Wednesday, September 28, 2011

PREVIEW: Oct. 1 at Indiana (posted 9.28.11)

PSU Football 2011 - Oct. 1 - Game 5 - Penn State (3-1) at Indiana (1-3)

The Lions embark on conference play in Bloomington, Ind. against the struggling Hoosiers. The Kevin Wilson Era is off to slow start, as IU has lost three close games to middling FBS teams (Ball State, Virginia and at North Texas - yes, a Big Ten school played at North Texas, not vice versa), and its lone win is over FCS school South Carolina State. First-year coach Wilson came from Oklahoma and is a long-time offensive coordinator, with nine seasons at OU preceded by three at Northwestern and seven at Miami (Ohio). Wilson already has generated some attention for his recruiting, nabbing a commitment from coveted in-state QB Gunner Kiel, but on the field the Hoosiers have struggled.

ON THE SCHNEID: Indiana is 0-14 all-time against Penn State. But several games`in recent years were very competitive. The famed 2004 game (22-18), with the legendary final-minute, goal-line stand by the PSU defense, catapulted the Lions from the depths of the Dark Era to a record of 63-20 since. The 2007 game (36-31) wasn't decided until a late fumble recovery. And last year's game (41-24) was tied at 24 entering the fourth quarter before the game turned PSU's way on a blocked punt. Departed IU WR Tandon Doss had 293 all-purpose yards vs. PSU last season, seventh-most in school history.

WELCOME BACK: Even though PSU and IU have played every season since 2007, this is the Lions' first trip back to Bloomington since then. The '08 and '09 games were in State College, and last season's game was played at the home of the Washington Redskins, FedEx Field, outside of D.C., at the mysterious request of the "home " team for the game, Indiana.

THE BIG GUY: In 2007, Indiana's 6-foot-7 receiver James Hardy gave PSU fits, particularly tormenting ex-Lions CB Justin King. IU has another big, talented WR in 6-foot-5 senior Damarlo Belcher, a preseason All-Big Ten selection after making 78 catches last season. But his status is uncertain after he didn't make the trip to the game at North Texas last week.

AREN'T WE LEGENDS? Former PSU WR Deon Butler once YouTube-famously exhorted his teammates pre-game by bellowing "We are legends!" Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany apparently disagrees. PSU was assigned to the Leaders Division, not the Legends Division, in the Big Ten's new really strangely named divisional structure. The additon of Nebraska created a 12-team Big Ten conference which led to the division split this season. So, this officially is PSU's first Leaders Division game in its history. The other "Leaders," who Penn State will play annually along with Indiana: Illinois, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin.

BY THE WAY: While we're on the topic of the new division alignments, PSU no longer is playing Michigan State every season. The Lions will play three teams from the Legends Division annually - Nebraska always, and two others on a rotating basis. In 2017 the Big Ten team will increase from eight to nine conference games annually.

ON THE SHELF: Backup RB Brandon Beachum is expected to be out one more game, so it's likely another opportunity for reserve RB Curtis Dukes to get a few carries. CB D'Anton Lynn might not play due to head and neck injuries sustained last week. Stephon Morris is most likely to replace him, though Derrick Thomas and true freshman Adrian Amos could get a shot.

THE RANKINGS: The Massey Rating college football comparison, which computes an average of dozens of polls and computer rankings, has PSU at No. 24 and IU at No. 107, which is six places below Minnesota for last in the Big Ten.

VEGAS SAYS: PSU is favored by 16.5. The over-under is 47, which means the projected final score is roughly 32-15.

THE BOTTOM LINE: It's another opportunity for Penn State to - finally, please! - establish a good offensive rhythm early in the game, as Indiana's defense is subpar, to put it kindly. The Hoosiers have allowed 21 points or more in every game against lame competition (though they did pitch a second-half shutout last week at North Texas). Last week, PSU backup (co-No. 1?) QB Matt McGloin diced up Eastern Michigan. The Lions will be looking to carry that momentum into this game. Can Penn State finally have a good, clean, solid offensive performance throughout?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Trimester Report: PSU football assessment through four games (posted 9.27.11)

The 1/3rd marker of the 2011 season is a good time for RFBS's first in-depth performance assessment. It's far enough along - 33 percent of the games already are behind us - to provide an adequate evaluation. It's also a valid sample, as the Lions have played a balanced group of teams: great (Alabama), good (Temple), bad (Eastern Michigan) and awful (Indiana State).

OFFENSE: overall grade, C-
Thus Far: In a word, Yikes. Rotating quarterbacks with neither playing well (aside from the fool's gold of Matt McGloin's performance vs. E. Michigan); wasted timeouts; predictable and questionable play-calling; a mediocre offensive line; yada, yada, yada. Many of these ingredients are all-too familiar to Penn State fans, as they are the some of customary problems in those seasons when the offense struggles. Such as last season.

Position Breakdown:
QB: RFBS would prefer PSU choose one QB for all the reasons typically cited: consistency, continuity, confidence, repetitions, etc. But that apparently will not happen. Rob Bolden has the bigger upside and gives PSU a better chance against the better defenses, so he should be the choice. Bolden has been underwhelming, however, and McGloin still is very much in the picture, especially after his stellar showing against mighty (ahem) Eastern Michigan. McGloin's touchdown barrage vs. EMU was much better than the alternative, of course, but coming just two games after his 1-for-10 for 0 yards gag line against Alabama, please forgive the skepticism. Grade, D+
RB: Sophomore Silas Redd (303 ru yds, 4.9 avg, 4 TD) has made the successful transition from the No. 2 to No. 1 RB this season, replacing graduated Evan Royster. Redd is reminiscent of Blair Thomas in his ability to get the maximum out of every touch, and he has the niftiest feet this side of Riverdance. Fullbacks Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich are excellent and complementary, with senior Suhey more nimble and skilled and junior Zordich bringing the hammer. Grade, A-
WR/TE: This group got off to a rough start with a tepid effort in the opener vs. Indiana State and some struggles against Alabama, including two bad fumbles. But in the past two games Derek Moye (20 rec, 14.2 avg), Justin Brown (13 rec, 10.9 avg) and Co. have come alive. Grade, B-
OL: The PSU OL is what it is - reliably average. Workmanlike. Collectively from left to right, Barham, Troutman, Stankiewitch, Pannell and Okoli are a veteran (four seniors), steady but ordinary group. If any but Troutman get a sniff from the NFL, it will be a surprise. This OL simply doesn't have the talent level of a Top 25 offensive line. But aside from the problems picking up the blitz in the opener - which also was a RB problem - it has been consistently adequate in both run blocking and pass protection. Grade, C+

Key Stats: The per game offensive numbers are eerily similar to last season across the board: First downs (19.2 in 2010, 19.3 in 2011) points (24.5 to 25.0), rushing yards (143 to 137), passing yards (230 to 209.5), yards per play (5.5 to 5.1) and TD-Int. ratio (1.19 to 1.33). Statistically there has been no progress. Actually, in the passing game, there has been a little regress. Considering the quarterbacks have an extra year of experience and three of the top four receivers returned, that's very disappointing.

Key Players: Joe Paterno, Galen Hall, Jay Paterno, Mike McQueary - i.e. the offensive coaches - have as much blame to absorb as the players for the offensive struggles. Game management, tightening things up between plays, quarterback confidence/development, fewer penalties, etc., is critical to offensive improvement the rest of the season. And there is a lot of room for improvement. The coaches and players must work together to improve each week. FBs Suhey/Zordich have a combined 21 touches, or five per game. They should get double that, as they are more effective than backup RB Brandon Beachum (who is currently injured). At WR, less Devon Smith (small, poor instincts) and more Shawney Kersey and Curtis Drake is in order. Drake is nearly 100 percent recuperated from his injuries.

DEFENSE: overall grade A-
Thus Far: The defense has been PSU's shining beacon. The inability to force turnovers against Alabama is the only true defensive blemish through four games. The D has been sound in all areas, and the past two games have produced turnovers at the key moments, as needed. It has been everything it was hoped it would be. The second half defensive domination of Temple was potentially season-altering, and it was all the more impressive after Temple's obliteration of Maryland last week. The season-ending knee injury last week to budding superstar junior LB Michael Mauti is a serious body blow, however.

Position Breakdown:
DL: This position is almost maxing out on its potential. On the interior, senior Devon Still and junior Jordan Hill are a formidable, dynamic duo. Amazingly, they are tied for the team lead in tackles with 21, which is unheard of for defensive lienmen. Still has a team-high 5.5 tackles for loss and  is climbing NFL draft charts each week. On the outside, the rotation of seniors Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore and junior Sean Stanley has played well. A lack of depth inside and a need for more pass rush outside are the main concerns. Grade, A-
LB: How many college teams have a legitimate two-deep rotation at LB? At least one - Penn State. Six of PSU's top 11 tacklers are LBs. Nate Stupar is the lone senior LB, so this is, as usual, a position of strength moving forward. Khairi Fortt is pushing Glenn Carson in the middle in a battle of sophomores. Stupar is ready to step in for Mauti outside. Mauti led PSU in tackles when he was injured with 21. Redshirt freshman Mike Hull looks like a gamer and is earning quality reps backing up emerging junior Gerald Hodges on the opposite side. Grade, A-
DB: The CBs have been a little soft in third-down coverage - what else is new? - but that's the only real complaint here. Senior safeties Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino are having their best seasons, and senior CBs Chaz Powell and D'Anton Lynn have been steady, particularly Lynn. There have been very few big plays allowed. Lynn hopefully will recover quickly from the stingers sustained last week. If he misses some time there is quality depth with junior Stephon Morris, sophomore Derrick Thomas and true freshman Adrian Amos. There is more depth here than at DT, but not as much as at LB. Grade B+

Key Stats: Three points. That's the sum total allowed by the PSU defense in the third quarter this season, a measley three points. Less than one per game. It's an incredible testament to the defensive staff, led by coordinator Tom Bradley, for making the proper adjustments, and to the players for instantly grasping those adjustments and having the capacity to incorporate them. Good coaching + smart, experienced players = excellent performance.

Key Players: Still has been a beast. His value cannot be overestimated. He must stay healthy and continue producing for the defense to keep things going. Sukay has anchored the secondary. When stud LB Sean Lee went down prior to the fantastic 2008 season, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull stepped up. Stupar, et al, must do the same in Mauti's absence.

SPECIAL TEAMS: overall grade C-
Thus Far: Powell took the opening kickoff of the season all the way, but it was all downhill from there. Numerous missed field goals, a blocked punt, poor punt and kickoff coverage, etc. Even the good plays have somehow turned bad: PSU jammed Alabama on a fake punt attempt but was whitewashed by a bad spot from the officials. Penn State has used three kickers on placements, three on kickoffs, two punters, five kickoff returners and at least four punt returners. It has been a revolving quagmire.

Key Stats: PSU has more missed field goal attempts (five) and used as many field goal kickers (three) as it has made field goals (two). Punter Anthony Fera has more touchbacks (three) than punts inside the 20 (two). The Lions have the same number of blocked punts/field goals (two) as touchbacks (two). Sigh.

Key Players: Fera, who has the best punting and kicking leg on the roster, and the coverage units are critical to the rest of the season. Fera now is handling all kicking duties (punts, placements, kickoffs), so the results should improve. A higher FG percentage and better coverage - downing more punts inside the 15 - are mandatory for the Lions to have a chance in the big games. Also, is there anyone on the roster who hasn't been used as a punt returner? Yes - Drake and Kersey. Perhaps this is where those two can get more involved. Moye has been a recent revelation as a punt returner, but it seems a little risky to use the team's clear No. 1 workhorse WR in that role when a few underutilized players probably could do as well. Drake and Kersey would be fresher, for sure.

FANS: grade C-
Thus Far: Not coming close to selling out two of the three home games. Lowest attended home game since ??? (Eastern Michigan, 95,000). Allowing far too many red-shirted Alabama fans to purchase seats in our stadium, scattered throughout The Beav like specks of blood. One long-time season-ticket holder said he had never seen anything like it, had never seen an opposing team's fans so successfully infiltrate Beaver Stadium. And the tepid turnout in Philadelphia for the Temple game. Hey, PSU football fans, what's up? Sure, the economy and the wonders of high definition television are factors across the landscape in sports attendance, but this is Penn State football. It's supposed to be better than that. When PSU football regained its footing from 2005-09, numerous national media outlets cited Beaver Stadium as the best, or one of the best, home field advantages, and Happy Valley as among the very best game day exeriences in the nation. That might not be the case anymore.

Key Stats: The least attended home game in 2010 still exceeded 100,000. The average attendance for three home games this season is less than 100,00 (99,981). The last time Penn State played at Temple in 2007, 69,029 attended. This season it was 57,323. Temple has more fans than ever, meaning PSU fan attendance dropped by at least 12,000.

Key Players: You! Get out there and support the cause!

So, what will it take to turn this 3-1 start into a solid bowl bid, or even a berth in the Big Ten championship game? If PSU is to do better the rest of the way, it couldn't have asked for a much better schedule. What the Lions need right now is a little more time to work on the offensive woes and special teams problems.

Wish granted. The next five games consist of three against inferior opponents (Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern, though presumably star Northwestern QB Dan Persa will be up to speed by then), and two against apparent equals but both are at home (Iowa and Illinois). The Lions must win at least four of these five, they could win them all, and they should be favored in all five. These five games are the rare mid-season opportunity to both improve on glaring weaknesses and win games. Then comes the bye week (Nov. 5) and the hellacious November to Remember (or forget): vs Nebraska, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin. At this point, it's as easy to see 6-6 as it is 10-2. So we'll stick with 8-4 for the time being.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

POSTSCRIPT: Sept. 24 - PSU 34, E. Michigan 6 (posted 9.25.11)

Sept. 24: PSU 34, Eastern Michigan 6

If Saturday's game was measured only as a pass-fail, sadly PSU would have failed, despite the comfortable 34-6 outcome that improved the Lions to 3-1 heading into Big Ten play.

The primary goals before the game were to establish the passing attack early with starting QB Rob Bolden, execute better on offense, throw at least a couple of touchdown passes, and - most importantly - incur no significant injuries.

While the offensive/passing results were a mixed bag - Matt McGloin came in and sparked the sluggish offense - the injuries were a major downer: PSU defensive stalwarts D'Anton Lynn and Michael Mauti both sustained injuries, and while Lynn's was scarier, Mauti's might have ended his season. (UPDATE: PSU released a statement Sunday that Mauti sustained a torn left ACL and is out for the season.)

THE OTHER KNEE: Junior LB Mauti is arguably PSU's best player (it's Mauti or DT Devon Still) and a favorite of this blog (RFBS), so it was particularly distressing to see him depart with a non-contact left knee injury in the first half. Mauti possibly has a torn knee ligament - head coach Joe Paterno indicated that likely was the case - which would end his season. Mauti lost a season with a serious knee injury (right knee) two years ago and battled minor injuries last year. He was off to a great start this season and on his way to an All-Big Ten campaign (13 tackles vs. Alabama). Veteran Nate Stupar replaced him.

FRIGHTENING MOMENT: It was eerily quiet as senior CB Lynn was carted off the field on a board, head secured, in the third quarter following  big hit on a downfield pass play. As Lynn hit the receiver, PSU safety Nick Sukay inadvertently hit Lynn. Lynn reportedly was released from the hospital and is believed only to have sustained stingers. If he misses some time, junior Stephon Morris, who started nine games last season, will replace him. Morris has breathtaking recovery speed - RFBS thinks he is the fastest Nittany Lion - but at 5-foot-8 struggles for 50-50 balls.

STUPAR-MAN: RFBS was working on a lengthier piece about the PSU LBs, part of which was dedicated to what a surprise it is that fifth-year senior OLB Nate Stupar isn't a starter this season. Stupar is a good, smart, complete player, strong in all facets and weak in none. He started seven games in 2010, was PSU's second-leading returning tackler (73) and showed a knack for "splash" plays (4.5 tackles for loss, 4 passes defensed, 2 sacks, 1 interception). He's definitely a possible NFL draft pick. During his career he played very well in both spot starts and as a reserve, and on special teams. Lesser players - such as LB Chris Colasanti last season - in the past seem to have been given a senior year "bump" up the depth chart. Yet Stupar got the opposite, a senior drop. Yes, there were extenuating circumstances for Stupar's backup role this season - Mauti is a better player at Stupar's position - but it still was surprising the coaches opted to start sophomore Glenn Carson in the middle (Carson has played well), move Mauti back outside and put Stupar on the bench. So, while the injury to Mauti on Saturday was most disheartening, it was nice to see Stupar on the field and playing extremely well (team-high 7 tackles, 3 for loss and a sack). And it bodes well for the rest of the season that PSU has a player the caliber and experience of Stupar ready to replace Mauti.

THE TWO MCGLOINS: Junior QB Matt McGloin plays well against bad defenses, and plays badly against talented defenses. That has been an almost foolproof pattern during his career, and with his soft throwing arm, physical limitations and penchant for locking in on one receiver, it should continue. That said, he ignited the offense Saturday upon entering in the second quarter with aggressive downfield pass plays. He also throws the screen pass much better than Bolden. McGloin's fabulous stats Saturday - 14 of 17 for 220 yards, 3 TDs - will boost PSU's embarrassingly anemic passing numbers. McGloin's second quarter scoring pass to FB Joe Suhey was PSU's first TD throw of the season. The best news for McGloin: PSU plays only moderately talented defenses in three of its next four games (Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern), and the lone excepton, Iowa, hasn't quite been up to its usual standards thus far.

THE TWO QUARTERBACKS: If they haven't chosen one by now, there's no reason to believe they will anytime soon. Sophomore Rob Bolden has started every game and appeared to have an edge on McGloin. But McGloin's big game vs. Eastern Michigan seems to have insured that barring injury or the unforeseeable we will see both quarterbacks extensively for at least the next several games, much to the chagrin of the masses, and RFBS. If this rotating system was working, it would be a different matter. But it's not working, despite McGloin's success Saturday. Bolden, by the way, finished 7 of 13 for 115 yards with 1 TD and 1 int.

STUMBLIN' BUMBLIN': Among the early offensive plays for PSU: A couple of false start penalties, a WR screen pass with 150-pound Devon Smith as the primary blocker, a blocked screen pass, a 3rd-and-6 pass well shy of the 1st down marker to the first-option receiver ... you get the picture. The PSU offense continues to stumble out of the gate, unfocused.

TAKEAWAYS: The frustration of not getting any turnovers vs. Alabama two weeks ago is fading a bit. The dynamic PSU defense has shown a true knack for getting the ball the past two weeks. Against Temple last week it was fourth quarter interceptions by Chaz Powell and Mauti that spurred the comeback win. Against Eastern Michigan a trio of first-half turnovers helped PSU open up a nice lead. Most noteworthy was senior S Nick Sukay's deft interception.

STILL THE ONE: DT Devon Still is dominating the line of scrimmage, making big plays and disrupting many others. The 6-foot-5, 310-pounder was credited with 2.5 tackles for loss.

REDD MAN: Sophomore Silas Redd continues to look like an All-Big Ten running back. His stats are modest (12 carries for 48 yards Saturday, plus 1 catch for 18 yards) only because of PSU's mediocre offensive line and poor passing game. He is making the most out of his touches and could become one of the better RBs in the nation.

ONE-MAN GANG: As was expected to happen eventually, Anthony Fera has taken over all of the PSU kicking duties - punts, kickoffs and placements. It's the first time in 36 years at Penn State (Chris Bahr, 1975) one player has performed all three tasks. It's a big workload, but Fera's clearly the Lions' best option any time foot meets leather. It would have happened sooner had Fera not had off-field issues. In the fourth quarter, freshman Sam Ficken came on to nail a 43-yard FG, and Ficken could push Fera in that department, though Fera appears locked in on kickoffs and at punter.

HALFWAY BACK: Head coach Joe Paterno, recuperating from injuries sustained in a preseason practice collision with Smith, was on the sideline for the first time this season during the first half. But he returned to the coaches box for the second half.

MAKING US LOOK GOOD: Alabama pounded Arkansas 38-14 and Temple walloped Maryland 38-7 (wow!) on Saturday, giving PSU an indirect boost in perception. Which is nice, because the Big Ten overall is not playing well in the non-conference schedule.

LESSON LEARNED?: Had Eastern Michigan posed a threat, then FB Michael Zordich's second quarter goal-line fumble-turned-touchback could have been costly. PSU led only 10-0 at the time, and Zordich, a favorite of RFBS, took an almost certain seven points off the board by trying to reach the ball across the line instead of continuing to rumble with the ball tightly secured.

TWICE AS NICE: Senior WR Derek Moye is way too good, specifically as a high-ball target (he's 6-foot-5 and skilled at extending his arms to make catches), to not tally at least eight touchdown receptions this season. So it was nice to see him catch his first two of 2010. Hopefully the play-callers and QBs continue to target him inside the 20-yard line.

ROOM TO MANEUVER: Yes, the opponent was Eastern Michigan and the PSU offense hasn't exactly been must-see entertainment, but there were a lot of empty seats at Beaver Stadium yesterday. Announced attendance was 95,000. While RFBS has little empirical evidence to support this, attendance seems to be down slightly in college football from five years ago, perhaps a by-product of both the poor economy and high definition television. We'll be on the lookout for data that either supports or refutes our attendance hypothesis.

USE IN MODERATION: Diminutive junior speed burner Smith finally showed why the coaches have continually incorporated him in the game plan, taking a short crossing pass from Bolden early in the third quarter and rocketing up the sideline untouched 71 yards for the score. However ...

USE LIBERALLY: ... WRs Curtis Drake and Shawney Kersey both are primed to be regular contributors to the offense. Both are better options than Smith, behind the No. 1 (Moye) and No. 2 (Justin Brown) receivers. Had either Drake or Kersey caught the same crossing pass, they also would have scored. And both are much bigger than Smith, especially the 6-foot-1 Kersey. Drake, returning from injury and just rounding into form, had a 17-yard reception early Saturday. And Kersey made the best play of his career, and acrobatic 41-yard catch with his helmet bobbing around because his chinstrap came undone.

FINAL WORDS: The mundane offense is treading water, and the defense likely is without Mauti for the remainder of the season. That's bad news with conference play upcoming. Unless the offense improves, PSU will lose the tough conference games.

Friday, September 23, 2011

PREVIEW: Sept. 24 vs. Eastern Michigan (posted 9.23.11)

PSU Football 2011: Week 4 - Eastern Michigan (2-1) at Penn State (2-1)

THE SKINNY: Eastern Michigan perennially is one of the worst teams in Division I-A/FBS football. The Eagles were 2-10 last season, so this is a classic paycheck game (Eastern Michigan collects a few hundred thousand dollars from PSU for showing up and playing a football game, and goes home to begin playing its Mid-American Conference schedule) and a classic filler game (PSU had to play someone this week before opening conference play next week at Indiana). So, everybody wins - as long as PSU wins the game.

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT EMU: On offense the Eagles will run a lot more than pass, and the defense was very effective for about four possessions against Michigan last week, stifling the Wolverines and delivering some hard blows on Denard Robinson before succumbing 31-3. The two season-opening wins for EMU were against schools from lower classifications, Howard (41-9) and Alabama St. (14-7). That's about it.

ON THE OTHER HAND ... : The PSU offense has reached a point of near paralysis. Dare it be said: It's beginning to look way too much like the post-Zack Mills shoulder injury era of 2003-04, which is a dark, dark place no one ever wants to revisit. The passing game is erratic at best, and PSU has yet to throw a touchdown pass. Doctoral dissertations will be written about the counterproductive effects of the Rob Bolden-Matt McGloin QB controversy/rotation. The play-calling has been predictable (another run on 2nd-and-long?). Regardless of the reasons for the passing game woes, PSU simply must do better on offense, must generate some confidence and momentum this week and next week (the Hoosiers aren't exactly the '85 Bears defense) in order to have a chance in games against Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

MORE BOLDEN? PUH-LEEZE!: QB coach Jay Paterno hinted after the Temple win - okay, we're reading between the lines here - that had Bolden played better early, he would have played more during the game. In other words, they were prepared, seemingly, to give Bolden a higher cut of the snap total than McGloin. PSU fans can only hope that happens this week - that Bolden plays better and gets more snaps. Then, maybe, we can see if Bolden can develop and improve.

OUCH: Through three games Penn State is last in the Big Ten in points (22/game), total offense (306 yards/game), passing offense (158 yards/game) and pass efficiency (85.2). Those are staggeringly inept figures. The pass efficiency rating is nearly 30 points below the next-to-last team in the league, Minnesota, which is playing a converted wide receiver at quarterback. Yes, the Minnesota QB, MarQueis Gray, was the team's second leading receiver in 2010. And yes, the PSU QB rotation is failing.

BACK WHERE HE BELONGS: Head coach Joe Paterno could be on the sideline for the first time this season. He has been recovering from injuries sustained in a practice collison and has been sitting upstairs in a coaches box. Hopefully having Paterno on the sideline improves the misfiring offensive communication channels, as the customary offensive coaches arrangement of Mike McQueary and JoePa on the sideline, and Galen Hall and JayPa up above, has been restored.

MAN DOWN: Backup RB Brandon Beachum, he of the 4th-down conversion late in the 14-10 come-from-behind win at Temple game last week (one of the two critical 4th-down conversions), apparently injured an ankle in practice and will not play. So it's possible Stephfon Green, reinstated to the team a few weeks ago, could see his first RB action of the season, though there have been no indications the coaching staff is going to put him in the game. More likely is that redshirt sophomore Curtis Dukes gets some carries as Silas Redd's backup.

VEGAS SAYS: Penn State is favored by 29. The Massey Ratings composite ranking, which takes the average ranking of seemingly every college football poll or computer ranking known to mankind, has PSU No. 38 and EMU No. 108.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The goals are a little mundane for PSU this week: Throw a couple of touchdown passes, sustain no injuries and move on to the Big Ten schedule. Offensive confidence building and healthy players are this week's only clear objectives.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ending the JoePa Era in 2011, Part I

Ending the Joe Paterno Era in 2011, Part I

In many ways, 84-year-old Joe Paterno is the greatest coach in the history of college athletics. By measures both record-setting (403 wins and counting) and epoch-defining (winning the right way since 1966 - for 45 years!) he has been the ultimate coach. But his tenure will end sometime. And that time should be after the 2011 season.

RFBS always has supported JoePa's continued coaching at Penn State, even during the so-called Dark Era of 2000-2004, through last year's disappointing 7-6 record. (It's worth noting that Paterno guided PSU to much success from 2005-09, and in the Dark Era's bright spot, 2002.)

But the end comes for everyone, even for that seemingly timeless and ageless wonder, JoePa. This conclusion is not reached lightly, or flippantly, as it is for some columnists, who write that "Joe Must Go" simply because it will get a reaction. But the time has come: It's just a matter of exactly when and how and who succeeds him.

The "when" is clear. This should be JoePa's last season. Why? Because he has slowed considerably physically, to the point where it has become a detriment to the program. Every season in recent years brings a new injury or ailment that interferes with his ability to do his job. At 84, he simply cannot quite keep up anymore in one of the most demanding professions imaginable - major college football head coach - and his health and vitality are not going to signifcantly improve, of course. Most major college football head coaches find it too demanding in their 60s, and just hope to be alive and enjoying retirement in their mid-80s. There are no Fortune 500 CEOs in this age bracket. He is alone in his indefatigability. JoePa already has far surpassed all reasonable expectations for longevity and accomplishment, and now is in a natural decline. His tenure cannot go on without significant damage being done to the school he loves, the program he made and the unparalleled reputation he cultivated. It is time for him to retire - and leave the largest shadow in the history of coaching for whomever succeeds him. But more on his possible successors later.

With the "when" firmly established - at the end of this season - that leaves two other exceedingly tricky and important questions: how, and who. The "how" could become a horrible, program-damaging, University-splitting, media quagmire if not handled correctly.

Because, presumably, JoePa does not want to retire soon. He never has given any indication he is near calling it quits. That puts the onus on University leadership, specifically longtime PSU president Graham Spanier, to make it happen, and to do so in a manner that upholds the honor and dignity of Paterno. In other words, not the way Florida State dumped its icon, Bobby Bowden: Rudely, suddenly, with little fanfare, remorse or gratitude, and a full year before it had contractually agreed with Bowden's coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher that the transition would take place.

Penn State has no such deals in place for Paterno, and as for contracts, he almost operates on more of a gentlemen's agreement with the school. Spanier reportedly approached JoePa at Paterno's home about seven years ago, when the team was performing poorly, to discuss JoePa's retirement. Spanier was shooed away. With the support of the Board of Trustees (or those members of the Board who must sign off on such decisions, i.e. the smallest number of people possible), Spanier must make this decision now and take this action, firmly and decisively. Let Paterno know how wonderful he is, and has been, but that he has no say in the matter. The decision has been made. There will be no shooing this time, only acceptance. Spanier will tell Paterno what will happen, and how it will happen. Longtime PSU athletic director Tim Curley, a former PSU football player under Paterno, will be at Spanier's side.

On Monday, Nov. 28, two days after the season finale at Wisconsin, Spanier and Curley will make the move. This will allow the season to have run its course, but will give PSU time in December - the prime time for coach hiring - to search for JoePa's successor before the final stretch run of recruiting season begins in January. That is, if they haven't already decided to hire from within and promote Defensive Coordinator Tom Bradley (more on that later). Also, by ending it right after the season finale, the lengthy run-up to the bowl game can be utilized as a time to honor and celebrate Paterno. Unlike FSU, which cast the venerable Bowden aside like yesterday's newspaper.

Spanier will give Paterno two choices: (1) Retire now, and there will be a retirement ceremony for you soon, and the team will go out and win a bowl game in your honor while coached by an interim coach (presumably Bradley) or a new head coach. Or, (2) announce your retirement now, but it is effective at the end of the bowl game, and then go out and win one final bowl to add to your record for bowl wins, and then have the retirement ceremony, etc. Spanier also will present options for the next phase of Paterno's life, most probably involving some sort of an ambassador role for Penn State, maybe some speaking engagements. No options will include being head football coach, because it is time. No options will incude having final say over his successor, because Curley and Spanier are paid to make those decisions.

These are the only two choices. JoePa's only other option will be to figuratively take his ball and go home like a petulant child. In other words, force the University to fire him and deal with all of the ugliness that would entail. Which is why some other crucial characters in this drama might come into play: JoePa's family and friends.

Spanier and Curley have known Paterno for decades, so they know if others need to be there in the room to help the old coach through this moment. Perhaps a longtime friend, perhaps his wife Sue, perhaps his son Jay, or other children or relatives. If so, the family/friend should be told what is happening only a couple of hours before - no need to make them harbor a secret for days or weeks. Maybe Spanier and Curley decide it would be best if no one else is involved at the moment of truth. But they might need that little extra support from someone close to JoePa to help things go smoothly, to help him recognize it is the right decison for all, including him.

Spanier needs to start planning soon. This cannot be done suddenly or haphazardly - he needs full support of all the necessary individuals and a concrete plan. And of course there can be no leaks. Discretion is most important, or the media assault will be ruinous not only to this process, but to the process of identifying JoePa's successor and to the team's ability to focus on the season at hand. Only those essential Board members, Spanier, Curley and perhaps one or two others in the PSU hierarchy need to know. No one leaves the room without swearing on their children they shall not utter a word about this to anyone. The national media attention on all of the conference realignments could be benefical in keeping this plan a secret, as Penn State is not directly involved in that chaos and it will keep the major media outlets preoccupied.

Planning now, two months in advance, has another advantage: No matter how the team plays the rest of the season, the plan is carved in stone. Presumably the Lions will win 7, 8 or 9 games and be selected to a mediocre bowl, but if they perform better or worse than that, it does not matter. This action is independent of the success or failure of the team this season.

(Ending the JoePa Era in 2011, Part II coming soon)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

POSTSCRIPT: Sept. 17 - PSU 14, Temple 10 (posted 9.18.11)

Sigh. What? Argh! Whew.

That is just a partial, PG-rated sampling of the four-letter utterances from the mouths of PSU supporters during yesterday's game at Temple, a 14-10 why-must-this-team-drag-me-through-the-wringer-at least-they-won squeaker in Philadelphia.

With Penn State unranked following the loss to Alabama and off the national radar for the time being, a trip to Temple for the Lions wasn't supposed to be a part of ESPN's "Road Test" weekend. Nonetheless, with the Noon kickoff airing on ESPN, it was the first down-to-the-wire finish of the day.

IT WASN'T ALL BAD!: (1) PSU won - somehow - and overcame the huge letdown from last week and a determined Temple effort. (2) The defense was good in the first half and great in the second, when it had to be, stifling Temple and forcing turnovers. This could be the Big Ten's best defense (who's better?). As is often the case with the PSU defense, junior LB Michael Mauti was the best player (and toughest: Mauti had his clock cleaned on a blind side block early in the second half and returned to make big plays). But the guy who took it to another level this week was junior DE Sean Stanley, who is the team's best pass rusher and now part of an effective three-man rotation at DE with seniors Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore.

NOT THIS TIME: Temple had been 15-0 in games in which standout junior RB Bernard Pierce had at least 15 carries. Make that 15-1, as PSU limited him to 50 yards on 17 carries.

INVERTED GOOD NEWS: How often does a team have a FG blocked and a punt blocked (when Johnnie Troutman declined to block the Temple defender dashing by him for the block), have two other missed FGs, and win the game? Sadly, the special teams woes continue in numerous facets.

MAN ON THE SPOT: It might not be much of an exaggeration to say the season hung in the balance as the fumbled snap lay amongst the masses at the line of scrimmage near the Temple goal line late in the fourth quarter. It appeared alert fullback Michael Zordich was The Savior, diving into the fray and wresting possession of the ball. Sure, PSU converted two fourth downs on the game-winning drive, and Zordich capped it with the short TD run. But the fumble recovery was as big as any play in the game. If Zordich doesn't get that football, all the big plays by the defense and the fourth-down conversions are for naught.

THIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER'S TEMPLE FOOTBALL: Or grandfather's. Or great-grandfather's. This is a solid, decent squad. It is probably the 45-50th best team in the nation, something like that, which compares favorably with some Big Ten teams on PSU's schedule such as Indiana and Purdue. The Lions had to scratch and claw to keep the 70-year unbeaten streak vs. the Owls intact.

TWENTY-EIGHT SECONDS: That's how much time Penn State lost at the end of the first half due to indecisiveness, or miscommunication, or whatever, before calling a timeout prior to a Temple FG attempt. It meant that PSU ultimately had 32 seconds, instead of one minute, to try to score before the half, which is a huge difference (PSU ended up with a 49-yard FG attempt, which was blocked.) Coupled with last week's opening-possession timeout debacle, and the general offensive ineptitude through three games, those lost 28 seconds symbolize the current frustrations with the offensive coaches. With Joe Paterno not on the sideline while recuperating from injury, Mike McQueary looks like the lone ranger among offensive coaches on the sideline. Understandably, he appears overwhelmed, trying to juggle his headset communications with interactions with the players. As long as JoePa is not on the sideline, then either Jay Paterno or Galen Hall needs to leave the coaches box and join the overburdened McQueary on the field, because the pathetic offensive situation needs to be rectified, pronto.

ALMOST FAMOUS: QB Rob Bolden played the first four series, into the second quarter. Was it an attempt by the coaches to give Bolden a little more time to seize the starting position and finally put an end to the Neverending Quarterback Saga of 2010, 2011 and Beyond? Who knows. Jay Paterno said after the game that the plan was for Bolden to play the first quarter and Matt McGloin the second, but when the second quarter started his father said to leave Bolden in because he was playing well. The offense put up zero points those first four series and Bolden rotated the rest of the way with his everlasting foil McGloin. They were both mediocre. But Bolden still should be the No. 1 QB. And though Bolden engineered the final drive, he nearly fumbled it away near the goal line, as was detailed earlier (though the snap might have been the culprit as much as Bolden). So it's hard to be laudatory of either QB after this one.

COLLISION COURSE: Bolden's biggest problem continues to be getting creamed while releasing the ball. He simply doesn't react properly in the final half-second when he realizes he's about to get hit. He thinks he can get the pass off in time, but he doesn't, and it will frequently result in a turnover or injury. Bolden appeared to have his arm nearly ripped in two when hit by a blitzer while throwing in the second quarter. The opening drive of the game was thwarted when Bolden twice was hit while throwing, nearly resulting in a  turnover. Bolden needs to release it sooner, or duck and take the sack, or tuck it under and try to evade the tackler. Another thing Bolden doesn't do well is throw the screen pass, which is a staple of the PSU offense. He does not lob the ball over defenders well.

OPPORTUNITY DROPPED: Infrequently utilized WR Shawney Kersey was targeted twice by Bolden early on and despite getting his hands on the ball both times had no receptions. He should have caught the second one. He later had a holding penalty.

BEHIND THE GLARE: How many times did ESPN cameras pan to the coaches box up high above the stadium, presumably indicating that Joe Paterno and other PSU coaches were in there? Enough so that if it were a drinking game, we'd all be hungover. Memo to the ESPN producers: 16 is enough. Especially since we couldn't even see inside the coaches box - it was just an image of some windows with a lot of glare.

RED, AGAIN: For the second straight week, a surprising number of red shirts occupied stadium seats. Last week in Beaver Stadium it was the throng of Alabama infiltrators who made the trek up north and speckled Beaver Stadium in red. (If PSU hosted 'Bama in November, do you think as many Tide fans would come?) Yesterday, it appeared that not only did Temple have more fans than in past PSU-Temple matchups in Philadelphia, but PSU had fewer.

PENALTIES: Every game has its share of questionable calls and bad penalties and this game certainly was no exception. What was most irksome however was a no call in the first half on a blatantly obvious taunting act by a Temple DB. Runner-up, Most Irksome Penalty Call or Non-Call: Brandon Mosby-Felder's dumb retaliation swat to the facemask of a Temple player in the fourth quarter. The referee already had reached for his flag to penalize the Owls, and Mosby-Felder's inability to control himself led to off-setting penalties and a punt, instead of a first down at midfield when PSU still was losing. Second runner-up: PSU getting a procedure penalty on the first offensive play from scrimmage, demonstrating the Lions weren't focused to begin the game.

FINAL WORD: Many great seasons have been launched with a surprisingly tough early season win (see 2005, Northwestern), but unless the offensive (specifically QB and coaching) and special teams problems improve this will be a 4- or 5-loss season. Most of the problems are correctable or relatively easily improved, but do the players and coaches have the wherewithal to make it happen?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

PREVIEW: Sept. 17 at Temple (posted 9.15.11)

PSU Football 2011 - Game 3 - Penn State (1-1) at Temple (2-0)

There are three plotlines to monitor with this one:
1. How big of a letdown will PSU incur in the wake of the Alabama defeat, and will it cause the Lions to lose this game?
2. The neverending PSU quarterback saga: Bolden, McGloin, and the Meaning of Life ...
3. How good is Temple really, and is new coach Steve Addazio an upgrade who can take them to an even higher level than the stunning one they achieved under former coach (and former PSU TE) Al Golden?

LETDOWN: This is a similar situation to last season for PSU, when it followed a stinging Week 2 loss to Alabama with games against Temple and another MAC team before opening Big Ten play. Last season that order was reversed, as PSU first played a lackluster 24-0 win over Kent State followed by a somewhat scary 22-13 win over Temple in which inspired play by a Mike Mauti-led defense - this was just before the injury barrage battered the defense - saved the day in the second half (PSU trailed 13-9 at the half). This year it's rejuvenated Temple first (or "juvenated" if that's a word, as they've never really been competitive for any stretch of time in their history until now), then woeful Eastern Michigan. A letdown is unavoidable for PSU. But it's up to the team leaders - Zordich? Mauti? - to minimize its effects and have the team ready to play. In-house player leadership ushers good teams through stretches like this successfully. And hopefully the threat Temple provided in Beaver Stadium last season will have the Lions fully ready to go.

QB, OR NOT QB: Once again this week the depth chart listed "Bolden OR McGloin" as the No. 1 QB. Sigh. This despite the overwhelming evidence that McGloin is overmatched against good defenses, despite the overwhelming consensus that Bolden has earned the opportunity to be No. 1 and could use all of the extra practice and game repetitions, and despite the risk of mutiny amongst team members who also surely must realize Bolden needs to be No. 1 and McGloin No. 2. Hopefully this is the last week of this charade, which really only seems to be happening so that McGloin and his supporters can be let down easily, gradually. What other reason could there be?

ON THE ROAD? PSU technically is playing a road game against Temple, but of course it really is just another in a string of games PSU intermittently has played in Philadelphia against Temple (last in 2007) in which Lions fans occupy 85 percent of the stadium, and those PSU alums in the Philly area who might not regularly get to see the Lions play can catch a game. Other PSU supporters might make a family weekend of it in historic Philadelphia at a nice time of year. And making it all good for the Penn State faithful of course is that PSU always wins this game ... right? The Lions have won 28 straight in this series. Temple hasn't beaten PSU since just before Pearl Harbor. But how good is this Temple team?

BETTER THAN EVER: Temple made a remarkable rise from interminable awfulness under Golden's stewardship - 18 straight losing seasons followed by a 17-8 record the past two seasons - and some Owls insiders actually think Addazio, with his SEC pedigree (assistant coach at Florida) and relatively big-time coaching staff, already has demonstrated he's an upgrade over Golden, at least as a game manager. In two games - against top-flight I-AA program Villanova and on the road at MAC dormat Akron - Temple has steamrolled to huge victories. Florida fans are a little less impressed with Addazio's resume and potential after the struggles of his offense last fall in Gainesville. But Temple has blown away two foes behind the time tested formula of power running and play-action passes. With superstud 220-pound junior RB Bernard Pierce, who already is one of the greatest players in Temple history, PSU's run defense will be tested much like it was against Alabama.

USE THE PLAYBOOK: Bolden can throw mid-range passes very well when he has time. Fullbacks Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich can block, run and catch extremely well. Against Alabama, the FBs pretty much only got to show off the blocking part of their repetoire. So, let's see more mid-range passes to big WRs Derek Moye, Justin Brown and Shawney Kersey (the underutilized Kersey instead of diminutive burner Devon Smith, who has dropped and fumbled his way into a smaller role, hopefully), and more of Zordich and Suhey. Though of course RB Silas Redd should get at least 16-18 carries also - he's too good to not get the most touches in every game.

VEGAS SAYS: The line has fluctuated wildly. At least one betting service says it opened at 12.5 and has settled at 7.5, with the big change probably caused mostly by Temple's early season success, though PSU's QB saga probably also is a factor. Another source says the line was as low as 6.

STILL HOPEFUL, BUT ...: In this space last week it was jokingly concluded that, having lost to Alabama, PSU now will have to settle for an 11-1 record this season. In all seriousness, a very successful season (10 wins) is still very possible, as the Lions have all of the tools to be a Big Ten championship contender, especially on defense. But if Temple is as good as some people think, and if the Lions snooze into Philadelphia, an upset is very possible. And it would have enormous negative ramifications for Penn State football. If you thought the chatter about the QB controversy and the ridiculous use of timeouts early on and everything else that occurred in the Alabama game raised the background noise to a fever pitch, imagine what it will be like if PSU loses this game. And what about inside the program and inside the locker room? Things could get really ugly if PSU doesn't rise to the occasion Saturday. Lose this one, and the viability of having a head football coach in his mid-80s will be front and center in the media spotlight.

FLIP SIDE: PSU takes charge early with good play calling and crisp execution from Bolden and the offense, the Lions jam the box on defense and stifle the talented Pierce, there are no special teams gaffes or silly turnovers, and PSU cruises to an easy three-touchdown win vs Temple (say, 31-10). Then the Lions crush woeful Eastern Michigan and head into Big Ten play on a high note.

THE BOTTOM LINE: PSU's attitude and mentality are the biggest factors in this game. If this team has some true leadership, it will reveal itself in this game.

Monday, September 12, 2011

POSTSCRIPT: Sept. 10 - Alabama 27, PSU 11 (posted 9.11.11)

Sadly, the pregame analysis was on target, and it all went against PSU once the bullets started flying. Alabama's 27-11 win yesterday at Beaver Stadium was decided/determined by turnovers (3 to 0 advantage for the Tide) and special teams: 'Bama "executed" a fake punt - what a horrific spot, no way he got first down, massive emotional turning point, and inconceivable the replay booth didn't correct the spot - and 'Bama also got a 44-yard punt return late in the third quarter to flip field position and thwart any hopes of a PSU comeback due to atrocious punt coverage.
            Other rumblings:
  • FLAWLESS: 'Bama will not play so well again this season. No one will - who could? The Tide didn't commit a penalty until the middle of the third quarter, threw no interceptions, had no fumbles, no muffs, no bobbles, no drops (well, maybe one drop very early on), no missed assignments, no miscommunications, very, very few missed tackles, etc. They played as well as they can play, or at least as cleanly as they can play. And they kind-of did the same vs. PSU last season. Apparently the Lions bring out the best in them.
  • NFL CALIBER: That's a National Championship defense 'Bama's putting on the field in 2011. Very, very, very good.
  • LUCKY?: 'Bama was very fortunate to not have any interceptions. PSU blocked/tipped four passes up in the air near the line of scrimmage or in the backfield, and had a few others slip through DB/LBs fingertips. That's life, those are the breaks, you've got to make a couple of those plays, and PSU didn't. Of course, obviously, 'Bama could have had a few more interceptions too as the Tide barely missed on three or four diving attempts.
  • TURNING POINT: After the horrific spot on the fake punt late in the first quarter came the two biggest 'Bama offensive plays that shifted the paradigm and set the tone for the rest of the game: The 29-yard strike down the middle from A.J. McCarron to Marquis Maze, which slipped right through PSU safety Nick Sukay's fingertips. If Sukay makes that play - if he makes the pick - the game takes a different course: The very inexperienced McCarron loses some confidence/is a little shaken (he threw two picks in his debut last week) and probably at some point commits another turnover; the PSU defense gets a huge lift and gets off the field; the crowd jumps right back in it (the emotional swing from the bad spot on the fake punt moments earlier was immense); PSU stays ahead on the scoreboard; the pressure mounts on the 'Bama offense, etc. Then, on the 'Bama touchdown pass moments later, two PSU LBs appeared positioned to make the play, and one who seemed likely to deflect or intercept it actually appeared to flinch because the other LB was diving toward him. It was the type of needle hole that only that Aaron Rodgers' of the world should attempt to slip a football through. McCarron got away with it. Sigh.
  • NO CONTEST: PSU co-starting QB Matt McGloin is way overmatched against quality defenses and it was an absolute waste putting him in the game against Alabama. He was 1-for-10 for 0 yards. That says it all. The coaches need to forget about playing McGloin for now: Rob Bolden needs all of the practice time with the first team and all of the meaningful live game reps he can get to improve his game management/game speed reactions. Bolden should be playing full-time. He's earned it, he's played better, he has more potential and everyone can see it. If after five or six more games Bolden hasn't progressed and the offense is struggling, then perhaps McGloin can get another crack. But without question Bolden needs to be the true, lone No. 1 QB right now. Also, the team is going to fracture, if it hasn't already, over this QB controversy. Finish the controversy, announce Bolden is No. 1, tell McGloin to be a big boy and deal with it, and move forward.
  • NIT-PICKING: Even though the PSU D played well and is a good defense and had many bright spots against Alabama, a few things were disappointing: 1. Not getting turnovers, 2. DC Tom Bradley calling a couple of lame blitzes in the first half for no reason when the D was doing just fine, and 3. the corners playing too soft on a few occasions and giving up first-down passes, especially on third-and-short. These are all common, re-occurring issues for the PSU defense in recent years. But overall the defense played well and it looks promising for the rest of season, barring a rash of key injuries like last season. (knock-on-wood!).
  • NOT SPECIAL: The special teams fears/shortcomings were sort-of realized: The punt coverage on the key 44-yard third quarter return was just awful, and PSU missed several chances to down punts inside the 20 or 10, which always is infuriating.
  • INEXCUSABLE: The three timeouts PSU called on its opening possession are an embarrassment and the offensive coaches need to be held accountable/responsible for such unpreparedness. It was a joke, high school-ish - high school JV, that is.
  • SPEED, NOT SKILL: Devon Smith might be the fastest player in PSU history but that doesn't mean he can play football very well, because he can't. Can't catch downfield well, for sure. Can't read blocks well, can't read plays well, can't hold onto the ball well. He should be used very sparingly and in certain situations, that's it. Curtis Drake, returning from injury and apparently finally healthy, or just about anyone else (Shawney Kersey definitely needs a bigger role) would be a better option as the No. 3 receiver.
  • EXHIBITIONS, ANYONE?: PSU all too often is like an NFL team working out the kinks in the preseason, except there is no preseason in college football. This team should play better than that, it has enough experience and talent.

So, in sum, PSU fans will have to settle for 11-1 in the regular season and playing in the inaugural Big Ten title game  :-)

Next up: Temple preview later this week.

PREVIEW: Sept. 10 vs. Alabama (posted 9.9.11)

PSU Football 2011 - Game 2 - No. 3 Alabama (1-0) at No. 23 Penn State (1-0)

This will be a true defensive battle decided by turnovers and special teams. You can stop reading there unless you have another five minutes and really care. ...

Still here? Good. It is amazing how little concern there is about this game in the South. A 'Bama victory is considered a formality. The Georgia-South Carolina game actually is generating a lot more interest among SEC fans. That's ridiculous. Here's a breakdown/preview of this game:

NFL DEFENDERS: 'Bama arguably has the best defense in the country (they've got my vote at this juncture), with some incredible talent at DB, and almost as much at LB. Mel Kiper Jr. rates five 'Bama defensive players (three DBs, an LB and a LB/DE) among his top 25 draftable players for next year. Woah. In last week's 48-7 win over Kent State the 'Bama D acccrued one of the greatest stats ever: in 47 pass attempts, the Tide allowed 99 yards. That has to be an all-time record for most pass attempts by a team that did not throw for 100 yards.

WE GOT DEFENSE TOO: The PSU defense, despite not really having any star power, is very good, rock solid on all levels, and fully capable of stifling 'Bama. A lack of depth on the D-line is the only weakness (and perhaps inexperience at LB, Glenn Carson in particular). Considering "game conditioning'' is a major concern because no one has played a full game yet, the PSU defense, the D-line in particular could wear down. 'Bama's human tank RB Trent Richardson embarrassed PSU last year by breaking tackles relentlessly. The Lions won't let him do that again, at least early on. By late in the game missed tackles on Richardson could be key.

NEW QB: It was very surprising how well 'Bama QB Greg McElroy played in this game last season in Tuscaloosa. He had improved a lot from 2009 to 2010, and he played a fabulous game in the 24-3 win over PSU, perhaps his best ever. He and Richarson both were just too good for PSU. McElroy is gone, and inexperienced QBs who were mediocre in 'Bama's opening game last week are in his place (A.J. McCarron is expected to start). PSU must capitalize on this and force turnovers/interceptions, and perhaps score off of a turnover, or at least give the PSU offense better field position. This is vital because the Lions will have very few if any sustained drives.

BLOCKING, RUNNING, TURNOVERS: 'Bama has the better O-line (PSU was terrible picking up blitzes last week, which is both an OL and RB problem - might see more of FBs Suhey and Zordich in the backfield at to pick up blitzes/pass block), otherwise not that much separates these teams. The QBs are questionable, the RBs excellent  - Penn State's Sials Redd is the real deal - and each defense must be concerned not only with stopping the other team but with forcing turnovers against inexperienced QBs.
BOLDEN/MCGLOIN: Who will play QB for PSU? The guess here is Rob Bolden, perhaps the whole way if he's not committing turnovers (that's a BIG if v. 'Bama). But that's just a guess, I've been off many times in predicting the Matt McGloin-Bolden QB controversy. But if McGloin plays a lot, I fear it might be like the second half of the PSU-OSU or PSU-Florida games last year - ugly. McGloin is simply overmatched vs. quality defenses. Bolden needs to get rid of the ball sooner under pressure (throw it away) and stop taking big hits in and out of the pocket. When scrambling he almost seems to try to run into the oncoming tackler and gets his bell rung. Possible problem for PSU: TE Andrew Szczerba apparently sustained a concussion in last week's opening blowout of Indiana State and might not play. A loss in the blocking game if so, as he's much bigger than the backup Kevin Haplea, who got manhandled some last season as a true freshman. And there's little depth at TE.
SPECIAL TEAMS: 'Bama's special teams are not stellar, but for sure they are better than PSU's were last week, which was pathetic. This week PSU has reinstated strong-legged kicker/punter Anthony Fera, who reportedly was suspended for earning a second underage drinking citation. (Fera, a junior, surely is looking forward to his 21st birthday more than most.) However, it wouldn't be surprising if Fera, who is PSU's best option at all kicking duties, only handles kickoffs, which nonetheless would be a big upgrade over last week's wimpy kickoffs and critical to PSU success re: field position, a huge component of this game. The kickers last week looked terrible and it could be a big problem tomorrow. Not sure if they'll use Fera, walk-on WR Evan Lewis or true freshman Sam Ficken on kicks. Fera might take over for Alex Butterworth punting, or maybe not. The kick and punt coverage simply has to be better than last week. Penn State's coverage units are so erratic from year to year. It's mystifying. Some years they are excellent, others they are awful. It's possible that two other players whose suspensions were just lifted - RB Stephfon Green and CB Derrick Thomas - might be on the coverage units. Both have excelled at it in the past and could provide a nice boost.
VEGAS SAYS: 'Bama is a 10-point favorite. If the Tide wins this game handily, it will be extremely disappointing for PSU. With the home crowd to help disrupt the new 'Bama QBs, there is no reason this should not be a nail-biter in the fourth quarter. It's a huge opportunity for the Nittany Lions.
BEGINNING OF THE END ... REALLY: Also, it would seem, finally, for real, no kidding, this is the end for Joe Paterno, his last season. For real. His age is taking a tangible physical toll. He's slowing down and breaking down. It would be awesome to kick-start his final season with this win.
Turnovers and special teams. The team that wins those areas will win on the scoreboard tomorrow.