Sunday, October 30, 2011

POSTSCRIPT: PSU 10, Illinois 7 (posted 10.30.11)

POSTSCRIPT: Week 9 - Penn State 10 (8-1, 5-0), Illinois 7 (6-3, 2-3)

One of the truly amazing things about Penn State football is the coaching stability.

College football assistants bounce around like kids on a trampoline. Unless they coach at Penn State for Joe Paterno, where they commonly stay for decades.

The benefits of such consistency and continuity are obvious. But there are drawbacks, too. For example, it makes PSU a fairly predictable opponent to prepare for from season-to-season.

Another minor drawback, to those of us in the outside world, is that when some aspect of the team performs catastrophically awfully horrendously badly - an understatement about the play-calling and quarterback play this season - we're left to wonder who's responsible, who's accountable and what the heck is being done to rectify it.

Because PSU coaches aren't publicly criticized, don't leave for another job before getting forced out the door and don't get thrown under the bus by other coaches.

They're insulated: JoePa takes all the heat, and everything else remains behind closed doors.

It has been an extremely successful model for a very long time, it is admirable and quite frankly it is one of the things that makes Penn State football Penn State football.

But right now it just adds to the incredible frustration. Never has 8-1 felt so unfulfilling.

For weeks (months?) now, RFBS has speculated that the quarterback play and the play-calling would cost PSU wins, would cause PSU to lose games it should win, if it didn't improve from nightmarish to simply bad.

The 10-7 win over Illinois fit the bill. It should have been 17-3, 20-6, 23-9 - something like that. By any normal means of playing offensive football, that should have been the score. Illinois had allowed 23 ppg in Big Ten play. But against PSU the Illini looked like the Baltimore Ravens.

The Lions needed an improbable 4th-down pass interference call and an even more improbable return to action from a broken foot by star WR Derek Moye, who entered the game for the final possession only, risking re-injuring the foot and ruining the rest of his season. Moye then proceeded to be the No. 1 option on the game-winning drive, targeted four times.

Entering the final drive PSU had "amassed" 139 total yards. RB Silas Redd had accounted for 125 of those.

That's just not the way to do it, not when you don't have to. And PSU shouldn't have to. The play-calling should be better, and the quarterback play should, too. Both Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden (obviously) have regressed since last season.

Has a defense ever been stressed more by its offense in the history of football? The gassed and demoralized Lions D did just enough to salvage the victory in the end.

RFBS could literally recite dozens of examples of horrific play-calls or quarterback plays from the Illinois game alone.

Let's start with this: Devon Smith should never be the primary target in the red zone/near the end zone. He is a tiny speedster who needs the open space of midfield to succeed. There is simply no logical explanation for a goal-to-go dropback pass from McGloin to a 5-foot-7 (in cleats) target with average hands on a double move in the back of the end zone. Especially when you have a 6-foot-3, 220-pound WR with great hands in Justin Brown, when you have a TE, when you have Silas Redd in the backfield, etc.

(How did Illinois score in the red zone Saturday? A play-action, quick-strike high throw to a big (6-foot-3) target. This is the type of play that succeeds in the red zone. Every team seems to be aware of this except one.)

Also: McGoin is too small, soft-armed and happy-feeted to be consistently successful from the pocket against decent defenses. But there he was against Illinois, the best pass rush in the Big Ten, dropping straight back and throwing incompletions, frequently tipped or so far off-target they were lucky not to be intercepted. (And the wide receivers dropped several passes yesterday; don't blame the snowy weather, because the Illinois receivers were making nice catches all over the field.) Where were the play-action rollouts, or straight-design rollouts, that McGloin is effective utilizing?

Also: Must every incomplete 1st-down pass be followed by a running play on 2nd-and-10? This seems to occur roughly 99.99% of the time. Technically it was 8-of-9 yesterday, though one of those eight runs was a QB sack. So, on 2nd-and-10 following an incomplete pass Saturday, PSU ran the ball 78 percent of the time (7 of 9). That's predictability, and a lack of confidence in the QB.

And another thing: That failed quarterback sneak on 4th-and-1 in the middle of the third quarter. A QB sneak is effective when there is less than a half-yard to go. Anything more than that - and in this instance it was a full yard to go - and your offensive line better be dominating (it's okay, not dominating), or your QB better be an big basher or excellent athlete (McGloin isn't). It was doomed to fail. Bad call.

And one more thing: The confounding timeout calls by PSU immediately before the Lions' late go-ahead touchdown allowed Illinois to save two timeouts of its own. Which allowed the Illini to get into range for a tying field goal attempt at the buzzer. Inexcusable.

These are the actions of a losing team. Except incredible defense and the grace of the football Gods have prevented that losing from happening.

Now, about Bolden. Once a very promising QB with a great release, for whatever reason Bolden has no confidence right now. Zero. None. Hasn't had any for at least a month. Everybody knows it and can see it.

The decision to play Bolden in the second quarter against Illinois was misguided. The decision to continue playing him for several series when it was as clear he didn't belong on the field was a disservice to Bolden and the team.

Paterno has spoken about how he'd rather put a player on the field two weeks too late rather than two minutes too early. Or something like that. Point being, he won't put an unprepared player on the field, won't rush anyone into action, ever. Yet PSU did that with Bolden yesterday. And it was disastrous. Bolden simply does not belong on a football field in a competitive game right now.

The play calling and quarterbacks are the domain of offensive coordinator Galen Hall (PSU alum, 8th season on the staff) and quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno (PSU alum, 17th season on the staff). Full disclosure: RFBS has been a true supporter of both Hall and Paterno for years. However, together they are having an atrocious season, and that was never more evident than against Illinois.

Is it all their fault? Probably not. There has been another guy up in the booth with them most of this season. Older fellow, wears clunky spectacles, sometimes likes to chime in on play calls.

But Hall and JayPa long have had an awkward play-calling arrangement, where Hall calls the runs and JayPa the passes. Now throw JoePa into the mix a little more, and it's too many chefs in the kitchen.

With regard to the quarterbacks, their regression can be linked to the lack of confidence shown in them by the play-calling. From the get-go Saturday it was clear the play-calling would be extremely conservative. McGloin's first several passes were screens and dump-offs behind the line.

On the final PSU possession of the game, when the Lions absolutely, positively had to move the ball and score a TD or they would lose, the play-calling got aggressive. And McGloin went 4-for-6 for 59 yards.

Prior to that, McGloin and Bolden combined to go 5-of-22 for 49 yards. Really.

The difference between the first 9/10ths of the game and the final possession? Mostly, play-calling.

McGloin and Bolden also need to be held accountable for their own shortcomings. They are big-time college athletes, not middle school kids.

Still, Hall and JayPa ultimately are responsible for this mess. How can 8-1 be called a mess? Well, did you watch the game?

With a bye this week, PSU has ample time to come up with a better offensive game plan - and plenty of time to practice it - for Nebraska on Nov. 12.

Unfortunately, there is no longer any reason to believe we'll see better play-calling and quarterback play this season. PSU fans are left to just cross their fingers and hope for the best.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ending the JoePa Era in 2011, Part III: The contenders to replace him (posted 10.27.11)

Ending the JoePa Era in 2011, Part III: The contenders to replace him
From the pool of current NCAA head football coaches likely will come JoePa's successor

  • (In Part I, posted 9.20.11, RFBS asserted the time is now to end the greatest coaching era of all-time. Due primarily to Joe Paterno's declining health, Penn State needs to make a coaching change right after the season. Part I addressed specifically how this should play out for PSU president Graham Spanier and AD Tim Curley.)
  • (In Part II, posted 10.10.11 in the wake of a report that Urban Meyer met with PSU brass in late September, RFBS addressed the big question: What would PSU football look like under Meyer?)

Who should succeed Joe Paterno has been the proverbial $64,000 question at Penn State since Watergate. In his 46 years as head coach he has long outlasted hundreds of possible candidates.

Finally, however, the time has arrived. RFBS believes PSU president Graham Spanier and AD Tim Curley should, and will, make the move to replace the nearly 85-year-old Paterno after this season.

They could go in several directions for a winner to the "Replacing JoePa Sweepstakes":

  1. Within. The only viable candidate is defensive coordinator Tom Bradley (Jay Paterno and Larry Johnson would be longshots). PSU fans are intimately familiar with the pros and cons of choosing, or not choosing, Bradley.
  2. Former college coach. Urban Meyer is the leading/obvious candidate (Part II of this series examined what PSU football would be like under Meyer). 
  3. Current or former NFL coach. Going from the NFL to Penn State seems unlikely. However, there are legions of former NFL coaches currently working on TV such as Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy and Eric Mangini, or perhaps Jeff Fisher, who could conceivably be interested, and vice versa, along with Tennessee Titans rookie head coach and former PSU All-American Mike Munchak.
  4. Current college coach. The most likely option. 
  5. Current college assistant coach. It takes serious gravitas to succeed Joe Paterno. You'll need legitimate head coaching experience, so even elite assistants likely need not apply. JoePa's successor isn't going to be, say, the Mississippi State Associate Head Coach. Maybe someone like Virginia Tech 17-year DC Bud Foster could get Spanier/Curley's attention, but it's very unlikely they go that route.
If it can't be worked out with Urban Meyer, and it probably won't  - he could command too much money, or PSU might not be convinced he is physically and emotionally up to the task - then getting a current college coach is the most likely option, more likely than anointing Tom Bradley.

Bradley has been on Paterno's staff for 33 years, 12 as DC. If Spanier/Curley thought Bradley was the man to succeed Paterno, or if Paterno wanted Bradley to follow him, we would probably know by now. And Bradley probably would not have interviewed for other head jobs last offseason.

Someone currently coaching at another college right now likely will take the reigns from JoePa after this season.

That's big pool of candidates. Presumably, almost every college coach out there - with the exception of a select few such as Nick Saban - would be interested because PSU is a Top 10 overall football program with a tremendous amount going for it: History/tradition/success, resources, facilities, recruiting base, institutional support, no NCAA sanctions, etc. All factors considered, PSU is in the highest echelon of college football programs.

And unlike insane places such as Alabama, where the head football coach is the state Citizen No. 1 - and his wife is Citizen No. 2, her choice of toilet paper brand scrutinized ad nauseum - the PSU head coach actually can live a reasonably normal life. A remote life, for sure - as much as RFBS and others might love State College, the head coach's wife might find some other, larger locales a little more appealing - but a normal life.

PSU also has an extremely stable conference situation, which suddenly is a big deal. And the fear of being the man who follows The Coaching God actually is less than it was 12-15 years ago. Paterno simply has lasted so long that his replacement will be embraced as a long-awaited change as much as he will be constantly analyzed and compared to JoePa.

Who are the possible contenders among current college coaches? Keep an eye on the following 10 guys, a mix of familiar names and a few surprises, who could be on the Beaver Stadium sideline in 2012:

  • Kirk Ferentz (Iowa, age 56) - Has been considered a possibility for a decade. Western Pennsylvania native (played at UConn) has been successful at another Big Ten program with less going for it, sticking it to PSU 8 of the past 10 meetings and going 89-60 his first 12 seasons in Iowa City despite a 1-10 debut. Has spent a total of 22 years at Iowa and at age 56 he might be difficult to displace - Ferentz might not want another major act in his career. But he has the pedigree, respect and persona.
  • Al Golden (Miami, 42) - Seemingly has followed the blueprint to be the next PSU coach: Is from nearby (New Jersey), played tight end for JoePa (1991 PSU team captain), coached (briefly) at PSU, became noted as a top recruiter/coordinator elsewhere (Virginia) and somehow resurrected in-state, dead-program-walking Temple before landing the big-time gig at Miami. He currently is dealing with the hovering scandal not of his doing in his rookie season in Coral Gables.
  • Greg Schiano (Rutgers, 45) - Former PSU assistant (DB coach 1991-95) also has been considered a JoePa replacement candidate for years. From New Jersey and played at Bucknell, this is his 11th season at Rutgers, and he was 43-21 from 2005-09. Is both experienced and still young, is connected to PSU and has been successful not too far away. But Rutgers has finished the season ranked only once in his tenure.
  • Chris Peterson (Boise St., 47) - Peterson's 61-5 record his first five seasons at Boise is incredible. He must be on any big-time program's short list. He inherited a great situation and has made it even better. Could he take the Boise Blueprint and make it work at a BCS powerhouse? He definitely could if QB savant Kellen Moore had another four years of eligibility. A California native, Peterson always has been out west except for one year at Pitt (1992). The previous two Boise coaches got the call-up to the BCS, and Dirk Koetter (Arizona St.) was mediocre and Dan Hawkins (Colorado) flopped.
  • Bob Stoops (Oklahoma, 51) - Surprised? Stoops is a midwestern guy (Youngstown, Ohio-reared, Iowa-played) still in his coaching prime (age 51) who sometimes seems weary of coaching at OU, though not weary of coaching. There's little left for him to accomplish there. He'd have to take a pay cut to come to PSU, presumably. But don't be surprised if either PSU or Stoops expresses interest in the other through back channels.
  • Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern, 36) - Hard to see him leaving his alma mater, but the former Big Ten defensive player of the year has done well at Northwestern and would relish the opportunity to coach PSU-caliber defensive players, right? Has always displayed tremendous respect for Paterno. The youngest guy on this list, he nonetheless is in is sixth season at Northwestern and has led the Wildcats to three straight bowls. If PSU is looking for a guy for the next 30 years, Fitzgerald might be him. If he's willing to leave Evanston, he should be a contender.
  • Randy Edsall (Maryland, 53) - Did a commendable job lifting Connecticut from I-AA to two Big East titles in 12 years. First year at Maryland has been shaky. Is from Glen Rock in York County, played QB for Syracuse, was an assistant at Syracuse, Boston College and with the Jacksonville Jaguars, spending many years with Giants coach Tom Coughlin.
  • Gary Patterson (TCU, 51) - The easygoing loveable little brother, Patterson has done a lot with a little, going 98-28 his first 10 years at TCU, including seven 10-plus win seasons and a No. 7 ranking or better at the end of each of the past three seasons. Doesn't seem like a great fit but has been extremely successful. Endured a string of terrible jobs (Sonoma State? Cal Lutheran?) before getting a decent head position and maxing out with it. 
  • Ken Niumatalolo (Navy, 46), Troy Calhoun (Air Force, 45). Both service academy coaches have had success: Niumatalolo is 27-13 in three seasons with three bowl appearances, and Calhoun is 34-18 in four seasons with at least eight wins each season. PSU would be a big change in scope, but both would have the "Success with Honor" part of JoePa's legacy down having operated within their respective academy cultures. The option-based offenses likely would have to be scrapped, or significantly modified. Niumatalolo is from Hawaii and played QB at Hawaii after serving a two-year Mormon mission. Calhoun is an AFA graduate who has had stints at Ohio U., Wake Forest and in the NFL.  
Others: Steve Addazio (Temple), Mack Brown (Texas), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Rich Ellerson (Army), James Franklin (Vanderbilt), Todd Graham (Pitt), Jim Grobe (Wake Forest), Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), Skip Holtz (USF), Butch Jones (Cincinnati), Mike London (Virginia), Doug Marrone (Syracuse), Dan Mullen (Mississippi State), Gary Pinkel (Missouri), Paul Rhoads (Iowa St.), Mark Richt (Georgia), Steve Sarkisian (Washington), Frank Spaziani (Boston College), Jeff Tedford (Cal), Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Kevin Wilson (Indiana),

What characteristics must the next coach have?

The 408-and-counting wins are only part of Paterno's legacy. His foremost impact has been Success with Honor.

Sure, there have been some hiccups in both the success and the honor part - that's bound to happen with thousands of players passing through the program since 1966. But by and large, it wasn't just talk, wasn't a trumped-up catchphrase. Graduation rates, molding productive citizens, maintaining discipline on and off the field - Paterno has walked the walk like perhaps no one in football history.

Also - and this is very important - Penn State and Stanford are the only two BCS athletic programs never to have incurred NCAA sanctions. The next head coach will have to carry that on.

Paterno's successor will need the confidence and clout to follow a legend. The equanimity to gracefully cope with everything that comes his way. The energy to make a minimum 6-year commitment and to recruit relentlessly. The experience to be at his peak professionally. The persona to deal with the media, boosters, public and student body in an engaging manner. The skill to produce a team that consistently contends for the Big Ten title and puts 100,000-plus in the stands week after week.

That's all. Not much, eh?

The same issues that RFBS addressed in Part II of this series about Urban Meyer of course apply to all candidates. Success with Honor will not be compromised. Around Happy Valley it's "We Are Penn State," not "We Are Ohio State."

Who is up to that challenge? For Spanier and Curley, there's a lot more than $64,000 riding on it.

PREVIEW: Oct. 29 - Illinois at Penn State

PREVIEW: Oct. 29 - Illinois (6-2, 2-2) at Penn State (7-1, 4-0)

A few weeks ago Illinois might have been favored in this game. But everything has flip-flopped in just a fortnight.

The once 6-0 Illini have dropped two straight. PSU has continued slowly gathering momentum.

After losses to Ohio State and at Purdue, Illinois' collective psyche is damaged. An early lead could bury the Illini, who are playing their third road game in four weeks and fell behind Purdue 21-0 last week. However, a tepid start (which Penn State specializes in), or a few big plays from Illinois' stockpile of big-play makers, and it could be a long day for the Lions.

Illinois has the best player in the conference at two playmaking positions: Big Ten leading receiver in catches and yards A.J. Jenkins (62 rec, 987 yards), and defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who leads the league in sacks (10), tackles for loss (15) and forced fumbles (5).

Penn State counters with a balanced, suffocating defense (five players among the top 20 in the Big Ten in sacks) that played a stellar second half vs. Northwestern last week, and emerging stud RB Silas Redd. For PSU to stay unbeaten in Big Ten play, the defense and running game must continue to show the way.

THIS COULD GET REALLY INTERESTING: If PSU can win again Saturday (if-if-if), it will embark on an amazing three-game stretch of huge games with Big Ten title hopes on the line to finish the season: On Nov. 12 Nebraska comes to Penn State for the first time as a member of the Big Ten and renews an awesome intersectional rivalry; on Nov. 19 PSU goes to Columbus to play Ohio State in the annual big border war; and on Nov. 26 PSU travels to Madison to play Wisconsin with the Leaders Division championship at stake. It's as big a three-game stretch as is imaginable - as long as the Lions can first hold serve this Saturday.

WILL MOYE PLAY?: There has been speculation PSU star WR Derek Moye could return from a broken foot after missing just two games. But if there is any question about the foot, PSU should hold him out. It's not worth the risk of re-breaking it and losing him for the rest of the season. PSU has a bye next week. Bring him back Nov. 12 vs. Nebraska if there is any doubt.

DOUBLE DIP: Due to the Big Ten having to redo all of its schedules to accommodate the inclusion of Nebraska for 2011, this is the second straight year the PSU-Illinois game will be in Happy Valley. (On Nov. 19 PSU will visits Ohio State for the second straight year).

REST FOR THE WEARY: Illinois and PSU are two of three league teams (Indiana) who have not had a bye yet. Both are off next week. Indiana is off Nov. 12.

WHO'S BETTER?: Recent supremacy in this rivalry is at stake. If Illinois wins, that's consecutive years in Beaver Stadium (injury-decimated Penn State lost 33-13 last season) and would be three of five over the Lions.

BECAUSE WE HAVE TO: Any mention of PSU football is incomplete without saying something about the quarterback situation. No one expects to see anything but Matt McGloin this Saturday. Which means we will probably see Rob Bolden, too. Just because.

THEY ARE LEADERS (DESPITE RON ZOOK): Illinois will play Penn State every season as both schools are members of the Leaders Division.

MASSEY RATINGS: This is the best ranking system out there, because it is a composite average of more than 100 computers and polls. PSU is No. 22, Illinois No. 40.

VEGAS SAYS: PSU is favored by the unusual betting line of 5.5 (some books have it at 5), with an over-under of 40.5. Which means the projected final score is 23 to 17.5.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Almost everything points to a Penn State win, even the expected late October chilly and wet weather. Which, of course, makes this an extra-scary Halloween weekend because PSU 2011 doesn't live comfortably; it's always on the edge. Illinois is fully capable of making big plays on both offense and defense. PSU must continue to play vintage grind-it-out football (the "Wild West" first half vs. Northwestern notwithstanding): The running game with Silas Redd, play-action passes with Matt McGloin, no special teams gaffes, win the turnover differential and play typical PSU defense.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Top 10 possible explanations for PSU's zany, defiant QB situation (posted 10.25.11)

Top 10 possible explanations for Penn State's zany, defiant QB situation 
A tongue-in-cheek look at the brain-bending PSU QB quandary with Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin

10. It takes more than one person to be Joe Paterno's last quarterback.
9. Forty-six years of one QB? Enough! Embrace change.
8. Wait - you mean we're playing two quarterbacks? I thought you said cornerbacks.
7. Received long-awaited verification from PSU Department of Mathematics that 2 > 1.
6. It's totally confusing the other team. Until the first play.
5. Just wait 'til next year, when Paul Jones and Skyler Mornhinweg make it a four-QB rotation.
4. PSU copyrighted "McBolden," need more time for it to catch on like "Brangelina" and "Bennifer."
3. Lions doing their part in down economy to employ more QBs.
2. It's just so much fun watching the Curb Your Enthusiasm-ish awkwardness of the Boldens and McGloins sitting together in Beaver Stadium.
1. We're 7-1, it's obviously working!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Redd October: RB dominating Big Ten (posted 10.23.11)

Redd October
The hunt is on to find a better RB in the Big Ten than PSU sophomore Silas Redd

Silas Redd probably wouldn't garner a single vote today for Big Ten offensive MVP.

But his numbers, and Penn State's place atop the Leaders Division standings, prove he should be in the conversation: Redd is far and away the most important running back to his team in the Big Ten.

This month alone, Redd is accounting for 37.3 percent of the PSU offense, an amazing total. He has surpassed 125 rushing yards in all four October games - all Big Ten wins for PSU - including a career-high 164 in Saturday's 34-24 win over Northwestern.

Redd, a sophomore, is not a power back, though he has some pop. He isn't a speed back, though he can pick 'em up and put 'em down, as coaches like to say about fast guys.

But the 5-foot-10, 209-pounder is ideal in just about every other way with the ball in his hands. Balance, patience, quickness and elusiveness. Redd's jitterbug feet tap out a beautiful symphony play after play, darting and dashing his way downfield.

He's adept at going side-to-side and spinning around to avert tackles, but he never forgets that the object is to go north-south. He shows Blair Thomas-esque ability to get the maximum out of every carry.

Thomas wasn't too big or fast, and he was a workhorse like Redd, who had three straight games of 28 or more carries earlier this month. So as comparisons go, maybe Thomas is as good as any from the pantheon of great PSU RBs. Some have harkened Curt Warner. Those are BIG-time comparisons - two all-time Nittany Lion greats. But that's the direction Redd is headed.

A reduced workload - he had just 18 carries v. Northwestern - will help Redd stay fresh. But the fact is, PSU's mucking offense needs the ball in Redd's hands as much as ever in the coming weeks. If he gets 30 carries in any of the final four games, it's probably a good sign.

There seems to be little Redd can't do. He's providing great post-game interviews, such as on the field after the Northwestern game when he gave all the credit to his offensive line and seemed most comfortable in his own (black) shoes. And he's clearly a great teammate, as he leaped off the bench Saturday to congratulate his backup - and longtime JoePa doghouse occupant - Stephfon Green on his first TD of the season.

Perhaps Redd also cleaned the team uniforms afterward. And maybe he hopped into the stands at halftime and shilled Gatorade.

The blue and white now have a brilliant splash of Redd.

So how does Redd stack up against the Big Ten's best rushers?

At 108.6 rushing yards per game, Redd is in a virtual tie for first in the Big Ten with three others: Nebraska's Rex Burkhead (107.4), Wisconsin's Montee Ball (109.7) and Michigan's Denard Robinson, (108.9).

However, Nebraska (261 yards per game), Wisconsin (252) and Michigan (232) are 1-2-3 in the Big Ten in rushing yards.

Penn State is 8th, with 169 a game. In other words, the other three players' yardage is the byproduct of being the No. 1 rushing option on a prolific rushing team. Redd's yards are more in spite of his team.

That's a little harsh - the offensive line has been solid, if not the QB play - but the point is Redd is much more important to his offense than any other running back (or rushing quarterback) in the league.

Burkhead, Ball and Robinson each have far less than half of their teams' rushing total. Redd, at 63.9 percent, has far more.

(Of note: Iowa sophomore Marcus Coker, like Redd, is racking up the rushing yards in a mediocre rushing offense. Coker is averaging 102.4 yards and 4.8 per carry, and Iowa is 10th in the league in rushing yards.)

Also, Burkhead, Ball and Robinson all average within a half-yard per carry of their team average. There is little difference between their average and the team's average. Redd on the other hand averages 1.1 yards more than the PSU's average - 5.3 for Redd to 4.2 for PSU.

If you remove Redd's rushing total from the PSU team total, the Lions average per carry plummets to 3.1. So Redd actually averages 2.2 yards per carry more than his teammates.

One area Redd comes up short is rushing TDs. He has 6, while Ball has an amazing 17, Burkhead 10 and Robinson 9. Again, that's in part because of the difference in their respective offenses.

Of course, there are other players who merit Big Ten offensive MVP consideration, namely (of course) Wisconsin QB/Heisman contender/Rent-a-Player Russell Wilson, Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins and Robinson, whose passing and rushing have led Michigan to a 6-1 record

But as Big Ten running backs go, Redd is at the top of the list. If he keeps this up, and Penn State continues winning, he will be worthy of the Big Ten's top awards.

Redd and Penn State's October offensive statistics:
  • Oct. 22 at NW: PSU 389 total yards, 197 rushing; Redd 18-164, 9.1, 1
  • Oct. 15 v. Pur: PSU 367 total yards, 182 rushing; Redd 28-131, 4.7, 1
  • Oct. 8 v. Iowa: PSU 395 total yards, 231 rushing; Redd 28-142, 5.1, 0
  • Oct. 1 at Indiana: PSU 464 total yards, 193 rushing; Redd 29-129, 4.4, 0
Redd's averages in Big Ten play: 26 carries, 142 yards, 5.5 avg.

Redd's season totals through eight games: 165 carries, 869 yards, 5.3 avg., 6 TD.

The 869 rushing yards is 8th in the nation, though PSU has not had its bye week yet and most teams have.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

POSTSCRIPT: PSU 34, Northwestern 24 (posted 10.23.11)

Penn State football 2011 - Game 8 - PSU 34 (7-1, 4-0), Northwestern 24 (2-5, 0-4)

The score was 27-24. PSU and Northwestern combined for 574 yards. Silas Redd had his fourth straight 100-yard game. It had been a great, thrilling game.

What? It was just halftime?

Rarely has a game had as stark a contrast as PSU's 34-24 win at Northwestern. All offense in the first half (51 points). All defense in the second (7 points). That's a staggering 44-point differential.

The 51 first-half points were more than in any PSU full game this season.

Yet PSU fans will remember this one only for two compelling sidebars: 1. Joe Paterno equaled Grambling legend Eddie Robinson's 408 wins, and 2. We may have seen the last of Rob Bolden as a Penn State quarterback, and could get Matt McGloin for the next 19 games or so.

Paterno was customarily confounding and evasive about the quarterback situation afterward, same as always. But McGloin made his first start of 2011 Saturday and went the distance. He didn't play badly. And "didn't play badly" is the new "good" in this PSU season of nosediving aspirations for QB performance. He played well in the first half, not so well in the second. Barring a marked decline in McGloin's play - which is entirely possible against the stout defenses of Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin - Bolden might not see the field again this season.

If he doesn't - and considering his slip-sliding career trajectory and prior threat to transfer - it would be shocking if Bolden remained at Penn State in 2012. Which might be for the better the way his confidence has evaporated. Perhaps he could use a fresh start for the final two years of his eligibility.

But that issue can be visited later. The much bigger concern for now is Penn State's fantabulous presence atop the Leaders Division with a 4-0 Big Ten record (what a finish in the Michigan State-Wisconsin game!), and how can the Lions stay there with four more conference games to go?

Already, big-time national media types such as Brent Musberger are dismissing (ignoring?) PSU's chances of reaching the inaugural Big Ten title game. Said Musberger after Wisconsin's Hail Mary defeat to Michigan State, "The Big Ten should be so lucky to get a rematch in their championship game."

Chris Fowler followed that up on the College GameDay set afterward when speaking to MSU QB Kirk Cousins: "This will get fans on your side and their side talking about a potential rematch in Indianapolis.''

Musberger, Fowler, and ESPN's Rece Davis, who echoed the same sentiments, probably are correct: PSU will not stay ahead of Wisconsin in the Leaders Division with the comatose offense it unveiled in the second half Saturday. Despite racking up nearly 300 yards in the first half and holding only a slim lead in the second, the Lions dialed it down, stopped executing crisply and were shut down after intermission.

That of course left it in the hands of the defense. Which held on. Barely.

Midway through the fourth quarter Northwestern had a first down at the PSU 17 and was poised to make it 34-31, or at least 34-27, with momentum and a faltering PSU offense in its favor. But Wildcats QB Dan Persa, who had been brilliant (26-of-34, 295 yards), was tackled from behind by Jack Crawford and sustained a toe injury that knocked him out of the game. Backup QB/running specialist Kain Colter then was sacked on successive plays, knocking Northwestern out of FG range.

If Persa doesn't get injured, who knows what happens?

The PSU defense also was primarily responsible for the only points of the second half. A 19-yard, one-play Penn State scoring "drive" on its first possession of the third quarter (a Redd TD run) was set up by LB Gerald Hodges' 63-yard interception return.

If the Lions continue to live this close to the edge, they are bound to tumble. That's the fifth win this season, and fourth in four games, by 10 points or less.

The Musbergers and Fowlers of the world actually might be doing precarious PSU a favor by dismissing them. The Lions aren't good enough to play frontrunner. They can use the chip on their shoulder. They've been successful lurking in the background. They've been at their best operating in the margins, without the national attention thrust upon them. Let Wisconsin, or someone else, falter beneath the expectations.

Which makes it fitting that McGloin will be the PSU quarterback. Maybe such a disrespected team should have an unheralded walk-on as its quarterback. For better or worse.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Class of 2009: Heart of the Penn State football program

Recruiting class of 2009: Heart of the Penn State football program
It's low on attrition and leading PSU into 2012 and beyond

The most productive players in the 2009 PSU recruiting class thus far are true juniors Gerald Hodges, Justin Brown and Jordan Hill. Very nice players, but ... ho-hum. They are relatively unknown beyond Happy Valley. Not superstars, not yet at least.

However, of the 27 who signed in 2009 (a huge class for PSU), a whopping 25 are still with the program. That's an extraordinarily high retention rate after two-and-a-half years. Most schools have more than two signees who don't make it to campus that fall, much less all but two still in the program a few years later.

The 25 from 2009 - 19 sophomores, 6 juniors - are the cornerstone of the PSU program.

Here's the breakdown:

DEARLY DEPARTED: DB Darrell Givens, QB Kevin Newsome.
  • Newsome lost out in the QB competition and transferred after this spring. PSU reportedly wanted Givens, a star recruit, to go to prep school. He declined and eventually ended up at Rutgers where he has scarcely played.

IN THE BACKGROUND: G Mark Arcidiacono, T Nate Cadogan, G Frank Figueroa, T Adam Gress, WR Christian Kuntz, S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, G Eric Shrive, CB Mike Wallace
  • Just about every OL recruit from this class has yet to pierce the depth chart. With four starting lineman graduating after this season, all of five of the redshirt sophomore OLs listed above will get a shot in 2012. Cadogan has moonlighted at TE as necessary.

SOLID CONTRIBUTORS: C/LS Ty Howle, CB Stephon Morris, WR/KR Devon Smith, S Malcolm Willis
  • Morris and Smith - diminutive junior speedsters from Maryland - had the earliest impact in this class, playing quite a bit as true freshmen. Morris was usurped by Chaz Powell when Powell switched from WR to CB, but he has been a solid backup and could start next year. Smith has been overused; PSU needs to pick its spots carefully for him to get the ball. Willis, a redshirt sophomore, has been a key reserve/nickelback and should start the next two seasons. Howle (redshirt sophomore) is a stellar student who has handled much of the snapping duties the past two seasons.

POTENTIAL FOR MUCH MORE: WR Curtis Drake, RB Curtis Dukes, WR Brandon Moseby-Felder, TE Garry Gilliam, WR Shawney Kersey, CB Derrick Thomas, G John Urschel

  • All of these guys are redshirt sophomores and have shown flashes, but for one reason or another (injuries to Drake and Gilliam, doghouse for Thomas) haven't had much impact yet. But they are on the verge, and most will be counted on the rest of this season and the next two seasons.

STALWARTS: WR/PR Justin Brown, K/P Anthony Fera, LB Glenn Carson, DT Jordan Hill, LB Gerald Hodges, DE Sean Stanley
  • Brown, Hill, Hodges and Stanley - all juniors who played sparingly as true freshmen - have emerged as solid starters and significant playmakers this season. Fera, a redshirt sophomore, has stabilized the kicking situation. Carson, who grayshirted due in part to a back injury, is a true sophomore. He was a surprise anointment as a starter before the season and has not disappointed.

How were the class of 2009 evaluated entering college? Phil Steele's annual college football preview magazine creates a composite ranking for every recruit, based on an average of multiple recruiting services. Collectively, PSU's 2009 class ranked 14th nationally and third in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State and Michigan. Here's how they were rated individually when they signed, in order:

1. Eric Shrive, 2. Kevin Newsome, 3. Justin Brown, 4. Darrell Givens, 5. Gerald Hodges, 6. Glenn Carson, 7. Sean Stanley, 8. Curtis Dukes, 9. Mark Arcidiacono, 10. Shawney Kersey, 11. Derrick Thomas, 12. Ty Howle, 13. Adam Gress, 14. Stephon Morris, 15. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, 16. Malcolm Willis, 17. Devon Smith, 18. Jordan Hill, 19. Anthony Fera, 20. Brandon Moseby-Felder, 21. Curtis Drake, 22. Garry Gilliam, 23. Nate Cadogan, 24. Christian Kuntz, 25. Frank Figueroa, 26. Mike Wallace, 27. John Urschel

PSU GIVETH, PSU TAKETH: The hullabaloo over the recent loss of an offensive line commitment compelled recruiting analyst Mike Farrell to write a short piece about Penn State's history of losing committed players to other schools.

The skinny: PSU gets as many formerly committed players as it loses.

Farrell listed many well-known PSU recruits the Lions signed after they first committed to another school: Bani Gbadyu (LSU); Gerald Hodges, Shawney Kersey and Jordan Hill (all Rutgers); Anthony Morelli, Ben Kline and Bill Belton (all Pittsburgh); Pat Devlin (Miami); and Anthony Fera (Michigan).

NON-WISCONSIN: Of note is that it was a Big Ten school - Wisconsin - that recently swooped away the in-state PSU commitment, offensive lineman J.J. Denman. Supposedly there is a long-held Big Ten gentlemen's agreement that schools shall not covet fellow Big Ten commitments. (Fera's father said that Penn State did not contact Fera after his initial commitment to Michigan, and this admittedly is a gray area). When Rich Rodriguez came on board at Michigan he quickly flipped three prospects who were already committed to Big Ten schools - including RB Michael Shaw from Penn State - and he caught a lot of flak. Slick Rich was new to the league, and that bad karma seemed to shadow him during his disastrous three-year tenure.

Where's the flak for Bret Bielema? The Wisconsin coach has straddled the ethical line on some other occasions, too. In 2006 vs. PSU, he instructed the Badgers kickoff team to purposely sprint five yards ahead of the kicker to exploit a rules loophole (soon corrected) and run out the clock in the first half. After the offsides penalty was administered, Wisconsin kicked off again two more times (and was waaaay offsides again), but the lost time on the game clock remained lost (as per the rules that season), and Penn State never got the ball.

It was interesting enough that Bielema purposely exploited the loophole. But by having the entire kickoff unit offsides by five yards and running full speed into the unsuspecting PSU players - instead of having just one player do it - he created a very dangerous situation.

This was overshadowed, however, by the sideline injury to Joe Paterno, when Andrew Quarless crashed into his knee after catching a pass that day. But here's ESPN's account of the kickoff incident from the game story:

"Bielema did, however, get Paterno's blood boiling near halftime when the Badgers tried to run out the last 23 seconds of the half by intentionally going offsides on two straight kickoff attempts to take advantage of a new rule that starts the clock when the ball is kicked.
Paterno stormed onto the field to complain to officials, then emphatically waved off a television reporter as he headed to the locker room."

Bielema's karma count definitely is running in the negative. Even moreso with the announcement that Michigan State stud DE William Gholston is suspended for the Wisconsin-Michigan State game this weekend.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

PREVIEW: Oct. 22 - Penn State at Northwestern (posted 10.20.11)

Penn State football 2011: Game 8 - Penn State (6-1, 3-0) at Northwestern (2-4, 0-3)
It's all about the Penn State defense this week. Even more than usual.

It's difficult to foresee anything but a high-anxiety, stress-to-the-final-gun game in Evanston on Saturday. Because both Northwestern and Penn State rarely play any other kind - even if they do so in diametrically opposite manners.

Penn State's anti-opportunistic offense keeps its opponent in almost every game (see: Temple, Indiana, Iowa, Purdue). Northwestern's relentless offense keeps the Wildcats in every game (see: Illinois, Michigan, Iowa).

For example, in last week's 41-31 loss to Iowa, Northwestern QB Dan Persa was 31-for-40 passing as the Wildcats piled up 495 total yards. Three weeks ago Persa led Northwestern to a 28-10 lead on the road over then-unbeaten Illinois before the Wildcats succumbed 38-35 in the final seconds.

Northwestern is averaging 30 points a game in Big Ten play. We know PSU isn't going to score 31 this week. So this one boils down to whether the Penn State defense can keep Persa and pals at bay, especially during the second half.

As the game gets late, as Northwestern's play volume climbs, as the legs get heavy, as the pressure amps up and fatigue sets in, will the Lions hold on?

All the evidence suggests, yes. Make that YES! The PSU defense has been exceptional overall - sixth nationally in scoring defense (11.6 ppg) and total defense (264.1 ypg) - but especially in the second half of games.

The Lions have allowed only nine points in the third quarter, and just 20 meaningful, "real" points in the fourth (the 13 fourth quarter points allowed to Indiana State and Eastern Michigan came in blowouts after both teams had been shut out for three quarters)

That total of 29 "real" second half points - against Alabama, Temple, Indiana, Iowa and Purdue - came in games that were close. When it counted. That's really, really good.

Why have the Lions been so successful on defense on crunch time?
  • Depth: At DB and LB (even with the injury loss of stud Michael Mauti), PSU has the backups capable of giving the starters a blow and not missing a beat in performance. At DE, PSU has a nice three-man rotation. DT is the only position where the starters - Devon Still and Jordan Hill - have to suck it up almost the entire way. The relentless Still and streamlined Hill have been up to the task.
  • Conditioning: There have been no signs that the PSU D cannot maintain its high level deep into the fourth quarter. In a few games in recent years (Iowa 2008? Iowa 2009?) that perhaps wasn't always the case. This season, during the big moments late, the PSU defense looks as if it just took a collective hit of Red Bull.
  • Game Conditioning: Even teams with very high fitness levels can grow a little soft if they're not battle tested. The upside of Penn State not being able to put away games is that the Lions have proven their mettle in crunch time. Which makes them readier when it crops up again. Of course, the flip-side of battle-tested is battle fatigue. If the offense keeps demanding the defense comes through, eventually PSU will buckle. Especially with three of the Big Ten's best offenses - Northwestern, Illinois and Nebraska - up next in succession. 
  • Coaching/Tactics: The Lions have surrendered nine points in the third quarter, and six of those came last week when Purdue cashed in on a 26-yard drive. Clearly, the coaching staff is sending the team out for the second half with a prescient plan, and the players are transferring it from the blackboard to the field with aplomb.
  • Experience: Almost all of the PSU starting defenders had accrued significant playing time entering 2011 (MLB Glenn Carson was the lone exception, though backup LB Nate Stupar was very experienced). This was true at all levels of the defense - DL, LB and DB. That balance of experience has minimized gaps in the defense and confusion over assignments. Everybody knows their responsibility on every play. Busted coverages and big plays are extremely rare. That's a product of experience as much as anything - an accumulation of hundreds of hours getting coached in practice combined with significant game experience. Which is a primary reason PSU is third nationally in pass efficiency defense with a rating of 89.6.
  • Continuity/Maturity: Same coaches + same philosophy + same players + seasoning = success.
  • Talent: Still might be the only surefire Nittany Lion defensive player who is a future NFL starter since Mauti injured his other knee. But a whole slew of others could get a cup of coffee - and perhaps more - in the league, including Gerald Hodges, Jack Crawford, Stupar, Khairi Fortt, D'Anton Lynn, Hill, Chaz Powell, Nick Sukay, Sean Stanley, Carson, Stephon Morris, Adrian Amos, Malcolm Willis and Eric Latimore.
  • Confidence: The defense is feeling pretty good about itself, without seeming overconfident, even with the loss of Mauti.
If everything goes as the indicators say it should, PSU - thanks to its ever-ready defense - will emerge from Northwestern 4-0 in the Big Ten and still in control of its destiny in the quest to reach the first Big Ten title game.

TWO QBs TOO: Northwestern integrates backup QB/running specialist Kain Colter into the game intermittently. Colter, who started when Persa was injured early this season and also plays wide receiver, has been very effective, averaging 5.4 yard per carry and five rushing TDs.

AROUND THE LEAGUE: Undefeated Big Ten bully (circa 2011) Wisconsin gets perhaps its biggest test of the season Saturday at Michigan State. The Spartans have the only defense in the league that has outplayed Penn State's, and they are on a high ebb after beating previously unbeaten rival Michigan last week. Wisconsin leads the nation in scoring (50.2 ppg) and Michigan State is second nationally in total defense (186.2 ypg). Something has to give. 

INJURY FRONT: The loss of WR Derek Moye (broken foot) for at least one more week, and perhaps several more, means PSU continues to play without arguably its best offensive (Moye) and defensive (Mauti) players. How many teams have faced such adversity this season?

VEGAS SAYS: PSU is a 4-point favorite with an over-under of 47.5, which means the predicted final score is 25.75 to 21.75.

RANKINGS: The Massey Ratings, a composite average of dozens of computer rankings and polls, has Penn State No. 20 and Northwestern No. 90 (which seems low, but the Wildcats did lose at No. 100 Army while Persa still was injured)

THE BOTTOM LINE: "Winning Ugly," or "Just Win Baby," or whatever you want to call it, the Lions should pull it off again - as long as RB Silas Redd continues to control the ball a little bit, as long as the offense minimizes turnovers and as long as the special teams don't get significantly outplayed. The defense will take it from there.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Big Uglies: Big Ten linemen in the NFL (posted 10.18.11)

The Big Uglies: Who's Producing NFL Linemen in the Big Ten? 
Is Wisconsin's reputation as an offensive linemen factory fact or fiction?

Penn State recruiting followers were despondent at the news this week that a highly regarded offensive line prospect had de-committed from Penn State and instead committed to Wisconsin.

In general, the apparent loss of 2012 recruit J.J. Denman was viewed with a mix of angst and resignation: "Well, they are Wisconsin, so who can blame a kid of wanting to go there? They crank out the NFL linemen."

(By the way, whatever happened to Big Ten schools respecting verbal commitments to other Big Ten schools?)

On one of the college football TV shows this week, an announcer declared that Wisconsin churns out first round picks on the offensive line "year after year.''

Really? RFBS' memory bank could only name two Wisconsin OLs in recent years who were first round picks (Joe Thomas, Gabe Carimi), and could not name another Badger OL product currently in the NFL.

Which got RFBS wondering: Who in the Big Ten actually is churning out the most Big Uglies for the League? In a conference renowned for producing offensive lineman, which is the premier school? Is it Wisconsin? Michigan? Nebraska? Ohio State?

Guess again. The clear-cut No. 1 is ... Iowa.

And the Hawkeyes don't just win in quantity, but quality: RT Bryan Bulaga started as a rookie for the Packers run to the Super Bowl last season; G Robert Gallery, G Eric Steinbach and C Casey Wiegmann started a combined 399 games entering the season; and G Marshal Yanda of the Ravens is rated the fifth-best guard in the NFL by ESPN's Scouts Inc.

Penn State's four NFL lineman consist of three solid starters - RT Kareem McKenzie (11th season, Giants), LT Levi Brown (5th season, Cardinals) and LG Stefen Wisniewski (rookie, Raiders) - along with Patriots third-year reserve G Rich Ohrnberger.

( is the source of the data below, which obviously is only as accurate as the most recent signings or cuts)

Big Ten linemen in the NFL
  • 8 - Iowa (Bryan Bulaga, Robert Gallery, Bryan Mattison, Seth Olsen, Eric Steinbach, Julian Vandervelde, Casey Wiegmann, Marshal Yanda)
  • 6 - Nebraska (Russ Hochstein, Richie Incognito, Lydon Murtha, Carl Nicks, Dominic Raiola, Matt Slauson)
  • 5 - Michigan (David Baas, Jeff Backus, Jonathan Goodwin, Steve Hutchinson, Jake Long)
  • 5 - Ohio State (Alex Boone, Jim Cordle, Nick Mangold, Jake McQuaide (LS), Rob Sims)
  • 5 - Wisconsin (Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Bill Nagy, Joe Thomas, Kraig Urbik)
  • 4 - Penn State (Levi Brown, Kareem McKenzie, Rick Ohrnberger, Stefen Wisniewski)
  • 4 - Illinois (Jon Asamoah, David Diehl, Brandon Moore, Tony Pashos)
  • 4 - Purdue (Nick Hardwick, Matt Light, Uche Nwaneri, Michael Otto)
  • 3 - Indiana (James Brewer, Kris Dielman, Rodger Saffold)
  • 2 - Northwestern (Trai Essex, Zach Strief)
  • 1 - Michigan State (Kyle Cook)
  • 0 - Minnesota
What about the future? According to Scouts Inc., at this juncture the lone Big Ten lineman projected as a first-round pick this spring is Iowa T Riley Reiff.

NOTES: Scouts Inc. rates Thomas (No. 1), Long (2) and McKenzie (6) among the Top 10 offensive tackles in the NFL. ... Nicks (3), Yanda (5), Dielman (7) and Moore (9) made the Scouts Inc. Top 10 at guard. ... Mangold is No. 1 and Hardwick No. 8 among centers. ... Minnesota's bagel is embarrassing, but Michigan State having just one is perhaps the biggest surprise. ... Rookies such as Carimi and Wisniewski (the starting left guard for the Raiders) are not yet included in the Scouts Inc. ratings.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Truths, Damn Truths and Statistics (posted 10.17.11)

Truths, Damn Truths and Statistics
Turning the old saying on its ear - there's truth to be siphoned from the numbers, if you siphon deep enough

Football is a tough game to quantify statistically, with all of its complicating variables.

For example, how do you quantify the chemistry of an entire offensive line all blocking the correct defenders on a given play? How do you account for bad route running, improper reads by a receiver and/or unblocked defenders in a quarterback's rating? Or checking to the right play, or calling the right defense, or timing a delayed blitz? Swirling gusts of wind on long passes, FGs or punts? Rain? Sleet? Snow? Hail?

So football statistics are imperfect measures. Nevertheless, the sport can produce useful stats - even if some might be compromised by the vagaries of circumstances. And for Penn State, through seven games some stats reveal what's going well, some tell where the Lions need to circle the wagons, and others reinforce what your eyes are telling you.
  • FIELD GOALS: Before Anthony Fera took over the FG duties in Game 4, PSU had made a calamitous 1-of-6 attempts. Fera is now 9-of-10, and he's perfect on PATs. With three of PSU's six wins thus far coming by six points or fewer, a steady leg from Fera is critical.
  • TACKLES FOR LOSS: Devon Still has 10, which is second in the Big Ten and an exceptional number for a defensive tackle. If Still keeps this up he could be the conference defensive player of the year.
  • PUNT TOUCHBACKS: When one school accounts for more than 1/3rd of all punt touchbacks in the conference, something is very wrong. Penn State has nine touchbacks. The other 11 teams in the Big Ten combined have 17. Nebraska and Purdue have none. The punter (Fera), the coverage units and the coaches all share in the blame and must get this remedied or PSU will succumb to bad field position
  • PENALTIES: It's not like the Lions are accumulating a lot of penalties - 44.6 yards per game, fifth-best/lowest in the conference. But PSU typically has an exceptionally low penalty rate. Also, for whatever reason, PSU opponents are committing very few penalties - 37.7 yards per game against the Lions, by far the fewest in the league. So this is the ultra-rare season where Penn State is a net loss in penalty yards.
  • INTERCEPTIONS/TURNOVERS: PSU's 11 picks are first in the Big Ten and tied for seventh nationally. Turnover margin always is one of the biggest indicators of success, and PSU is +5.
  • PASS EFFICIENCY DEFENSE: The Lions are yielding an exceptional 89.6 passer rating, second best in the Big Ten.
  • RUSH DEFENSE: PSU is third in the Big Ten allowing 3.0 yards per carry and 103 rush yards per game. Against the prolific attacks of Northwestern, Illinois, Nebraska and Wisconsin - all in the top 5 in the Big Ten in total offense - PSU will be relying on its defense more than ever. 
  • KICKOFF RETURNS: As long as Chaz Powell is the one returning it, PSU is in good shape. Powell has broken two long ones and is third nationally, first in the Big Ten with a 32.8 average. Devon Smith averages just 10.5 per return.
  • SCORING DEFENSE: PSU hasn't faced a murderer's row of offenses, but it's average of 11.6 points allowed per game is excellent. The three points surrendered to Iowa, which is averaging 32.5 per game, is the highlight.
  • QB RATING: Matt McGloin's is 136.0, Rob Bolden's is 85.2. Considering Bolden is not a much better runner, this discrepancy is vast. McGloin should be getting the majority of the snaps.
  • RED ZONE: More like the black 'n blue zone. When we introduced the Ultimate Red Zone Percentage last week, it illuminated PSU's struggles. The Lions 58.7 URZP is last in the Big Ten.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

POSTSCRIPT: PSU 23, Purdue 18 (posted 10.15.11)

Oct. 15 - Penn State 23, Purdue 18

There's a funny cartoon with three glasses, all filled halfway.
  • On the first glass is the word "pessimist," and the caption says "I'm half-empty.''
  • On the second glass is the word "optimist," and the caption says "I'm half-full.''
  • On the third glass is the word "realist," and the caption says "I think I'm half-filled with pee."
Penn State is 6-1 overall, 3-0 in the Big Ten and in first place in the Leaders Division. That's very good stuff. Yet the overwhelming feeling after games such as PSU's lethargic 23-18 Homecoming win over hapless Purdue is that the Lions' glass might be half-full, but it's filled with something much less than premium liquid refreshment.

Penn State football 2011 is more like a cure for enthusiasm. The Lions are rewriting the book on:
  • How to win unimpressively - can you win and drop out of the Top 25?
  • How not to strike fear - Northwestern, with four straight losses, will be a popular pick to defeat the Lions next week.
  • How to keep lame opponents in the game - Purdue was the No. 76 in the nation in the composite Massey Ratings.
Does any of that matter as long as PSU keeps winning? No, it doesn't. But can Penn State possibly keep winning while its quarterbacks play so erratically? While defenses dare the Lions to execute a balanced offense?

Winning cures all, but it doesn't always foretell a promising future.

The two QB system now must be considered permanent. Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin are who they are, and they're both going to play in every game, apparently.

Regardless, there's something confoundingly off-kilter between the quarterbacks and the play-calling. The quarterbacks play with little confidence, and frequently make bad decisions and bad throws.

And the play-calls show little confidence (repeated running calls on 2nd-and-long all season), and are very conservative (48 runs, 23 passes Saturday) and seize up in the red zone (ad nauseum).

However, there was one sequence Saturday, after Purdue cut it to 13-12 in the third quarter, where Penn State's offense looked totally awesome(!) For real. The Lions and McGloin used play-action rollout passes - imagine that! - to rip right down the field in four plays for a touchdown. A 22-yard pass, a 20-yard pass, a 9-yard pass and - with the defense softened and backpedaling - a 9-yard run. Touchdown.

Then things got more interesting: PSU did it again the next possession! McGloin hit three straight passes for 70 yards ... Alas, it was like the episode where Beavis suddenly, inexplicably, starts behaving like a genius (and freaks out Butt-head), only to revert back to form with no recollection of his spate of brilliance. On the next play McGloin threw into double coverage and was intercepted.

Bad play call? McGloin's fault? Whatever - PSU ran the ball almost every play the rest of the way.

They had suddenly started passing it all over Beaver Stadium, then a pass went awry and they reverted to the default mechanism and overcorrected back to running almost exclusively. All one way, then all the other way.

Yes, RB Silas Redd is PSU's best offensive option, and yes WR Derek Moye wasn't playing, and yes a 2-to-1 run-pass ratio actually can be a very good thing. But that's not the point. The point is the offense plays with little confidence. It doesn't have a balance, a rhythm, a theme. The opposing defense can feel it.

The PSU offense doesn't have an identity. Moments of brilliance notwithstanding.

And a potentially special season will be spoiled if that doesn't change in the next few weeks.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Upside of Injuries: Derek Moye's broken foot

The Upside of (some) Injuries
The loss of Derek Moye could be beneficial to Penn State. Yes, beneficial.

The mysterious broken foot sustained this week by star Penn State WR Derek Moye - it happened in an apartment mishap? and will require just two weeks to heal? -  actually could have a positive effect on Penn State football.

Could. If the following occurs:
  1. If Moye's absence doesn't harm the team in the short term. The two games he'll miss are vs. Purdue and at Northwestern. PSU should win both regardless.
  2. If Moye returns fully healthy in the two-week time frame PSU has indicated, ready to go.
If those two things occur, then Moye's injury actually will help the team.

How? Because two things are certain to happen in his absence, and both are good:
  1. QB Matt McGloin will be forced to throw the ball to others. (If McGloin drops back this Saturday and still locks on to Moye - standing on the sideline in a hard boot - then Moye may have to be removed from the stadium.)
  2. Other receivers (hopefully Shawney Kersey) will get more playing time and more targets. So they will be more experienced, capable and confident the rest of the season. Live game action is the best thing for player development.
This "injury upside" forecast was not quite the case last season. Sure, when the injury siege struck the defense in 2010, players such as DL DaQuan Jones, DB Malcolm Willis and several LBs earned valuable opportunities. It was great for their personal development, and Willis in particular is an emerging asset (though it cost Jones a redshirt he could use and might never get back).

But the defense incurred an immediate dropoff in performance in 2010. It led to an embarrassing home loss to Illinois. The season teetered on the brink of collapse before the defense stabilized just enough for the Lions to win the games they should have won the rest of the way.

The keys in this situation are Moye's foot healing quickly/completely - he is needed vs. Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin - and PSU winning these next two games. The Lions should grind one out in winning-ugly fashion this week vs. Purdue. More troubling could be next week at Northwestern. Still, PSU should win both.

Then, if the Lions enter the Oct. 29 Illinois game with a healthy Moye and two more wins under their belt, they will be a better team for the experience. WRs Justin Brown, Kersey and Brandon Moseby-Felder presumably will have been the beneficiaries of Moye's absence. The seldom-targeted Kersey and Moseby-Felder should be noticeably better players in two weeks.

McGloin will have more confidence in them. And, importantly, McGloin will have more confidence in himself. (More real, internal confidence; he's mastered the external, for-show displays.) He will have guided PSU to two wins without his vapor-lock security blanket Moye.

And if Penn State needs anything right now, it's an injection of confidence in the offense.

An injury to Derek Moye is a good thing? Could be.

MID-SEASON ALL-BIG TEN TEAM: The most knowledgeable and productive person in the universe, college football information megastar Phil Steele, released his mid-season all-conference teams. He showed only modest love for PSU, in particular for Drew Astorino and Jack Crawford, and had no love for any PSU LBs, Chaz Powell, Jordan Hill or Sean Stanley, who all could make a case. Then again, it's only mid-season, so who cares? Six more games to go.

PSU players on Phil Steele mid-season All-Big Ten team
First Team:
DT Devon Still

Second Team:
DE Jack Crawford
S Drew Astorino
RB Silas Redd
WR Derek Moye

Third Team:
S Nick Sukay

Of note:

  • Seven Iowa defensive players and six Michigan State defensive players were on one of the three teams. Hard to explain all the love for Iowa defenders.
  • Iowa also had five offensive players and two specialists, giving the two-loss Hawkeyes, who lost head-to-head to one-loss Penn State, a 14-6 edge over PSU in players named. Hmm.
  • Illinois had seven players on first- or second-team defense, and 11 Illini players total made one of the three teams on offense or defense.
  • Electrifying, ultra-productive Michigan QB Denard Robinson is 5th in ESPN's Heisman rankings but is the third-team QB behind Wisconsin's Russell Wilson and Illinois' Ntahan Scheelhaase. It's a good year for QBs in the Big Ten, with notable exceptions at PSU and OSU.
  • No Ohio State players made first- or second-team defense, or first-team offense.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Ending the JoePa Era in 2011, Part II: Urban Meyer in 2012? (posted 10.10.11)

Ending the Joe Paterno Era in 2011, Part II: What would PSU football be like with Urban Meyer at the helm?

In Part I of this series last month, RFBS explained why Penn State president Graham Spanier and AD Tim Curley must begin planning for the end of the incomparable Joe Paterno Era immediately after this season. It detailed how they needed to make the move crisply, yet carefully and tactfully, in the days after the 2011 regular season ends.

This was based primarily on two things: (1) The 84-year-old Paterno is in physical decline to the point he can no longer fulfill the exhausting duties of a major college football coach, and (2) Paterno has given no indication he will step down willingly any time soon, so it will take careful planning to do it at the right time and in a manner worthy of Paterno's legacy.

The next question then is, who should be the next Penn State football coach?

Last week, a media outlet covering Ohio State reported that Urban Meyer met with Spanier and Curley on Sept. 25. Which obviously could mean Spanier/Curley are on the same wavelength as RFBS and are planning to replace Paterno with Meyer after this season.

It makes sense. If Spanier/Curley end Paterno's legendary career, they will need a coach worthy and capable of replacing him. And Meyer is the best coach available, or at least the most accomplished. He has won 82 percent of his games and has a 7-1 bowl record. He is one of extremely few with the stature and skills to fill JoePa's renowned black shoes. And PSU is one of the extremely few schools with the status to lure Meyer from his "retirement" after last season at age 46 (he's now 47).

Perhaps Spanier/Curley were only consulting with Meyer on how to go about the process of ending the Paterno Era. Picking his brain for potential replacements across the coaching landscape.

But maybe they were zeroing in on the best available coach. Or at least feeling him out.

Let's hypothesize that they get to know Meyer better, do the proper vetting and get a commitment. Then, in early December, in one of the biggest coaching announcements of all-time, Spanier introduces Meyer - two-time National Champion at Florida, and the man who reached unprecedented success at Bowling Green and Utah before that - to succeed Paterno.

In Part I of this series, RFBS said of JoePa's end, "No options will include (Paterno) having final say over his successor, because Curley and Spanier are paid to make those decisions." But the next coach (especially if he comes from outside the current staff) might insist on meeting with Paterno first to get his blessing. And Paterno might not be willing to step aside gracefully unless he perceives he has a say in his successor. And making this transition smooth, and most respectful of Paterno and his legacy, is of utmost importance and cannot be compromised. He has done far too much for Penn State and college football to have it any other way.

Meyer likely wouldn't have it any other way, too. On many occasions, including the December buildup to the Florida-PSU Outback Bowl, and most recently during the PSU-Iowa broadcast Saturday which Meyer worked as a commentator for ESPN, he has spoke glowingly of his relationship with and reverance for Paterno. He took it a step further Saturday by touting the friendship between his wife and Sue Paterno. Meyer wouldn't just want to have Paterno's blessing, he would insist on it.

What would happen to PSU football under Meyer? Lions fans will have four big concerns:

  1. The prolific arrest record of Florida players during Meyer's tenure. In six seasons, from 2005-10, it was at least 30 arrests.
  2. Can Meyer uphold Paterno's "Success with Honor" legacy by graduating his players and staying in good stead with the NCAA?
  3. Meyer's spread-option offense at Florida - and offense is Meyer's side of the ball, though he also has the CEO thing down pretty good - when Tim Tebow wasn't under center, was all too often stultifying.
  4. Is Meyer physically and emotionally up to the task, long-term? He left the Gators claiming health woes, burnout and a desire to spend more time with his family.

No. 1 - The Penn State community was aghast at times during the past decade by the number of arrests of PSU football players. It brought a lot of negative publicity, and it clearly harmed Paterno's legacy.

The past few years - knock on wood - off-field problems are down. Whether that's a concerted effort by the coaches, players and administration, or whatever, it's important: If arrests and misbehavior had continued at the high rate, it would have lent credence to the notion Paterno had lost touch, lost control and lost his clout. He might not have made it this far.

No one wants a return to those woes. You can be sure this will be discussed at length between Spanier/Curley and Meyer. The onus is on Meyer and his staff to investigate recruits more closely and monitor them better once on campus. It's impossible to eliminate off-field problems, but it is important to minimize them. Meyer failed in that regard at UF. Which doesn't mean he would fail again, but it is definitely a cause for concern. Meyer bristled at news reports that his Florida players were renegades, and he got testy with reporters who questioned him about it. If he coaches again, he seems very likely to get a better grasp on off-field behavior.

No. 2 - Meyer is a very aggressive recruiter, and it was one of the keys to his success at Florida. Public perception - and proven fact in many instances - is that pretty much everyone in the SEC is cheating (except for Vanderbilt) and either has been nailed by the NCAA, or will be nailed. Meyer skated by without major incident. Penn State would not tolerate NCAA violations. PSU's status, along with Stanford, as the only BCS schools to never have incurred NCAA sanctions is gleaming badge of honor.

Meyer would have to toe the line. Could he do so? The infrastructure obviously already is in place at PSU. Clearly the boosters are well informed and monitored by PSU compliance, as are the players. The current coaching staff obviously is playing by the rules too, and some of those coaches might be retained. This will be another lengthy discussion between Meyer and PSU officials - there is no gray area on this one. Meyer recognizes this and would not want to tarnish his and Paterno's legacy by bringing shame upon the school. RFBS expects Meyer would not incur NCAA troubles.

As for the graduation rate and commitment to molding as many true student-athletes as possible, Meyer would be hard-pressed to live up to Paterno's exalted standards. Who could? But he'd have one big thing going for him: The Paterno Way has been ingrained in Happy Valley since the 1966 season. You don't change a 46-year policy overnight. It's part of the DNA of the program.

No. 3 - Meyer's offense at Florida was awful last season. It wasn't even good during the first National Championship season, 2006 (it just looked good in the title game mugging of Ohio State). It takes the right QB - obviously Tebow was the man, and having Percy Harvin didn't hurt - and a little seasoning to work properly. And even then it can look ungainly at times. It's a grind, for the most part. But Meyer is completely committed to it. In fact he thinks his offense is meant for a school like Penn State, as he recently labeled his version of the spread as a Big Ten-appropriate spread offense. But it must have the right quarterback, and neither Matt McGloin nor Rob Bolden are that guy. Kevin Newsome would have been that guy, but he transferred (Newsome was reminiscent of Meyer's first quarterback at Bowling Green, ultra-productive Josh Harris). Either Paul Jones, incoming recruit Skylar Mornhinweg, or a new, Meyer-recruited QB would start for PSU next season.

No. 4 - Meyer resigned twice from UF, just in the last two years, citing health issues, burnout and a desire to spend more time with his family. Is he really ready to resume one of the toughest jobs in America - head football coach at football factory that demands wins and 100,000 plus in the seats and high graduation rates and no NCAA violations and minimal player off-field shenanigans? Only Meyer knows, but there certainly is reason to be skeptical. Meyer mailed it in his final season at UF. He was not the same coach. And that was just last year. Is he ready to dial it up again, full-bore, so soon? Only Meyer and his physician know the answer. Also worth noting is that Meyer's approach might not be designed for the long haul. As a motivator, he's a little gimmicky, schtick-ish. A veteran beat reporter at Florida when Meyer arrived predicted his style wouldn't last much more than a few years before it lost effect. After five successful seasons, the Gators incurred a big decline under Meyer in 2010.

One other possible hang-up with Meyer: $$$$$. The price tag for the highest paid college coaches is ridiculous, and Spanier has said PSU will not pay top dollar for its next coach. He firmly believes the Mack Browns and Nick Sabans of the world are way overpaid (Saban reportedly earns in excess of $6 million annually, Brown more than $5 million). Which means Spanier believes Meyer was overpaid, too. Plus, Spanier has gotten away with paying Paterno far below market value for many years.

Spanier is looking to pay the next PSU coach about $1.5 - $2 million annually, which is probably about half of what Meyer could earn elsewhere. Spanier likely would have to be creative with Meyer's contract, adding value in non-financial ways, and Meyer would have to be satisfied with well under his market value for the chance to coach Penn State.

The bottom line? Meyer is no JoePa, but who is? Jim Tressel, sullied as his name now is, probably is a better comparison to Meyer as a football coach, but without the sheer stupidity and denial Tressel displayed while (not) dealing with off-field issues. And Meyer had a better knack for coaching big games. Winning like Tressel in the regular season and JoePa in the bowls while steering a steady ship off the field would be a best-case scenario. And it's achievable for Meyer - if he's truly physically and emotionally ready for job.

Meyer likely would keep some of Paterno's assistants. Two who definitely would not make the transition are the coordinators: OC Galen Hall would retire, because this is Meyer's offense, even if he does have a de facto offensive coordinator, and Hall is getting old; and DC Tom Bradley, who would take a head coaching job or defensive coordinator position elsewhere. Bradley likely would bring a few PSU assistants with him if he got a good enough head job.

5.5 years - that's the over-under on how long Meyer would last before he succumbed to the same issues he did at Florida. He'd win couple of Big Ten titles and go to a couple of BCS bowl games (or perhaps get PSU into the first-ever Division I playoff in 2016? RFBS can dream ... ) and keep the program, by and large, out of trouble and graduating players. For perhaps five years. Which sounds a lot like PSU football from 2005-09, when the Lions were 51-13.

Which isn't such a bad thing, is it?

And then in late 2016, PSU can introduce Meyer's successor ... Jay Paterno.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reinventing the Red Zone Metric (posted 10.11.11)

Reinventing the Red Zone Metric

a.k.a. Yes, We Can Make the 2011 PSU Offense Look Even More Miserable ...

or Surely Someone Somewhere Has Come Up With This Idea Already, Why Is It Not Universally Popularized?

For years, RFBS has been frustrated by how incomplete standard red zone statistics are.

For example, when the television graphic flashes a red zone statistic, typically it looks something like this: Team BlahBlah in red zone: 24 of 28 (85.7 percent)

This is followed by the announcer (insert voice of Brent Musberger) saying something like: "Team BlahBlah now is in the red zone, and as you can see they've been very successful there this season with an 85.7 success rate. Which ranks third in the Big Ten."

Moments later the color commentator (Herbstreit?) says something like: "But of those 24 scores, 10 of them are field goals and only 14 are touchdowns, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten. So Team BlahBlah hasn't been very successful there this season.''

And you, dear viewer, are left with a big, huge ? in your head, and perhaps a "huh?" expression on your face: Is Team BlahBlah good in the red zone? Are they not good in the red zone? You've just been presented two sets of statistics with little context and apparently contrasting meanings.

Well, finally there is a solution to your red zone quandary. It will be one number, an easily quantifiable percentage. It's simple, and much better than what is currently peddled.

It is Ultimate Red Zone Percentage. Here's how it works:

Much like a baseball pitcher's ERA is a calculation of runs allowed per nine innings (because nine innings is the length of a baseball game), Ultimate Red Zone Percentage is based on a theoretical maximum of seven points per trip to the red zone. Because the objective almost every time a team enters the red zone is to score seven points.

(Admittedly this is one of the new metric's imperfections. Sometimes a team might want/need to score eight points, and sometimes three points is just as desirable as seven. But the vast majority of the time, seven points is the objective. Over the course of a season, such situations should, in general, even out.)

So, in the hypothetical Team BlahBlah example above, the 28 red zone trips could have resulted in a maximum of 196 points (28 x 7 = 196). Those 28 chances actually yielded 128 points (14 x 7 = 98, 10 x 3 = 30, and 98 + 30 = 128).

Divide 128 (actual points) by 196 (maximum points) and voila, you have an Ultimate Red Zone Percentage of 65.3%

There it is, the only number you likely ever need to know about Team BlahBlah in the red zone: 65.3. (Some other statistics could be meaningful, such as turnovers in the red zone, or whether teams are running or passing for red zone scores, but this is the best overall figure.)

And over time, as Ultimate Red Zone Percentage becomes the lone stat cited for red zone proficiency, you'll instantly know whether 65.3 is a good percentage or not, much like baseball fans instantly know a .300 batting average is good, and .230 is not, or a 5.00 ERA is bad but a 3.00 is good. Or a 65.0 completion percentage is good but 45.0 is not.

The formula uses the scoring system for football: seven points for a touchdown/PAT, three points for a field goal and zero points for everything else. Then it all is compressed into a tidy, singular percentage. It is a much truer measure of red zone success than the percentage currently used.

Need proof? Looking at the Big Ten's conventional red zone stats for this season, Penn State ranks 11th with 17 scores in 23 chances for 73.9 percent.

However, Penn State's 17 scores consist of 11 TDs and 6 FGs. So its Ultimate Red Zone Percentage is 59.0 percent.

Guess what? That ranks 12th in the Big Ten. Dead last.

See? Ultimate Red Zone Percentage already has proven to be a more accurate measure of red zone success. Or in this case, failure.

On the flip side, very surprisingly Penn State's stellar defense ranks 12th/last in the Big Ten in conventional red zone percentage. The 11 red zone chances PSU has allowed is the second-fewest (per game) in the Big Ten behind Michigan State, but the 100 percent success rate opponents have had at putting some sort of points on the board (TD or FG) leaves Penn State No. 12 in red zone defense in the 12-team league.

Yes, incredibly, by conventional measures the Penn State offense has been better than the Penn State defense in the red zone this season.

That alone tells you the statistic needs an overhaul.

Ultimate Red Zone Percentage corrects that deficiency. With 6 TDs and 5 FGs among those 11 scores allowed, the PSU defense's Ultimate Red Zone Percentage is 79.2 percent, which moves the Lions up to 10th in the league. And they would be even higher except PSU's opponents have been perfect on FGs in the red zone (5-of-5), while Northwestern's and Nebraska's opponents have each missed two red zone FG attempts. Which is one of the luck elements in red zone defense.

So there you have it, the reinvention of the red zone metric - Ultimate Red Zone Percentage. Someday, hopefully soon, it will be the universally accepted No. 1 red zone statistic.

Just remember you read it here first.

Unless of course you already read it somewhere else.

Monday, October 10, 2011

PREVIEW: Oct. 15 - Purdue at PSU, a.k.a. Winning Ugly in 2011

PSU Football 2011 - Oct. 15 - Week 7 - Purdue (3-2, 1-0) at Penn State (5-1, 2-0)

At this point in the season it is perfectly clear Penn State's focus needs to be on mastering the art of winning ugly. Because the Lions aren't winning any other way.

So we're sending the team to RFBS School this week for a graduate level crash-course, "Winning Ugly 101: The Evolution of Penn State Football in 2011"

Here's how PSU can improve it's winning ugly ability:

Objectives - minimize turnovers, emphasize the run game, hit occasional chain-moving, play-action passes, improve in the red zone.

Going with Matt McGloin exclusively at QB will aid in this process (Rob Bolden, unfortunately, has totally lost his confidence). One thing McGloin does well is play-action passes. Of course, one of many things he doesn't do too well is minimize turnovers. His interceptions come in two forms: locking onto the primary receiver for far too long and then trying to throw it to him anyway; or simply an inaccurate throw, such as the abjectly horrifyingly bad one to Derek Moye in the end zone vs. Iowa, a great idea executed poorly if there ever was.

Play-calling in the red zone needs to improve dramatically: Lobs to Moye and Justin Brown, fullback-led running plays, play action passes to the TE and FB, and run-pass option QB rollouts. Please.

McGloin is the key. The PSU offense, with its adequate running game, has the other tools necessary to win ugly.

Objectives: no turnovers or big plays allowed, make all field goals that should be made (anything inside 45 yards), and STOP PUNTING THE BALL INTO THE END ZONE.

PSU has shown significant improvement since a poor start of the season in those first two objectives. Objective No. 3 continues to kill field position. Punter Anthony Fera delivered three more into the end zone vs. Iowa.

Fera inexplicably never tries to angle his boots toward the sideline. He keeps it middle of the field and counts on hitting the punt exactly the right distance, the ball bouncing properly, and his teammates downing the punt. It is a strategy which has failed miserably. Why not use the sideline? Especially since PSU is having no success the other way.

An essential component of winning ugly is winning field position, and Fera is costing PSU 25-plus yards of field position each game with dumb punting. Whichever coach is in charge of punting and punt coverage needs to get with Fera and the coverage unit and get this fixed, pronto.

Fera has had eight of his 23 punts reach the end zone for touchbacks, 34.8 percent.

Three Big Ten teams chosen at random - Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern - have the following punting stats:
  • Michigan - 17 punts, 0 touchbacks.
  • Michigan State - 19 punts, 2 touchbacks.
  • Northwestern - 23 punts, 3 touchbacks.
That's a combined 59 punts with 5 touchbacks, 8.5 percent. Penn State must improve dramatically in this area.

Objectives: Not much needs to be said here. These guys are getting it done. Some tough tasks are ahead, with resourceful Dan Persa rejuvenating the Northwestern attack, Illinois operating at a high level and Wisconsin in the midst of its world conquest this season. It will be interesting to see how much blitzing the normally non-blitzing Lions do since LB Gerald Hodges suddenly emerged as a top-shelf pass rusher.

Objectives: PICK A QB (please), manage the team through the transition from two QBs to one, better red zone play-calling, change punting/coverage tactics.

Play-calling and punting were addressed earlier. As for the QB, it has to be McGloin, right? Can they drag this on another week (or - egads - even longer)? If/when McGloin is anointed - a "he-didn't win-it-the-other-guy-lost-it" decision if there ever was - Bolden and his supporters will need to be massaged, so they don't fracture the locker room or become a distraction.

WHAT'S PURDUE GOT?: Not that much. Then again, neither did Indiana, and that almost turned into a disaster. The Boilermakers demolished reeling Minnesota last week 45-17 after staking a huge early lead; they lost to Notre Dame 38-10 and at Rice 24-22; and defeated Middle Tennessee St 27-24 and SE Missouri St 59-0. Purdue's best assets might be its specialists, as kicker Carson Wiggs has a cannon and punter Cody Webster leads the Big Ten with a 48.1 avg.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT: A share of first place in the Leaders Division is a stake.

THE RANKINGS: The Massey Ratings, a composite ranking of dozens of computers and polls, has PSU at No. 23 and Purdue No. 76.

VEGAS SAYS: PSU is favored by 13, with an over-under of 39.5. Meaning PSU should win by a score of 26.25 to 13.25.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Winning Ugly, 2011, baby! PSU needs to pound out another victory against an inferior opponent. By minimizing mistakes in all facets, and being sound and opportunistic on defense, the Lions will improve to 6-1, 3-0 in the Big Ten before the schedule ratchets up.