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.

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