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.

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