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.
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.