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.
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.
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.