Onofrio.

Stats: 5.2 yards per rush; 2 sacks (-6) allowed

Receivers: The pass catchers weren't the stars this week as they were the first two games, but other than a drop or two, this unit played very well again. Chaz Powell (4/40) led all wide receivers this week in yards and tied for receptions with Derek Moye (4/31, TD). A couple of the younger guys got some quality playing time, including Curtis Drake and Justin Brown. But it was the tight end play of Andrew Quarless (3/45) that woke up the crowd. The senior would've been the teams overall receiving yards leader, if a 50-plus-yard touchdown catch-and-run wasn't called back for a block in the back.

I really liked Penn State's heavy-trips formation, with Joe Suhey, Quarless and Mickey Shuler (1/1, TD). It was really effective in both the pass and run game, including the touchdown pass to Shuler.

Stats: 15 receptions, 150 yards, 2 touchdowns

Running Backs: Evan Royster (19/134, TD) finally had some running room, particularly outside off-tackle. He was apparently suffering from a fever of 102 on Thursday, but it broke in time for him to explode for his first 100-yard game of the season. We haven't been able to really get into talking about Royster much this year, but his scary-fluid running and vision allowed Penn State to control the game without an overbearing pass attack.

Stephfon Green (6/19) topped 100 yards against Temple in 2008, but failed to really get anything going when he took over most of the carries in the second half. He did score his first touchdown of this season, on a really tough inside run. Getting Green more involved in the screen game should be a priority, particularly when Clark has such pass rush pressure.

Penn State also threw in a few reverses and end arounds this week, with so-so success. The Powell reverse gained 24 yards, but a fumbled reverse (-17 yards) with Drake put a damper on the trickeration.

Stats: (RB/QB only) 33 attempts, 175 yards, 2 TD

Quarterbacks: Daryll Clark (16-26/167, 2 TD, INT) didn't have his most explosive game of the season, but he was able to make plays when Penn State needed them, and keep the offense moving all day. The pass rush really got a hold of Clark most of the game, forcing a few bad throws, including the one interception. I don't think I remember a time when Penn State's passing attack was the least of our worries. Clark brought us there now.

Clark did seem jumpy at times. I assume it was because he didn't want to run every time he was flushed from the pocket. But I wouldn't look to far into this. When the real meat of the schedule hits (say, like next week!), Clark will do anything to win, including the scrambles he's avoided the past three weeks.

Kevin Newsome (1-2/6, 15-yd rush) didn't do a whole lot this week. But hey, that's better than last week, when he was sacked twice and lost a fumble.

Penn State threw in a double-reverse pass, which almost worked. I guess they want Iowa to see that and have to practice defending it, even if Penn State doesn't use it.

Stats: 17-29, 186 yards, 2 touchdowns, INT, 2 sacks (-6)

Defense

Defensive Line: Three linemen recorded a sack this week, as the front four for Penn State continued to stuff anything that came their way. Jared Odrick (2 tkl, TFL, Sack) and Ollie Ogbu (3 tkl, FF) were able to suck up enough Temple blockers to allow the linebackers to have one of that unit's best days this season.

Jack Crawford (3 tkl, Sack, 2.5 TFL) is living up to all that preseason hype bestowed upon him by the fans and media. I was very interested in Penn State's positioning him as a stand-up defensive end, similar to what Jerome Hayes (tkl) does.

Backups Devon Still (2 tkl), Eric Latimore (tkl) and frosh James Terry (Tkl, TFL, Sack) played well, along with true frosh Sean Stanley (tkl). Larry Johnson loves to rotate his players on almost every down, and we're seeing plenty of it early in the year.

Stats: 1.6 yards per rush allowed; 14 tackles, 4.5 TFL (-24), 3 sacks (-15)

Linebackers: You wouldn't even think Penn State is missing one of its top-two starting linebackers in Navorro Bowman (questionable this week with groin injury). Sean Lee (12 tkl, 2.5 TFL, sack) and Josh "Mustache" Hull (13 tkl, 1.5 TFL, PBU) made the field intolerable for Temple ball carriers, combining for their best outing all season long. Hull has really come along this year, particularly in pass defense. He's had a major breakup in every game.

It was good to see guys like Bani Gbadyu (6 tkl) get much more playing time this week, subbing in for Nate Stupar (5 tkl, TFL), who replaced Bowman. It wasn't a knock on Stupar. I just think the coaches want to get as many players in the game as possible. Plus, Gbadyu was a big factor in late-2007. So, he does have plenty of game experience.

However, I was very disappointed to see Chris Colasanti (Tkl) get put into the game, basically burning his available redshirt season. He's a true junior this season, so now he will only have one season left to break the starting lineup. This is a big waste of talent by the coaching staff.

Stats: 39 tackles, 4.5 TFL (-14), Sack (-3), PBU
 
Defensive Backfield: Temple was plagued by dropped balls all day, but was able to move the ball a bit through the air. However, on the other side, it was a really, really good day for the Penn State defensive backfield. D'Anton Lynn (tkl, 2 PBU) has been the least noticed player on this team, and that's a good thing. The true sophomre has been able to really slip under the radar and secure a starting corner spot, ahead of two seniors!

Knowledge Timmons (4 tkl, PBU) had the most visible play in the secondary, when he was beaten badly for what would have been a sure Temple touchdown. Timmons was able to recover to the receiver, and rip the ball loose just as the Owl was crossing the goal line. It was definitely one of those, "yeah, but..." moments.

Safeties Nick Sukay (tkl) and Drew Astorino (5 tkl, FR) played well. Astorino has been money on run defense, and fantastic on covering passes into the flats. He also recovered a Temple fumble deep in Owl territory. Penn State also went with the familiar three-safety nickel package, with Andrew Dailey (No stats).

If I had to pick on one big thing here, it would be the lack of turnovers, particularly interceptions, generated. Penn State will need some big plays from these guys, but haven't gotten any so far. They need to be more aggressive.

Stats: 13 Tkl, 3 PBU, FR.

Special Teams

Kicking/Punting: Colin Wagner (1-1, Lng 27, 63.8 KO Avg, TB) hasn't been anything special so far, but he hasn't been asked to do a whole lot. Some have been grumbling that his kickoffs are too short, and that's a valid concern. But as long as the coverage units stay focused, it should be alright. Every game, Jeremy Boone (47.8 ypp) builds his case for first-team All-Big Ten.

Returns/Coverage: The coverage has been not bad so far, considering the shorter kickoffs. However, the return units need a ton of work. Neither of the returners have broken anything long, and the blocking has left much to be desired. Granted, Temple didn't kickoff to Penn State's deep men and only kicked off once in this week's game.

Temple's onsides kick caught everyone by surprise, including the Penn State upbacks. Brought back some interesting memories of the Minnesota games past.

Overall: Penn State now has all the pieces. The pass game is fine. The run game is finally here. The defense has been way better than anyone expected. Now it's time to put all those pieces together for a championship run. Coming away from the Temple game, and de-facto end of the "exhibition season," it feels like Penn State needs just one more easy opponent to get everything in place. But that won't happen. Iowa is coming to town this week, and it's getting bigger by the day. ESPN Gameday is on the way. The Hawkeyes are coming off two very impressive wins over BCS conference teams. And no one is forgetting about what happened in Iowa City last season.

Penn State is a good team this year. Is it a great team? We won't know for sure until the games are played. But it's definitely a team that has the talent and the opportunities to make a big statement to the college football world. Has Penn State emerged from a program that rebuilds every few years to one that simply reloads? That answer is getting closer, and it should reveal itself this upcoming Saturday night in Beaver Stadium.

 - Mike Pettigano is the publisher of the Penn State football blog Zombie Nation. Visit his website at www.ZombieNationPSU.com <http://www.ZombieNationPSU.com>
<http://www.gopsusports.com/sports/m-footbl/recaps/091909aah.html>

September 13, 2009

Review: No. 5/7 Penn State 28, Syracuse 7
By Mike Pettigano 



The Big Ten fought hard this weekend, but failed to come up with the big wins needed. Penn State, while unimpressive, had no real trouble dispatching Syracuse in Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions beat the Orange 28-7, rolling up a 21-0 lead going into the fourth quarter.

In today's game review, we'll break down Penn State's unit by unit performance.

Offense

Offensive Line: The pass protection was once again outstanding, even with some extra pressure being sent by the Orange. But the run blocking struggled mightily, again. I don't care if there are nine in the box. Against teams like Akron and Syracuse, there is no excuse for such a lack of a ground attack. At one point, a bunch of the starters were taken out to try some other personnel. Penn State scored that drive on a 12-yard Royster run, the only rush touchdown of the game.

I'm not sure this problem will turn out as big as most fear. The coaching staff knows that if Penn State had to run the ball, it would happen. Syracuse and Akron have loaded the box on every series, and not all teams the Lions will face this season will do that. Eventually, someone will try to stop the pass attack. Good luck with that.

Stats: 2.2 yards per rush; 2 sacks (-21) allowed

Receivers: When Daryll Clark wasn't being pressured into throwing early, the receivers played well again and made all the catches they should have. The unit wasn't nearly as dominant as it was against Akron. Graham Zug (6/79, TD) led all receivers, and I really liked the involvement of tight ends Andrew Quarless (3/35) and Mickey Shuler (1/1, TD).

Splitting wide RB Evan Royster (2/61, TD) will obviously give opponents another threat to worry about. His quick slant touchdown catch in the first quarter was a tough grab and a great run. It was a great matchup by the coaching staff, and worked to perfection. But outside Royster, the receivers overall were unremarkable this week.

Stats: 16 receptions, 167 yards, 2 touchdowns

Running Backs: It shouldn't be forgotten that Syracuse does have some play makers on the defensive line, and stacking the line of scrimmage compounded Penn State's run game problems. The Lions' ground numbers were a bit skewed by the two sacks (-21 yards), but not enough to excuse the pathetic final ground total.

Evan Royster (12/41, TD) and Stephfon Green (8/26) were not able to find any holes up front. Even when the holes were there initially, Syracuse was able to close them quickly. Penn State's running backs did a decent job, considering those conditions along the line. So, as the offensive line goes, so goes the running production.

Stats: (RB/QB only) 34 attempts, 80 yards, Touchdown

Quarterbacks: Daryll Clark (19-30/240, 3 TD, INT) faced a real pass rush for the first time this season. His numbers took a bit of a hit as a result. On the positive side, Clark was not sacked all day, despite the increased pressure. There were a few passes thrown into tight coverage. Clark needs to be careful not to press so much, but that will come.

Kevin Newsome (0-0/0) is a different story. In only his second game as a Nittany Lion, he was sacked twice and lost a fumble that was turned into the only Syracuse score. It did look like Syracuse was going to get after Newsome if it killed them, and it worked. The coaching staff has to work to get Newsome into the games earlier, because frankly, I don't yet know what to make of him.

Stats: 19-30, 240 yards, 3 touchdowns, INT, 2 sacks, fumble lost

Defense

Defensive Line: Jared Odrick (6 tkl, 2 TFL, 0.5 sack, tip pass for INT) is on his way to the 2009 All-America team. Through two games, Odrick has made 10 tackles, 2.5 TFL, two half-sacks, and this week tipped a pass that was intercepted by Nate Stupar. But that only tells half the story, as Odrick has been a force in nearly every quarterback hurry, and sucks up two or more blockers on running plays. But you can't underestimate the effect of having a guy like Ollie Ogbu (3 tkl, 0.5 TFL) at the other tackle spot. Right now, Penn State has the pair of defensive tackles in college football.

Penn State's defensive ends also put together another nice day. Jack Crawford (4 tkl), Eric Latimore (tkl, TFL, 0.5 sack) and Kevion Latham (tkl, TFL) kept the pressure up on Syracuse QB Greg Paulus, and were key in limiting the Orange to 65 net rush yards.

Stats: 2.2 yards per rush allowed; 19 tackles, 4 TFL (-7), Sack (-2)

Linebackers: Even with a surprisingly dominant defensive line in front of them, Penn State's linebackers continue to steal the show. Senior captain Sean Lee (13 tkl, 3 TFL, sack) had probably his half as a Nittany Lion. He was in on two of three stops, including a TFL, in Penn State's third-quarter goal-line stand, and came up with a huge sack in the fourth as Syracuse was driving towards the Penn State red zone.

Fan-maligned Josh Hull (11 tkl, INT) put together another fantastic day as the team's second leading tackler. Adding to Hull's quality day was Nate Stupar (5 tkl, INT), who was Johnny on the Spot intercepting a tipped ball and taking it down inside the five. Penn State's linebackers have been brilliant in pass coverage this season. Also getting some action was Bani Gbadyu (3 tkl), who seems to have planted himself as the first sub-in linebacker this season.

Stats: 32 tackles, 3 TFL (-17), Sack (-13), 2 INT

Defensive Backfield: Aside from AJ Wallace (tkl) slipping and missing out on a sure interception, the secondary was very quiet, but did its job in workman-like fashion. Drew Astorino was money on run and short pass defense, coming up and making key open-field tackles all day. Nick Sukay (4 tkl) came up as the second tackler in the secondary.

Although right now it hasn't been an issue, it would be in Penn State's best interest if the secondary made a couple more impact plays during the game. But if nit-picking is all you can do here, then everything is really just fine.

Stats: 18 tackles

Special Teams

Kicking/Punting: Jeremy Boone (50 ypp) was booming all day, with a long of 55, two inside the 20, and one downed at the one. In a game where Penn State benefited greatly from field position, Boone was key. On kickoffs and field goal kicking, Colin Wagner (no FG att) kept everything where it was supposed to be.

Returns/Coverage: For another week, Penn State has failed to generate anything substantial on punt or kickoff returns. Royster slipped on his only punt return, while Zug took one for 10 yards. Devon Smith returned the opening kickoff for 19 yards. Syracuse's Mike Jones had some success on kickoff returns for the Orange, with Jones taking one out 39 yards before being stopped. I don't think this will be an issue as the season goes on, but it's something to keep in mind.

Overall: Syracuse is night-and-day better than it was in 2008, on both offense and defense. Not many teams will move the ball on Penn State this season, but Syracuse did well enough going into a tough environment. What surprised me the most was Syracuse's ability to stuff, pressure and battle Penn State's offense. The Orange took full advantage of the Lions' offensive line problems, and came up with a huge fumble as Penn State was going into the end zone. Clark had much less time to throw this week, and Penn State could barely get anything going against Syracuse's eight and nine-man fronts.

Joe Paterno said last week that his players thought the game was over at halftime, so they got lazy in the second half. This week, Penn State was forced by Syracuse to play hard for nearly four quarters. It was the best thing that could've happened to the Lions this season. Penn State, not matter how talented the players are, is still a work in progress on both sides of the ball, and needed a challenge before the conference slate opens in two weeks, and Iowa just crushed Big XII member Iowa State 35-3.

- Mike Pettigano is the publisher of the Penn State football blog Zombie Nation. Visit his website at www.ZombieNationPSU.com

September 10, 2009

Preview: Syracuse at No. 5/7 Penn State
By Mike Pettigano

Kickoff/TV: Sat., Sept. 12, 12 p.m. ET/Big Ten Network (Craig Coshun, Glen Mason and Charissa Thompson)
Weather Forecast: Mild, showers possible.

Host: Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 1-0 (0-0 Big Ten)
Last Game: Won vs Akron, 31-7
Injuries: LB Navorro Bowman (Groin - Questionable), DT Brandon Ware (Ankle - Out), DB Jacob Fagnano (Ankle - Out), DE Pete Massaro (ACL - Out Ssn), LB Mike Mauti (ACL - Out Ssn)
Key Players: (offense) QB Daryll Clark, RB Evan Royster, WR Derek Moye; (defense) DL Jared Odrick, LB Sean Lee, LB Navorro Bowman
Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 384-127-3; 23-11 bowl record
Series Record vs SU: Penn State leads, 41-23-5
Season Statistics:
Offense - 136.0 rush/379.0 pass/31.0 points per game
Defense - 28.0 rush/158.0 pass/7.0 points per game
TO Margin - (-1)

 Penn State, on paper -- Last week's final 31-7 score was very misleading, as Penn State rolled nearly uncontested to a 31-0 halftime lead. QB Daryll Clark set a school record with 254 first-half passing yards, including three touchdowns. The defense was much more stout than even the most optimistic reports predicted, allowing only 28 rushing yards and holding QB Chris Jacquemain to only 158 passing yards, 40 of which came on a broken coverage after a PSU fumble. Penn State's defense and offense worked together like a machine through the first half, out-gaining the Zips 344-8!

On the negative side, Penn State did only rush for 136 yards and one touchdown against an active Zips front. Take away the fake punt that gained 37 yards, and Penn State really only rushed for 99 yards, something that's been a sticking point with the media this week. The Lions offensive line had some trouble with Akron's 3-3-5 defense, especially in the second half when Penn State went to the ground more to run the clock.

Visitor: Syracuse Orange
Record: 0-1 (0-0, Big East)
Last Game: Lost vs Minnesota, 23-20 (OT)
Injuries: TE Nick Provo (Shoulder - out), LB Ryan Gillum (Shoulder - out), S Dorian Graham (Shoulder - out ssn), S Ryan Ahern (Knee - out ssn)
Key Players: (offense) QB Greg Paulus, RB Delone Carter, WR Mike Williams; (defense) DT Arthur Jones, S Mike Holmes
Head Coach: Doug Marrone, 1st season at SU, 0-1; 0-0 bowl record
Season Statistics:
Offense - 90.0 rush/167.0 pass/20.0 points per game
Defense - 112.0 rush/248.0 pass/23.00 points per game
TO Margin - (E)

Syracuse, on paper -- The Orange opened 2009 with a hard-fought loss to Minnesota in a nearly-sold out Carrier Dome. Usually a loss would be the worst outcome for a team, but not so much here. Syracuse fans have been looking for a team that shows life, and this one had it last week. After two quick touchdowns by the Gophers, Syracuse looked to be on the ropes and headed for another blowout loss. But the defense stiffened and the offense clicked. Led by some gutsy plays by QB Greg Paulus, Syracuse took the lead before halftime. The problem for the Orange was that it didn't lead when it mattered most, as time expired in overtime. Paulus' OT interception was the game, but fans still cheer their team after the final gun.

Syracuse looked to be greatly improved on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. DT Arthur Jones was a menace up front, usually requiring double-team blocks. That allowed a ton of pressure on Minnesota QB Adam Weber, who finished under 50 percent passing. The Gophers have a ton of offensive talent, and Syracuse shut them down cold. A big deal has been made of HC Doug Marrone's addition of a single-wing "wildcat" package, called the "Stallion." Against an unprepared Minnesota front, the single-wing worked, gaining about six-yards a pop. Orange fans should be worried though, as the offense was nearly non-existent after half time, and Minnesota's defense isn't nearly as good as Penn State's.

On the field -- Syracuse might come crashing back to earth this week. For all that's been made of Penn State's lack of a run game last week, remember, that was a big nit-pick. Practically every other part of the Lions offense was perfect, and the defense was lights-out fantastic. Syracuse took on a decent Minnesota team in the first game of the season, the best time to pull off an upset (just ask Michigan). In 2008, this matchup was non-competitive from start to finish. I don't expect it to be that bad again this year, but an Orange win seems unlikely. Penn State's defensive front seven could have its way with Greg Paulus, taking away valuable time to get the ball out to his receivers. And while Syracuse's defensive line looks to be a decent foe for the Lions offensive line, it won't be able to do the job alone. This game might not be a blowout by halftime, but it will be by the final gun.

Extra points -- Next to Pittsburgh, Syracuse is Penn State's most played opponent... Penn State has labeled the day "Classic Day," encouraging a throwback atmosphere to the 1960's... Syracuse will give the Penn State offense some headaches early, but not many... Greg Paulus won't break 50 percent completion rate... Delone Carter will rush for 100 yards... Penn State will notch at least three sacks... Daryll Clark will have a better game than last week... If it rains at all Saturday morning, the Blue Band won't march pregame... Attendance: 107,610

Prediction: No. 5/7 Penn State, 35 - Syracuse, 9

Mike Pettigano is the publisher of the Penn State football blog Zombie Nation. Visit his website at www.ZombieNationPSU.com <http://www.zombienationpsu.com/>



September 6, 2009

Review: No. 8 Penn State 31, Akron 7
By Mike Pettigano

Some Big Ten teams struggled on opening day while other cruised. Luckily for Penn State fans, the Nittany Lions put together an impressive first half to crush the visiting Akron Zips, 31-7 Saturday afternoon.
In today's game review, we'll break down Penn State's unit by unit performance.
Offense
• Offensive Line: The pass protection was superb; really, beyond what I expected going into this game. QB Daryll Clark had plenty of time to sit back in the pocket, even when Akron brought in its blitz packages.
However, it was obvious that the Zips sold out the entire game to stop the run. So, take Penn State's pass attack with a grain of salt. Even Joe Paterno said after the game that with Akron designing its defense this week to stop the run, the holes weren't quite there up front.
Stats: 4.5 yards per rush; Sack (-5) allowed
• Receivers: It's tough to gauge how good this unit will be down the road, but it's a safe bet that the receivers will go from a liability during the preseason to a strength by mid-year. As Akron focused on the run, Penn State's receivers were able to get open against a soft secondary and man coverages.
There were a few drops, but even the most experienced receivers will miss a few here and there. Derek Moye (6/138, TD) led the group in yards, while Chaz Powell (7/65, TD) led in receptions. All three statistical leaders caught touchdown passes, with Graham Zug's (5/62, TD) catch in traffic in the end zone was impressive.
I would have liked to see more passes to the tight ends, since both Mikey Shuler (1/8) and Andrew Quarless (1/12) are dangerous weapons.
Stats: 24 receptions, 300 yards, 3 touchdowns
• Running Backs: Akron picked its poison Saturday, putting everything into stopping the run. It worked to some extent. Evan Royster (14/61, TD) had little running room all day, but didn't lose yardage on any attempt. While Royster's performance wasn't dominating, he did his job.
What was more disconcerting was the performance by everyone else. The longest run of the day was a 37-yard jaunt by safety Andrew Dailey on a fake punt to the up back. Stephfon Green (7/17) couldn't get anything going beyond an early nine-yard run; the longest run beyond the fake punt was a scramble by backup QB Kevin Newsome (2/14) in the waning moments of the game.
This unit should be fine, despite the mediocre numbers in the opener.
Stats: (RB/QB only) 28 attempts, 92 yards, Touchdown
• Quarterbacks: Clark's (29-40/353, 3/1) interception came on a juggled reception by Powell. However, even with career-highs on the stat sheet, Clark had some problems making accurate reads. He threw into double and triple coverage more than a few times. But that's just being picky.
True frosh Kevin Newsome wasn't given nearly as much playing time as I thought. He was inserted into the game late in the fourth quarter,completing three of four for 26 yards. One pass to true frosh Curtis Drake was dropped; so, Newsome could've been perfect.
Stats: 32-44, 379 yards, 3 touchdowns, Sack
Defense
• Defensive Line: Dominant. Period. Against an Akron offensive line that returned 4/5 starters from last season, Penn State's defensive front wall camped out in the Zips' backfield all game long. DT Jared Odrick nearly intercepted a hand off in the first half, and was key in three of the line's four sacks. Ollie Ogbu (6 tkl, 2.5 TFL) led all defenders in tackles for loss.
The new defensive ends -- Jack Crawford (2 TFL, Sack), Jerome Hayes (1.5 TFL), Kevion Latham (0.5 TFL, 0.5 Sack), Eric Latimore (TFL, Sack) -- put together an impressive performance, eerily resembling one of last year's all-America ends.
Stats: 0.9 yards per rush allowed; 20 tackles, 9.5 TFL (-35), 3 sacks (-14)
• Linebackers: Navorro Bowman (0 stats) left the game when he re-aggravated a groin injury. He could be kept out of action, since he essentially won't be necessary until the Iowa game. Sophomore Nate Stupar (12 tkl, TFL, Sack) stepped in for Bowman, and ended the day as Penn State's leading tackler.
It was good to see All-American Sean Lee (7 tkl, 2 TFL) return to the field. He was all over the field, and was a force early on. Josh Hull (4 tkl, 0.5 TFL, PBU), much maligned by fans, played a solid game in the middle.
I would have liked to see more of the backups get meaningful playing time. It is tough to evaluate the younger guys when they're only in for five plays.
Stats: 23 tackles, 3.5 TFL (-6), Sack (-1)

• Defensive Backfield: National perception this offseason pegged Penn State's defensive secondary as the weakest link for 2009. Against an experienced offensive line, experienced receivers, and a very good quarterback, this unit performed relatively better than any other for the Nittany Lions. Akron QB Chris Jacquemain completed just over 50 percent of his passes for less than 200 yards and an interception.
The great Penn State pass rush was integral in the secondary's performance, but it was only part of the story. Senior AJ Wallace (tkl, 2 PBU), who was suspended from starting until further notice for academic issues earlier this summer, nearly picked off a pass, part of a good day overall for the unit. Sophomore D'Anton Lynn (PBU), starting in Wallace's place, didn't log any tackles, but did play very well in his first career start. Knowledge Timmons (3 tkl) led the secondary in stops.
(Something of note: Starting safety Nick Sukay has apparently changed his number to #9. He was listed on the most current roster and game notes as #10.)
Stats: 9 tackles, 3 PBU, Interception
Special Teams
• Kicking/Punting: Colin Wagner (1-3, long 29) didn't start off the way many fans had hoped, missing a 28-yarder in his first attempt. But Wagner did well enough, launching deep kickoffs all day. His other miss was from 49 yards out. Chalk up the first miss to nerves.
Jeremy Boone (43.0 ypp) only punted twice, but kept Akron pinned deep on both boots.
Andrew Dailey and the punt unit perfectly executed a fake punt, when Dailey gained 37 yards on the run.

• Returns/Coverage: I know I wasn't the only one surprised by true frosh Devon Smith back returning kickoffs. Linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden is in charge of the return units, and pressed Joe Paterno for Smith to get back on returns. He's apparently working on getting Smith in for Royster on punt returns.
There wasn't a lot to be impressed by from this unit. Smith returned both kickoffs, but nothing long.
• Overall: Penn State beat Akron impressively enough. The second half was slow going for the offense (zero points), but even Joe Paterno said that's what you get with inexperienced players who think the game is over.
I was surprised when Paterno said post-game that he wanted to throw the ball even more than Penn State did (44 att), but was overruled by the offensive staff who wanted to run more. Go figure, Joe wanted to pass more.
A lot of questions were answered in this game, as the units perceived as the weakest going in, performed above all expectations. Syracuse gave Minnesota a tough game this weekend (23-20 overtime UM win), which means it might not be the cakewalk Penn State expects. But this team showed a great deal of ability to adjust to its opponent. I anticipate this team improving each week and taking full advantage of the lower-level competition the next few weeks.
Mike Pettigano is the publisher of the Penn State football blog Zombie Nation. Visit his website at www.ZombieNationPSU.com

September 4, 2009

Preview: Akron at No. 8 Penn State
<http://www.zombienationpsu.com/2009/09/preview-akron-at-no-8-penn-state.html>  
By Mike Pettigano


Kickoff/TV: Sat., Sept. 5, 12 p.m. ET/Big Ten Network
Weather Forecast: Warm, Sunny.

Host: Penn State Nittany Lions
Record: 0-0 (0-0 Big Ten)
Last Game: Lost 2009 Rose Bowl vs. USC, 38-24
Injuries: LB Mike Mauti (ACL - Out Ssn), CB AJ Wallace (Susp - Probable), DT Brandon Ware (Ankle - Out), DB Jacob Fagnano (Ankle - Out), DE Pete Massaro (ACL - Out Ssn)
Key Players: (offense) QB Daryll Clark, RB Evan Royster; (defense) DL Jared Odrick, LB Sean Lee, LB Navorro Bowman
Head Coach: Joe Paterno, 44th season at Penn State, 383-127-3; 23-11 bowl record
Season Statistics: (2008)
Offense - 205.8 rush/243.1 pass/38.9 points per game
Defense - 93.2 rush/186.8 pass/14.4 points per game
TO Margin - (+7)

Penn State, on paper -- No team in the Big Ten has more star power returning, or more star power gone from 2008 than Penn State. The core of the offense will be the backfield, with Daryll Clark and Evan Royster one of the best sets of skill players in the nation. On defense, Linebacker U will live up to its reputation once again, with All-America candidates Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman leading the defense. Up front, Penn State also boasts the best defensive tackle duos in the conference, while Jared Odrick might be a first-round NFL pick next year.
But with all the stars returning, plenty were lost. All three four-year starting wide receivers are gone, along with three All-Big Ten offensive linemen. On the positive side, two of the best hogs do return, in center Stefen Wisniewski and left tackle Dennis Landolt. Like the receiving corps, all of last year's starters in the secondary have moved on, and only AJ Wallace has considerable starting experience. The Penn State pass defense could also suffer without star defensive ends Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans (both left early for the NFL) and starter/team captain Josh Gaines. Success in 2008 will depend largely on how well the veterans can lead, and how quickly the younger players step into their new roles.

Visitor: Akron Zips
Record: 0-0 (0-0, MAC)
Last Game: Lost 2008 Finale (no bowl) vs. Temple, 6-27
Injuries: DT Ryan Bain (Back - Questionable), RB Dale Martin (Achilles - Questionable), RB Alex Allen ('08 Hip - Probable)
Key Players: (offense) QB Chris Jacquemain, RB Alex Allen; (defense) DL Almondo Sewell, LB Mike Thomas
Head Coach: JD Brookhart, 6th season at Akron, 27-33; 0-1 bowl record
Season Statistics:
Offense - 165.2 rush/231.4 pass/30 points per game
Defense - 187.2 rush/210.5 pass/31.2 points per game
TO Margin - (+6)

Akron, on paper -- Akron, like most other MAC schools, is one of those programs that doesn't shy away from tough competition. The last few seasons, the Zips have faced Penn State, North Carolina State, Cincinnati, Ohio State, Indiana, UConn, Wisconsin and Syracuse, all on the road. Akron won the MAC title in 2005, and has produced its fair share of NFL talent. But the schedule eases up a bit this season, and enough talent returns on both sides of the ball to build expectations for this team. Anything less than a bowl bid could be a big disappointment.

Senior quarterback Chris Jacquemain is the unquestioned leader of the Zips offense. After throwing for 2,748 yards in 2008, he is primed for bigger things this season. The running back situation might be up in the air, but there is no doubt in terms of talent. Returning all three starting receivers, four of five linemen, and the kicker, this offense could really pop. However, on defense things aren't looking as sharp. Although the Zips return six starters on that side of the ball, some shakeups in the depth chart could take time to work out. If the back eight can come together, and a star or two are born, the defense should be good enough to let the offense win games.

On the field -- Penn State and Akron have met three times. The Lions have outscored the Zips 152-50, outgaining Akron by 250+ yards twice. However, none of those Penn State teams were nearly as talented as this year's squad. And although Akron has playmakers of its own, this game won't offer many surprises. Even with a retooled offensive line and all new receivers, Daryll Clark and Evan Royster should have no problem chewing up yardage and clock. I wouldn't be shocked to see the Nittany Lions come out slow, as they usually do with an early-season kickoff at noon. But this game should not be in doubt for long, if at all. Akron's Chris Jacquemain should give the Lions' defense a run for their money, but it just won't be enough in the end. Penn State might give up some decent yardage, but it won't be reflected in points scored.

Extra points -- Daryll Clark with throw one TD, and run for another... Kevin Newsome will complete his first career pass attempt... Evan Royster and Stephfon Green will combine for 200 rush yards... Sean Lee or Navorro Bowman will intercept a pass... the student section won't fill out by the second quarter... Chris Jacquemain will pass for two touchdowns, but throw two INTs... the Akron offense will gain more than 350 yards... the Akron defense will have its moments, but not enough... attendance: 107,180.

Prediction: No. 8 Penn State, 42 - Akron, 17
 
Mike Pettigano is the publisher of the Penn State football blog Zombie Nation. Visit his website at www.ZombieNationPSU.com <http://www.zombienationpsu.com/>  

August 10, 2009

Things to Watch
By: Eric Thomas

As Penn State opened up practice on Monday, here are five areas to keep an eye on as the season kicks off in less than a month.


1. Offensive line: It's no secret as goes the offensive line so does Penn State this season. The biggest question to me is can the new guys step up right away and lay a foundation for the future? I'm talking about guys like De'OnTae Pannell, Matt Stakiewitch, and maybe even Eric Shrive. It's the younger guys that will push the elder statesmen like Lou Eliades, and Dennis Landolt to make them better. How will Johnnie Troutman hold up? The offensive line will be scrutinized up and down all season regardless of outcome of games.

2. Secondary: This unit was already under the spotlight having to replace all starters from a year ago, but with the removal of true freshman Darrell Givens, who was expected to contribute, things just got a little tougher. A.J. Wallace's status is up in the air and should the others penciled in right now, Knowledge Timmons, Andrew Dailey and Drew Astorino struggle, it's possible they could get pushed and replaced by true freshman. Now one of those freshman is Gerald Hodges, who should push for playing time right away, but no one wants to be forced to use all freshmen in the back line of defense.

3. Wide receivers: I'm not as concerned with this unit as some simply because they have Daryll Clark back at starting quarterback, and Clark is now in that role of making others around him better. There is a lot of potential with the returning receivers in Brett Brackett, Graham Zug, Derek Moye and Chaz Powell, but the question is, should one of the true freshmen step up in preseason, will they be put on the field right away?

4. Defensive line: A little thin with the departure of tackle Abe Koroma, this unit will have to rely on some unproven talent to provide depth. Namely, 330-pound tackle Brandon Ware, who has been working to slim down his frame from a reported 360 as a true-freshman. There is enough to get by without Koroma, especially with Jared Odrick, Devon Still and Ollie Ogbu. The defensive end position needs to come up big in preseason too. Jack Crawford appears to be the only lock at the position.

5. Kevin Newsome: Daryll Clark's projected backup this season, he showed marked improvement from the coaches' scrimmage to the Blue White game. Newsome almost certainly will have to get playing time in the first three games of the season against a soft non-con slate to get acclimated to the speed of the college game. It doesn't hurt that in practice he's been working against one of the best defensive lines and linebacker units in the country.

August 4, 2009

The Lions’ secondary in a familiar place
 By: Mike Pettigano

 

Tom Bradley has been here before. The man is not only in charge of the team’s defense, but the cornerbacks and secondary. And as Penn State’s preseason camp inches closer (begins Aug. 10), Bradley knows all too well the challenge of having to completely rebuild a secondary that loses four senior starters from a Big Ten Championship team.

In 2004, Penn State’s pass defense was ranked No. 6 nationally at 162.3 ypg, while the Lions were No. 4 in pass efficiency defense with a 99.8 rating. Penn State allowed only five touchdown passes all season, with just two coming in the eight Big Ten contests. That unit only lost one starter, Andy Guman, but he was replaced by a former starter, Chris Harrell.

The next season, 2005, the unit slipped a bit statistically, allowing 211.7 ypg and 11 touchdown passes. But those numbers were mostly due to opponents’ frantic garbage time passing as Penn State rolled to easy blowout wins. The secondary also grabbed 16 interceptions, and held opponents to just 5.8 yards per attempt.

With all the starters off to the NFL (all four were either drafted or FA pickups), combined with the loss of 3/4 of an elite defensive line (93 ypg), the defense looked shaky at best going into 2006.

But Bradley pulled off a remarkable feat. The defense was not only as good as the 2005 edition, it actually improved. Penn State allowed a paltry 284.5 total ypg (87 rush ypg and 197 pass ypg) which was even better than the 2004 defense. The 14.4 ppg allowed in 2006 was Penn State’s best mark this decade, until last year’s defense matched it.

So, we know Bradley can do this. He’s done it before. But there is a twist this time around -- Penn State now has the benefit of four years’ worth of top-notch recruiting behind it, when in 2006, the talent level depth still left much to be desired.

The defensive line, despite the recent losses, still has plenty of VHTs (hey, this is PhilSteele.com) in the two-deep and the best DT duo in the Big Ten, and the linebackers return its best group in five years.

The secondary will remain the main concern for Bradley and Joe Paterno, but all the doom and gloom could be premature, just as being overly optimistic would be.

AJ Wallace and Knowledge Timmons have been around the program a long time. Wallace was rated as the No. 1 corner out of high school, and has started six in his career. True soph D’Anton Lynn is another VHT, who played in almost every game last season.

Penn State brought in five defensive backs in this year’s recruiting class, which should give the overall talent here a shot in the arm.

Although Bradley doesn’t directly coach the safeties (Asst. Kermit Buggs), this group must be in lock-step with the corners this year.

Drew Astorino filled in as the third safety (PSU uses three safties instead of a nickelback) last year, and also started three games. Behind him is soph Nick Sukay, a VHT who has been caught by the injury bug. Sukay is now healthy and ready to push for Astorino’s spot.

Penn State’s HERO (SS) position was an open race, but VHT soph Andrew Dailey (former LB) is now leading. Behind Dailey is junior Cedric Jeffries, who has seen action in 26 games. The wildcard in all of this is VHT true frosh Gerald Hodges, who saw significant time in the spring game, and who the coaches are very high on.

At last week’s Big Ten Media Days, Paterno told reporters, “We’re going to have to take some young people and put them in key spots. There will probably be a couple of kids I haven’t seen play yet. But that will go on for a while.”

Looking at Penn State’s defensive backfield, it’s hard to imagine Paterno’s comments were directed elsewhere. 

 
Mike Pettigano is the publisher of the Penn State football blog Zombie Nation. Visit his website at www.ZombieNationPSU.com

July 28, 2009

O-line still a work in progress
By: Eric Thomas

It’s apparent, as the 2009 college football season descends upon the Penn State Nittany Lions, this much is certain before camp opens in early August.

The Nittany Lions will go as senior quarterback Daryll Clark goes.

But Clark will be the first to tell you he will only go as the re-tooled offensive line goes.

Penn State must find replacements for Gerald Cadogan, Rimington Award winner A.Q. Shipley and Rich Ohrnberger if they are to make a run at another Big Ten championship and BCS bowl berth.

Not an easy task when you consider only Stefen Wisniewski and Dennis Landolt return to the front five.
Outside of that, it’s unknown.

Even Landolt’s position is officially unknown at this point.

He may stay at right tackle, he may move to left tackle, it depends on what offensive line coaches Bill Kenney and Dick Anderson want to do with the other tackle spot. Wisniewski meanwhile, will shift from left guard to center, a position he has practiced at in previous years.

Beyond those two there are battles for every other position.

Nerraw McCormick and DeOn’Tae Pannell are going for the tackle spot opposite Landolt. Lou Eliades appears set to start at right guard, and the left guard position is a battle between Johnnie Troutman and possibly redshirt freshman Matt Stakiewitch.

Despite a measure of uncertainty, it’s not a cause for concern, yet, according to tailback Evan Royster.
“To tell you the truth, I think they’re coming along great,” Royster said. “I have all the confidence in the world in them even if some people don’t. I’m really happy with where we are now and going into camp. After camp we’ll see what really happens.

“They definitely have potential to be just as good as the line we had before. We don’t look at it as a loss, but a way for them to get better and prove they can play well.”

Troutman, McCormick and Stakiewitch are relative unknowns. McCormick, along with Ako Poti were JUCO transfers a couple of years ago but have seldom seen actions.

Troutman has battled injuries during his first couple of years in the program and swapped from defensive line to offensive line. He saw action in six games a season ago.

“We work hard everyday. Two years ago when the offensive line had just graduated (several players) they said the same thing. All they do is go out there work hard everyday, do what they do and get the job done,” Troutman said.

“Offensive line is one of those jobs if you doing your job you don’t hear about it, if you’re not doing your job they hear about you. The offensive line last year, you didn’t hear about them too often because they were doing their job and that’s the mind-set right now. Just go out there and do what we’ve got to do and do the best we can and hopefully we won’t hear nothing about us in the papers.”

Whomever inherits the jobs available will have to be up to the task from the get go.

Penn State’s offense averaged 206 yards rushing and 243 passing a season go en route to an 11-2 season. More importantly, the offensive line gave up just 13 sacks last season perhaps the highlight being just one allowed against USC in the Rose Bowl loss.

Troutman would prefer the revamped20unit fly under the radar for the time being.

“I think one of the things about being hyped up is during the season you have to live up to it. Me and a couple of other guys you don’t know about. So we’ll just go out there and work hard everyday, so when the season does start you’ll be like ‘oh, who’s he?’ When you go out there and do your job then they know about you and they say ‘he’s out there doing his job, so I guess he’s that guy ready for his position,” Troutman said.
“I’m just going to get in here and compete over the summertime and see who comes out on top. That’s the best situation, nobody gets comfortable where they are at, everybody works hard.”