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.

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