Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Big Ten and the bowls: Turning the tables?

Without NCAA-sanctioned Ohio State and Penn State, which have been replaced in the Big Ten's bowl lineup by underwhelming Minnesota and Purdue, the odds are stacked against the Big Ten this bowl season. How can the league score some upsets?

It’s holiday season and bowl season, which means the national media and college football fans are frothing at the opportunity to jam down another helping of honey ham, and then slam the Big Ten for bowl game failings.

And this season, Big Ten haters have an additional advantage: Two of the top teams in the league are ineligible for bowl play.

The usual disadvantages usually are enough to bury the Big Ten: Bowls frequently are played in the backyard of the Big Ten’s opponent (such as the Rose Bowl, against the Pac-12 champ), and most of the Big Ten’s matchups are against the two best conferences, the SEC and Big 12. Six of seven matchups this year are against the SEC or Big 12. Not a cupcake in the lot.

With the Big Ten’s top team, undefeated Ohio State, as well as Leaders Division runner-up Penn State, under NCAA sanctions and out of the bowl picture, several league teams thus moved up a slot or two in the bowl pecking order - and into more challenging games. Heck, it’s a little surprising the Big Ten even managed to get seven teams bowl-eligible considering OSU and PSU were a combined 14-2 in league play.

The end result: Every Big Ten bowl team - a perfect 7-for-7 - is a betting underdog this week.

The lineup of fearsome foes includes the No. 6 (Georgia), No. 8 (Stanford) and No. 11 (South Carolina) AP-ranked teams. The Big Ten’s bowl teams are walking a tightrope on a windy day over a pit of alligators.

The odds are stacked against the conference. But not quite as much as the experts think. The Big Ten’s recent history of bowl shortcomings has led to exaggerated point spreads this season.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

An open letter to Sports Illustrated about its continued failings re Penn State

Dear Sports Illustrated editors:

How wonderful to see the the amazing Dec. 17 cover story by Gary Smith, titled "Stand Up Speak Out," about Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison, which is helping bring the sickening scourge of child sex abuse to the forefront.

Their stories are distinct, yet they both incurred immense, incalculable suffering, due in part to society's failure to recognize and address the severity of this ubiquitous, vicious plague.

Throughout their lives even those closest to them did not recognize it. In fact no one ever stepped forward to help them - they had to do it on their own. They are two incredible people who, after years of agony, fear, confusion and despair, are somehow overcoming the most horrible of personal experiences.

And at the same time, shame on Sports Illustrated for perpetuating the myths, exaggerations, half-truths and lies in relation to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. This has been a disgusting, irresponsible pattern of behavior from SI since the Sandusky story broke in Nov. 2011.

In Smith’s lengthy, riveting story on Dickey and Harrison, there are only two relatively brief references to the Sandusky scandal. They both perpetuate the false media narrative that SI has helped maintain since the scandal broke.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Bret Bielema and Bill O'Brien: So similar, so different

Bret Bielema is the quintessential, totally self-absorbed big-time college football coach, while Bill O'Brien is cut from a different cloth.

Wisconsin is a generally likeable football program by nature, but the Badgers became insufferable several years ago.

Because Wisconsin football was inextricably linked to its new head coach.

The smarmy, unctuous, squinty phony on their sideline was just too much to take. So Wisconsin became unavoidably unlikeable.

And this week, Mr. Disingenuous, Bret Bielema, verified for everyone that, yes, the Bielema critics are indeed correct in their assessment of the noxious, self-absorbed blowhard.

(Nonetheless, Bielema shares the "Mr. Disingenuous" moniker with Lane Kiffin and perhaps a few others.)

In September, Bielema sent a handwritten letter to the Arkansas AD, Jeff Long, praising him for the way he handled the firing of the Razorbacks' scandal-ridden football coach, Bobby Petrino.

And oh-by-the-way, Bielema also used the opportunity to detail for Long his philosophy on coaching. And, Jeff (wink, coy smile), did you notice how successful I've been at Wisconsin (twirl of the finger in the hair)? And Jeff, this is crazy, but call me, maybe.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The very early sneak peek at Penn State football 2013: Defense and special teams

With no bowl to prepare for despite a winning season, Penn State can get a head start on 2013. What might the Lions look like on the field next season? A post last week examined the offense, this one takes a look at the defense and special teams.

Penn State moves into the next phase of the post-Sandusky world in 2013.

The shock of the sanctions is behind, and the scholarship limits begin. The Lions are allowed to sign just 15 in February. It is the first of four years with such a restriction (2013-16).

The 65 total scholarship limit doesn't start until 2014 and lasts through 2017, but PSU almost was under that mark this past season. The Lions had 67 scholarship players for most of 2012. So the 65 total won't have much of an impact since PSU can add just 15 scholarships each year anyway.

Also, all transfer restrictions on PSU players are lifted again by the NCAA from the end of the 2012 season until the start of the 2013 season, so PSU might incur more offseason attrition than usual, as college coaches can actively recruit the Nittany Lion players. Yes, it's a ridiculous sanction.

So what will PSU look like on the field next season? Who will be in the lineup when the Lions take the field against Syracuse at the Meadowlands on Aug. 31? A sneak peek at the defense and special teams, with some best-guesses - and assuming no one transfers:

Projected 2013 Penn State depth chart
(all stats from 2012 unless otherwise indicated; key departures listed in italics)


Defensive End
1. Deion Barnes (So.)
1. C.J. Olaniyan (Jr.)
2. Anthony Zettel (So.)
2. Brad Bars (Jr.)
3. Garrett Sickels (true Fr.)
3. Evan Schwan (Rs Fr.)
4. Jordan Kerner (So.)
4. Curtis Cothran (true Fr.)
4. Tanner Hartman (true Fr.)
starter Sean Stanley and reserve Pete Massaro graduated
  • The skinny:  Barnes (6-4, 246) was a revelation in 2012, leading PSU in tackles for loss (10) and sacks (6). He is arguably PSU's most promising player. Olaniyan, Zettel and Bars (6-3, 254) make plays happen with hustle, and Olaniyan (6-3, 248) and Zettel (4 sacks) will compete for a starting spot after both made 15 tackles in spot duty in 2012. Zettel might end up at DT. Sickels is a highly regarded recruit, but at 6-4, 230 likely needs a year of college weight training before making an impact on Saturdays; same with the 6-5, 230-pound Cothran. The lanky Schwan (6-6, 223) has had that year under his belt and could push for playing time, perhaps as a passing-down specialist; he racked up the tackles for loss in HS. Hartman (6-4, 255) might get a look at OL and TE. RS So. Jordan Kerner's career came to a premature close in January due to a chronic back injury; he never played for the Lions.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Big Ten football: It's not a "very, very down year"

Despite what seemingly all pundits have maintained since the start of the season, it's not a down year for the Big Ten

In the pantheon of major college sports conferences, with regard to football, the Big Ten is probably No. 2.

Or maybe No. 3, or 4.
It's debatable, of course, but considering recent success on the field, historical success, tradition, fan support, stability, resources, revenue, yada yada, the Big Ten is second behind the SEC, right?
Unless it's third. Or fourth. And what are the criteria exactly, anyway?
It's an endless barstool debate. It is, for sure, arguable.
But what isn't arguable is what 129 computer and polls, mashed together to create a master ranking, tell us about the respective accomplishments and strength/weakness of college football teams and conferences each season.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The very early sneak peek at Penn State football 2013: The offense

With no bowl to prepare for despite a winning season, Penn State can get a head start on 2013. What might the Lions look like on the field next season? This post takes a look at the offense.

Penn State moves into the next phase of the post-Sandusky world in 2013.

The shock of the sanctions is behind, and the scholarship limits begin. The Lions are allowed to sign just 15 in February. It is the first of four years with such a restriction (2013-16).

The 65 total scholarship limit doesn't start until 2014 and lasts through 2017, but PSU almost was under that mark this past season. The Lions had 67 scholarship players for most of 2012, so the 65 limit is not really going to have an impact until the final year (2017), since PSU can add just 15 scholarships each year through 2016 anyway.

Also, all transfer restrictions on Penn State players are lifted again by the NCAA from the end of this season until the start of next season, so PSU might incur more offseason attrition than usual.

So what will the Lions look like on the field next season? Who will be in the lineup when PSU takes the field against Syracuse at the Meadowlands on Aug. 31? A sneak peek at the offense, with some best-guesses - and assuming no one transfers:

Projected 2013 Penn State depth chart
(all stats from 2012 unless otherwise indicated; key departures listed in italics)


1. Tyler Ferguson (So.)
2. Steven Bench (So.)
3. Christian Hackenberg (true Fr.)
4. Austin Whipple (true Fr.)
4. D.J. Crook (true Fr.)
starter Matt McGloin graduated
  • The skinny:  Juco star Jake Waters bypassed PSU and committed to Kansas State on Dec. 13, and the next day the 6-5 Ferguson, a Juco prospect from California with three years of eligibility remaining, committed to the Lions. He'll be in Happy Valley for the spring. Bench has the experience edge with a year in O'Brien's system, and he is a good athlete and viable option. Hackenberg is the elite recruit but he won't arrive until the summer. Hackenberg could possibly redshirt, or possibly be the opening day starter and never look back. These three form a solid nucleus at the position, though the lack of age separation between them means next year at this time it's likely one will be looking to transfer. Whipple and Crook are run-ons from New England who enrolled early in January along with Ferguson.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ranking the best of Penn State football 2012

Penn State's best players and coaches this season - The Fab 44 - ranked in order, after the Lions compiled an 8-4 overall record, 6-2 in the Big Ten, and played under sudden, harsh NCAA sanctions and in the most extraordinary circumstances of the Sandusky scandal aftermath. How much have things changed at PSU in the past year? Of the 44 listed below, just 13 were on this list after last season.

The Fab 44 for Penn State 2012
(last season's ranking in parentheses)

  1. Bill O'Brien, Head Coach (NR) - O'Brien would be great coaching any team, anywhere. But without question he is the best man for this job, among the most difficult imagineable when he inherited it, then greatly exacerbated when the sanctions dropped in late July, but now one with optimism for the future. It's his program now.
  2. Michael Mauti, LB, Sr. (31) - A real leader, Mauti stepped to the forefront amidst scandal and sanctions, and demonstrated the Penn State Way was about passion, excellence, integrity and grace, not anything coming out of Mark Emmert's disgusting mouth. Also played pretty darn well coming off his second major knee injury, making 95 tackles with team highs of 3 int. and 3 forced fumbles before incurring his third major knee injury on an illegal chop block vs. Indiana in Game 11.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Penn State's 2012 football season was amazing, despite everything

This amazing season of Penn State football will be remembered long and well by Penn Staters, while others still struggle to grasp PSU and its football program

Rick and Ilsa had Paris. Penn State football will always have the unfettered joy of this victory over Wisconsin, and of this amazing renaissance season of unity, stoicism, defiance, resilience and excellence.

And the national media has its perverse version of events, too.

They are trying to alter perceptions already. Trying to change the storyline. Trying to obscure Penn State's surprising success in 2012, and trying to trump-up the auxiliary issues instead.

They are the ESPN.coms of the world, which couldn't let Penn State revel in the 24-21 season-ending overtime win over Wisconsin on Saturday for even a nanosecond. Because it doesn't fit their predetermined narrative.

Incredibly, chose to run as its primary story from the Penn State-Wisconsin game ... a piece about how Penn State football attendance declined in 2012.

That's right: Moments after PSU completed its amazing season, defying all predictions and expectations of everyone outside the program, winning 8 of its last 10 games, including a nailbiting, bone-chilling finale over a high-quality opponent, didn't prominently feature a story about the game. Or about Penn State's season. Instead it featured a decidedly negative story about attendance.

Penn State's football attendance is an issue - a complicated issue to write about next week. Or next month.

Saturday at 7:30pm it was not remotely the biggest storyline from this game, not unless there were 96,000 empty, instead of filled, seats at Beaver Stadium.

Or unless your motives are corrupt.

They of course will claim it was journalism. Just reporting the news. Well, their news report was absent the critical fact that Penn State's last two home games were played with school out of session - no students in town - a bizarre quirk which of course had a big impact on attendance.

It was an editorial disgrace. But that's what Penn State is up against. Still. There are those who maintain Penn State should not even have a football program right now.

The national media and general public still don't quite know what to make of Penn State and PSU football, for two reasons:
  1. The general public still largely completely misunderstands many elements of the Sandusky scandal - we won't get into the myriad ways in which they misunderstand it right now, but you know it, and it's largely the national media's, Louis Freeh's and Mark Emmert's fault.
  2. They just can't quite grasp the force that is Penn State football. The positive force.
You, Penn State football fan, know exactly how wonderful PSU football is, and how wonderful this 2012 team has been. Here are a few highlights:

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The most exceptional legacy of Michael Mauti

Michael Mauti always will be remembered fondly by Penn State football fans, for his leadership, dignity and passion.

This is a legacy.

Upon sustaining a college career-ending injury, a teammate launches into an in-depth analogy between you and Odysseus, of hero Homer's epics Odyssey and Iliad.

This is a legacy.

When asked, at Big Ten media days, about the unprecedented NCAA sanctions just levied against your football program, you look them right in the eye, and you articulate, over and over, firmly and passionately, what an extraordinary crock of shi%! it is, pride oozing from your pores.

When your PSU career is ended by yet another devastating knee injury, a teammate says, with matter-of-factness, "Michael Mauti will lead us, whether he's playing or not."

This is a legacy.

When you hobble back out into Beaver Stadium, on crutches, near the end of the game in which your remarkable career has ended due to yet another knee injury, tens of thousands chant your name, over and over and over.

Monday, November 19, 2012

You can gush over O'Brien and McGloin without falsely bashing the Paternos

The new offense has been very good for Penn State, but the belittling of the previous PSU coaching regime - specifically the offense and the Paternos -  is factually misguided.

Is there anything for Penn State fans not to love about Bill O'Brien?

Hardly. This guy has been awesome.

From the get-go - that dynamic, assured opening press conference - right up to Saturday, when his offense diced Indiana’s woeful defense in the 45-22 Lions win, O'Brien has been wonderful in seemingly every way.

So, give him a standing O ... Brien.

(Give him another if PSU beats Wisconsin on Saturday. And another if he could please suppress these will-he-leave-for-the-NFL? rumors with some more "Golden Handcuff" additions to his contract.)

And what about Matt McGloin? Hard to say enough good things about him, too.

The 5th-year senior seized the No. 1 QB job in the spring, and ever since has shown an increasing grasp of O'Brien's pass-centric, up-tempo offense, vastly improved sifting through his progressions and sharply cut down on mistakes.

Extremely rare is the former walk-on QB who plays so well at a major-conference school.

So, super-kudos to O'Brien and McGloin. 

But this bashing of the past (Joe and Jay Paterno) while exalting the present (McGloin and O'Brien) has to stop. Because it's incorrect, wrong and false.

The facts and stats simply say otherwise.

The Framing of Joe Paterno mini-movie creating a stir

The coverage of the Sandusky scandal, specifically relating to Joe Paterno, is dissected on a new video, which harshly criticizes the national media narrative and the Freeh Report

For most of a year now, the Internet has been roiling with furor over Joe Paterno’s inaction. 
That furor has been surpassed, though, by the flip-side: Those who believe the fact distortion, truth omission, superficial media coverage, pre-determined perspectives and miscarried justice relating to Paterno in the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal has been a travesty piled right on top of the Sandusky tragedy.
Now it has gone to the big screen. Almost.
The "mini-movie" released last week on the website, titled appropriately "The Framing of Joe Paterno," should be required viewing.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Penn State football: Is something rotten with Big Ten officials?

"It looks like a touchdown," said Sean McDonough to announcing partner Chris Spielman. "I think you're absolutely right," replied Spielman. Both were correct, and both were wrong.

It was another big college football game replete with questionable calls, like most big college football games.

There was no question about this particular call, though.

Technology made it clear during the replay review: It was a touchdown. And as such Penn State would take the lead, 30-27, midway through the fourth quarter Saturday in Lincoln.

"It certainly appeared the ball broke the plane of the end zone,'' play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough said while watching the replay. "Yeah, no doubt."

"That's six points, Nittany Lions," color commentator Chris Spielman said.

Instead, after the review, the ruling on the field - a fumble by Penn State TE Matt Lehman - was upheld. Nebraska ball at the 20, and Nebraska still led, 27-23. The 'Huskers would win, 32-23.

A few knuckleheads aside, we can all agree it was a touchdown. The camera angle was perfect. The view was unblocked. The image pristine - ball in hands over goal line.

There was nothing that could be disputed. It was close, for sure, but very clear - touchdown.

So, why wasn't it ruled a touchdown?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Reinventing - and vastly upgrading - the red zone metric: Total Red Zone

Heading into the Nebraska game, both Penn State and the 'Huskers were faring well this season in a true measure of red zone success - Total Red Zone.

In an era in which seemingly every imaginable sports statistic has sprouted, it is amazing and occasionally infuriating how incomplete and un-insightful the standard red zone measurement can be.

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 play-by-play announcer saying something like this: "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."

Okay, you think: Third in the Big Ten. They’re pretty good in the red zone.

But moments later the color commentator might say: "But of those 24 scores, 10 of them are field goals and only 14 are touchdowns, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten.''

And you 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? Not good in the red zone?

Well, finally, there is a solution to your red zone quandary.

It is Total Red Zone (TRZ).

It is one number, an easily quantifiable percentage out of 100. It's simple, and provides much better context than what is currently peddled.

Here's how it works:

Sports Illustrated continues to fail in its coverage of Penn State

Sports Illustrated doesn't grasp the full picture with regard to the Sandusky scandal. Again.

The esteemed major news publication that late this summer declared “We Were Penn State” on a darkened, shadowy cover of its national magazine just ran a lengthy one-year-after-the-Sandusky-bomb-dropped story titled “We Are Still ... Penn State.”

That’s what one raucous 107,000-plus whiteout will do, apparently.

It was the cover story of last week’s Sports Illustrated, accompanied by a breathtaking photo of the jam-packed Beaver Stadium “whiteout” Oct. 27 vs. Ohio State.

(In other parts of the country SI ran a different story/photo on the cover, but still had a teaser to the PSU story.)

SI beat the rush. We’ve been flooded with one-year-after-Sandusky stories the past several days.

However, this in-depth feature went much deeper than a superficial, seemingly optimistic twist on Penn State’s catchphrase.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Another Big Game for Penn State: Nebraska presents biggest test of the season

After botching the Ohio State game two weeks ago, the road warrior Lions head to Nebraska this week for another Big Game, where PSU hopes to complete a perfect Big Ten road schedule and score its first Big Game win of the Bill O'Brien era.

All the Penn State defense has to do this week is contain the conference's most potent offense while playing in arguably the most rabid atmosphere in the Big Ten halfway across the country vs. the league's second-best team in PSU's second straight road game.

Simply put, it's the biggest challenge the Lions will face this season, at least as big as Ohio State was, considering the home-field scenario and likely absence of injured NT Jordan Hill.

Many wondered, after the Oct. 27 loss to Ohio State, if sanction-saddled PSU might play another Big Game anytime in the next few years.

Well, here it is. And it only took two weeks.

It meets the Big Game criteria. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Carter, McGloin and Robinson lead assault on Penn State record book

One of the byproducts of Bill O'Brien's new offensive system, with its increased passing efficiency and uptempo pace creating more plays each game, is the sudden endangering of many PSU passing and receiving records.

Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, prepare to step down.

You too, Darryl Clark.

O.J. McDuffie and Bobby Engram, your days are numbered.

Penn State’s vibrant and versatile uptempo passing attack under new head coach Bill O’Brien is about to shake up the PSU record book - specifically, the records set by the aforementioned Lions legends.

After only eight games, it’s clear almost all major PSU single-season passing and receiving standards - established over 130 years of football - are in jeopardy.

TE Kyle Carter, WR Allen Robinson and QB Matt McGloin are closing in fast on Penn State records.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bill O'Brien's bad day

The new Penn State coach has the worst game of his brief career, and the Lions drop The Big One to Ohio State, 35-23. 

Most of the time when a head coach falls on the sword after a game, he's being a little disingenuous.

Or, a lot disingenuous.

It's a psychological game the coach plays with his team and the media. Take the burden off the players, blame yourself, shift the focus where you want it, and let the media project your humility, false though it frequently is in college football.

The players, however, know the drill, too. When they get to practice on Monday (or sometimes sooner), they find out exactly what the coach really thought of the previous game. Often it's not remotely connected to the coach's post-game comments.

This little tango goes on all the time. Just listen to Nick Saban talk.

So, surely there was some of that disingenuousness in Bill O'Brien's post-game remarks after PSU's deflating 35-23 defeat to Ohio State on Saturday in front of a rocking, sellout Beaver Stadium whiteout.

O'Brien needs the team to gather itself, shed the disappointment and refocus quickly on Purdue. As the saying goes, he can't let the Buckeyes beat PSU again this week.

But when O'Brien declared afterward, "I need to improve on the gameplan to help our guys,'' and "I could have adjusted better," well, he wasn't just spouting coachspeak.

He was dead-on accurate, too.

O'Brien, in his first year as a head coach and 10 months into the job, finally had his first bad day Saturday.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The greatest play in Penn State-Ohio State football annals

In 1994, Penn State played a near-perfect first half in routing Ohio State 63-14, and in 2005 the Lions notched a program-altering 17-10 win over the Buckeyes thanks in part to a late-game sack-fumble by Tamba Hali, but our vote for best PSU-OSU play ever goes to The Fumble in 2008.

Penn State football history is chock full of fantastic moments, incredible plays and amazing achievements.

Four years ago, on Oct. 25, 2008 at Ohio State, "The Fumble" claimed a place alongside the very best moments in Nittany Lions folklore.

It's on the top shelf, it's that good, thanks to the spectacular effort of the three players most responsible for making it happen.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ohio State vs. Penn State: It's time for the Lions to shine

Ohio State might be undefeated and have a lot going for it, but right now depleted, sanction-saddled Penn State is the better team, believe it or not

There is nothing magical or mystical going on with Penn State football these days.
The Lions' success - five straight wins after two losses to start the season and the most traumatic offseason ever - is not about a Mark Emmert-fueled quest, or some sort of karma, or Mike Mauti's rage.
Okay, maybe it's a little bit about those things.
But mostly, it's about this: Very good coaches and very good players committed to each other and to playing very good football.
And right now, those coaches and players have, improbably, forged Penn State into a better team than Ohio State - just in time to host the Buckeyes in Beaver Stadium this week in perhaps the Big Ten's best matchup of the season.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Penn State replaced the best coach ever with the best coach now

For decades, Penn State football fans knew their coach was the best in the business and much more than a coach. As much as things have changed at PSU, that one thing has stayed the same.

Following Penn State's obliteration of Iowa on Saturday, the accolades have been flowing over PSU coach Bill O'Brien.

The pundits in the sports media specialize in such overreactive smoke blowing. They simply can't help themselves.

New coach wins a few games, and he's hailed as the next Bear Bryant. Suddenly, new coach is cutting edge. Lauded as an innovator. The wave of the future!

This instance, however, is a little different in one way: O'Brien actually deserves the plaudits.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Time for the administration to do its part for Penn State football

Successfully navigating the sanction era will be easier for PSU football if the administration takes a bold, aggressive approach

You're a Penn State football fan. You want the program to succeed.

You want to make it through the post-Sandusky, NCAA sanction era as successfully as possible. You want to emerge from it stable and powerful.

Of course you do.

What will it take?

In order to remain relevant during the sanctions - no bowl games for four years, scholarship reductions, etc. -  the program must retain its vitality. It must be vibrant. It must project a positive image. It must create the right perception.

There are three keys stakeholders in making all of this happen - or not happen:

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Penn State football 2012: The midseason report

Already halfway through the inaugural season of Bill O'Brien, how is his team doing?

Rarely has a 443-yard, 39-point outburst and clutch win felt like such a grind. Not a single Penn State play of more than 19 yards until the waning moments.

So it went in the Lions' fantastic 39-28 victory Saturday over Northwestern, which brought PSU to the season's midpoint - and bye week - with a 4-2 record, 2-0 in the Big Ten, and riding a 4-game win streak.

The Northwestern triumph - the Wildcats had been 5-0 and ranked No. 24 - had many of the elements of PSU's first five games:

  • A largely productive offense but few splash plays.
  • A largely stout defense but a few hiccups to allow touchdowns.
  • And wildly erratic special teams.

It also had one important new element - a genuine come-from-behind victory - which could boost the psyche when PSU trails in the second half of a future game.

Below are the grades for Penn State thus far, halfway through the 2012 season, the first since the 1940s without Joe Paterno on the sideline:

Friday, October 5, 2012

Glenn Carson's confidence bodes well for Penn State

Junior linebacker Glenn Carson will be a primary team leader next season, but Penn State fans hope his confidence right now is an indicator of things to come this season.

The last time Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson said something moderately bold and arguably controversial right before a big early conference game against a team riding a long winning streak - something that was largely irrefutable truth and seemingly innocuous but cut a little too close to some people's sensitive spot and created a small dustbowl of manufactured media controversy - what happened?

Penn State won.

The Lions can only hope the same thing happens again on Saturday vs. mighty-mite Northwestern and its hybrid, two-QB super-offense, averaging 34 points and 467 yards a game.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The scholarship game for Penn State football: Making it work, sooner

(Ed. note: This story updated 11-4-12 to account for Fr. LB Gary Wooten, who previously mistakenly was thought to be a walk-on) 

USC and others have done reasonably well when saddled by NCAA scholarship restrictions, and Penn State can too despite much harsher sanctions. But the Lions need to get started on one aspect of the restrictions sooner.

Penn State's football deck will be missing cards soon.

PSU will be capped at 15 new scholarships a year (down from 25) from 2013-16.

The Lions will be limited to 65 scholarships total (down from 85) from 2014-2017. 

Note the extra year PSU is allowed to cut down to 65 scholarships. It seems like a "fair" gesture on the part of the gracious (cough, cough) NCAA, to allow PSU until the 2014 season to get down to the 65 cap.

However, it actually just delays PSU's recovery and is making things worse.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Paul Jones' sad goodbye to PSU football

The Penn State career of the former elite recruit will be remembered for what might have been.

The tweet was short and sweet. It came at about 9:30 Wednesday night:

"My dream is playing quarterback. And I'm going to chase it."

And with that, Paul Jones was no longer a part of the Penn State football program.

The departures of WR Shawney Kersey and K Matt Marcincin from the Nittany Lions a couple of weeks ago were somewhat inexplicable.

This one is much less surprising - but much more saddening. Jones was a great representative of Penn State football.

He had battled his way through academic struggles and ineligibility.

He had never whined publicly about losing out on the starting QB position in 2010 and again this season, when he was a strong candidate both times.

He easily could have transferred out a couple of months ago, in late July/early August, when the NCAA sanctions hit and made transferring as enticing as possible. But he stayed. Heck, many were surprised he hadn't transferred in 2010-11.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Penn State football attendance: The Big Question

To the surprise of no one, fewer people are in the Beaver Stadium stands than since the 1990s. What does it mean?

So, how big of a problem is attendance for Penn State football?

It sure seems like a hefty problem. The numbers are way down from just a couple of years ago, and they might be for several years during the NCAA sanction era.

Barring a major surge in the second half of this season - there should be at least a modest bump in attendance for the four Big Ten home games -  PSU won't average at least 100,000 fans for the first time since the 2001 stadium expansion to the current capacity of about 107,000.

Last week's attendance against Temple, 93,680, was the lowest since the expansion. Ohio (97,186) and Navy (98,792) were a little better.

The three home games thus far all rank among the seven least-attended games of the expansion era.

Looks like a serious problem, eh?

Well, 90-something thousand is a heck of a lot of people at a football game and the envy of almost any other school.

But 10,000 empty seats isn't a good thing for a program that has always packed them in.

So how big of a problem is it?

The Cornerstones: The most important players for Penn State's football future

If the Nittany Lions are to transition back from surviving to thriving during the next few years, they will do it on the shoulder pads of these 25 guys, the most important players for the future of the program.

Last week Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien referenced something called the "Supa Six."

The grammatically challenged Supa Six is a sextet of second-year Lions - RB Bill Belton, WR Allen Robinson, OT Donovan Smith, TE Kyle Carter, CB Adrian Amos and DE Deion Barnes - who have tagged themselves collectively as, um, "Supa." 

Hubris aside - O'Brien poked a little fun at their self-anointing - these six are good, promising young players.

However, PSU needs more than six "supas." It needs about 25. Needs to find, develop and keep them.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The sun finally is shining on the Nittany Lions

And it might keep shining, as underwhelming performances by other Big Ten teams provide extra optimism for 2012 after PSU's 34-7 win over Navy

Don't look now, but Penn State suddenly has a realistic shot at a championship this season.

No joke. And by "Penn State," we mean Penn State football, not volleyball or wrestling or another super-successful PSU team.


A couple of weeks ago, relatively quietly, the Big Ten said that probation-ridden Ohio State and Penn State could in fact win the Big Ten Leaders Division football title. They could be declared the division champions if they finish atop the standings.

They just couldn't represent the league in the conference championship game.

At the time, it seemed to boost Ohio State only and not roster-robbed PSU, to give the talented Buckeyes an extra dose of motivation and a genuine opportunity to beat out Wisconsin for the division title.

Now? Ohio State and especially woebegone Wisconsin aren't looking so special, are they? Both struggled mightily in home wins against underwhelming opponents Saturday.

Now? Purdue, Illinois and even Penn State - yes, Penn State - have a chance to be Leaders Division champions.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The key to the future of Penn State football

The future of Penn State, and Penn State football, is looking back at you in the reflection 

You hold the key to the future of Penn State, and Penn State football.
Huh? Who, me? Um, I can’t replace Shawney Kersey ...
Yes, you.
You, Joe the Penn State fan. You, Jill the casual PSU alum.
You, the used-to-go-to-all-the-games, die-hard supporter. You, message board warrior guy.
You, captain of industry, corporate donor. You, I’ve always loved to tailgate at Beaver Stadium.
You, overwrought with disgust for Sandusky and anything Sandusky related. You, rightfully sickened by the national media, the Freeh Report, the NCAA/Mark Emmert, and/or the PSU Board of Trustees.
You, disillusioned by Joe Paterno’s inaction. You, Mr. and Mrs. might make it to a game or two each season, that’s all we can do, we have three kids.
You hold the blue-and-white key to the rebirth of the Nittany Lions, and the university.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Matt McGloin holds the season in his right hand

There are lots of areas Penn State needs to continue to improve, but none are nearly as important as quarterback (not even kicker!)

The Penn State secondary has a hole, or two. The pass rush needs a little more oomph. The running backs have to hit the hole harder. The receivers need to get more aggressive. The offensive line must pick up the blitz better. (As for the kicking/punting, we're in favor of it.)

All of this is happening, to some degree, through the first two games of the Bill O'Brien/NCAA sanctions/post-Sandusky era. Yep, Penn State improved in most areas from Game 1 to Game 2, though the Lions incurred a brutally tough 17-16 defeat at Virginia.

Almost every team with new offensive and defensive systems, and a slew of new starters, does improve over the course of a season. So optimism remains despite the 0-2 record.

But one player carries Penn State's fortunes more than anyone. PSU still can have a memorable season if this one Lion keeps getting better:

QB Matt McGloin.

But will he? In his fifth year at PSU, his third year on the field, and his first year in a new offensive system, McGloin has provided plenty of reasons to believe he can't lead a winning team.

But after Saturday, there's more reason than ever to believe he can.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Penn State and Sam Ficken tap into the painful side of kicking

Penn State sophomore kicker Sam Ficken joins a long list of those who play the ultimate all-or-nothing position and suffer for it, missing five kicks in PSU's 17-16 loss at Virginia.

This is how she described it, what every single instance was like, hundreds of them, for years:

She always was sitting in the stands, surrounded by other parents of the football players, as the team lined up for the attempt, either a field goal or extra point. She would lean forward, hands on her knees, bending at the waist ... and keep leaning, keep bending, until her head was down between her calves. And her heart was in her throat.

She was the mom of a kicker. And a very good kicker, a standout for a Penn State rival in the Big Ten.

She never watched. She knew by the crowd reaction. 

On all the good ones, she sat up, exhaled and cheered.

The bad ones? Raw agony.

Somewhere, right now, Mrs. Ficken, Sam's mom, is agonizing.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rewriting history: The national media undercutting of Joe Paterno

Penn State football did well during the final years of the Joe Paterno era, despite what you may read.

What would you say about a college football program that ranked in the Top 10 in winning percentage among BCS conference schools over the past seven years, ahead of Oregon, Georgia and Auburn, among others, and less than 1 percentage point behind mega-powerhouses Oklahoma and Alabama? (See chart at end.)
What about a school that was second in its conference over that span, ahead of Wisconsin and Nebraska, and far ahead of Michigan, Iowa and Michigan State?
Pretty good, eh?
Well, as October flipped over into November last fall, that’s exactly where Penn State stood. Since the start of the 2005 season, PSU was 66-20 (76.7%), with an 8-1 record in 2011 at that juncture. 
But the national media would have you believe the program was a decomposed relic when Joe Paterno was fired. It’s just another insidious component of the relentless media campaign to unfairly slam Paterno due to the abhorrent actions of Jerry Sandusky.
In Paterno’s waning years, the national media will tell you, PSU didn’t:
  • recruit well (despite a stellar class in 2010 and another one in the works for 2012 when the scandal broke),
  • win much (despite the 76.7 win percentage in Paterno’s final seven seasons, better than his career average),
  • develop top players (despite a slew of defensive stars in the NFL right now, and a dozen PSU rookies in NFL camp this fall).
If they can find a way to lampoon the program he left behind, they do, facts be damned. For example, a Sports Illustrated feature story last week on new PSU head coach Bill O’Brien essentially belittled the final chapter of the Paterno coaching era as no more than an insular old man overseeing a crumbling, decrepit former empire.
Among the excerpts:

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Hope for the future at Penn State despite loss to Ohio

The second-half debacle Saturday at Beaver Stadium was about as depressing as possible for Penn State football fans.

The offense stagnated. The defense caved. The injuries mounted. A 14-3 lead became a 24-14 loss. The New Era is 0-1.

It had the ring of, "welcome to your life for the next 5-10 years."

It had the feel of, "now, reality sets in."

It had the look of ... Mark Emmert smirking.

The hope, however - yes, there is hope, real hope - lies in the fact that so much about Saturday wasn't reality, or at least wasn't PSU's immediate future football reality.

Friday, August 31, 2012

5 things for Penn State fans to watch for Saturday

The most anticipated New Era in PSU annals begins Saturday. Here's what to look for in the season-opener vs. Ohio U.

RB Bill Belton will have his moments. He'll cut and bolt, and slash and burst, for a few nice runs.

A lot of true freshman will play. The new depth chart is speckled with them. A few - such as TE Jesse James, CB Da'Quan Davis, and fast-rising WRs Eugene Lewis and Trevor Williams - might have significant roles.

The PSU fans and players will be very emotional.

The pass catchers - the wide receivers and tight ends collectively - will be as good or better than last season.

Linebackers Mike Mauti, Glenn Carson and Gerald Hodges will de-cleat ballcarriers on 1st down, wallop receivers on 2nd and breath fire on 3rd. Heck, they might even end up returning kicks, as the kick returners have been kept secret.

Matt McGloin will look great on one play and much-less-than great on the next.

Jordan Hill will cover more ground than any NT in America. He'll make a tackle 10 yards downfield, and one near each sideline.

These things will happen, and PSU fans will be excited to see them. But Hodges' QB pressures and Mauti's backfield smash hits alone won't win new head coach Bill O'Brien's debut against a highly touted Ohio U. team - Sports Illustrated predicted the Bobcats to go undefeated this season - coached by former Nebraska coach Frank Solich.

What will determine ultimate success or failure on Saturday? These five things:

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fearless Big Ten football 2012 projections

How will the Big Ten shake out in 2012? Our fearless predictions:


1. Ohio State (6-2, 10-2) - The Buckeyes are ineligible for the postseason, so Wisconsin is virtually assured of a berth in the Big Ten title game. But HC Urban Meyer inherits an excellent situation and OSU will be solid this season. The postseason ban provides OSU an extra edge in the regular season, so the Buckeyes get the nod over Wisconsin.

2. Wisconsin (5-3, 9-3) - Without amazing QB Russell Wilson and three departed stud OLs, the Badgers back up in 2012. The offense won't simply steamroll everyone this year. LBs Chris Borland and Mike Taylor are elite, but the rest of the defense is mediocre. Noncon schedule should be four wins, though Sept. 8 trip to Oregon State could be tricky.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Saturday will be unlike any other game for Penn State

Penn State football history has been marked by some extraordinary and emotional moments. This Saturday will rank high on the list - and be unlike any other for Penn State fans.

Emotions only go so high, a big-time ACC college basketball coach once said.

He had coached at a tiny high school when he was younger, and his point was, the emotions at the Backwoods High vs. Nowheresville Tech rivalry game were no different than a big-time Tobacco Road showdown: Maximum emotion is maximum emotion. It's just the number of people experiencing the emotion that is different.

There will be lots of maximum emotion Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

That emotional unleashing will extend to legions of Penn Staters around the globe watching the Penn State-Ohio U. season-opening game on TV or the Internet.

Have the supporters of any team or school ever experienced anything remotely like this?

No. Penn State fans stand alone.

There was no coach as iconic as Joe Paterno. No program as proud of its earned status for all-around excellence (the Holy Trinity of academic success, no cheating and winning). No scandal as grand and heinous. No coach's firing as upsetting. No coach's death as untimely. No comprehensive independent investigation as deceptive and flawed (thanks, Louis Freeh). No NCAA sanctions as egregious (thanks, Mark Emmert). No cultural condemnation as inappropriate (you again, Emmert). No mass media coverage as relentlessly shallow and misleading.

That is an emotional onslaught.

After all that, the Lions take the field Saturday.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Top 10 things Penn State football needs to succeed in 2012

With a fleeced roster, fledgling coaching staff (and no Joe Paterno), postseason ban, names on the backs of the iconic uniforms and coming off the most bizarre, demoralizing 10 months of their lives, the Nittany Lions are embarking one of the most unique seasons in college football history. Here's what they must do to win games, starting Sept. 1 vs. Ohio U.

Most college football pundits are predicting hard times for Penn State this season. A .500 record, or worse. Near the bottom of the Big Ten.

The best prognosticating publication out there, Phil Steele's, pegged PSU 5th in the Big Ten Leaders Division, ahead of only perennial bottom-dweller Indiana - and that was before the NCAA went nuts and slimy coaches started pickpocketing Penn State.

There is little margin for error if the Lions want to surprise the college football world this season. Here are the 10 things they must do to ensure a winning record, and change the momentum of the program.

It can be done.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

More than a uniform: Another era ends at Penn State

As much as any other college football program, Penn State has been associated with its uniforms. Simple, pure, gorgeous - and with no names on the back, bucking convention for decades. Well, not anymore.

Where some saw plain, others saw classic.

Where some saw boring, others saw timeless.

Where some became aggravated - "how am I supposed to know the players without names!" - others were impressed by the selflessness.

Yes, Penn State football has long been known for many things, and very high on the list was being known as the team with no names on the back of its uniforms.

It connected generations of Penn State football players and supporters. From Richie Lucas to Mike Reid to Greg Buttle to Steve Smith to Derek Bochna to Tony Johnson to Alan Zemaitis to Gerald Hodges.

In that regard, it was a lot like Joe Paterno.

Many disliked it, many loved it, and almost all respected what it represented - team. Total commitment to the team, over the individual.

So, what do the Penn State uniforms represent now?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Finally, fall camp: Penn State football primer entering 2012 preseason

The longest summer in Happy Valley is ending. Hopefully the transfers are ending soon, too. Penn State began fall camp this morning for the first time since 1950 without Joe Paterno, and the team looked very different than it did in the spring.

Let's get this out of the way: Who's no longer here who likely would have seen significant playing time this fall (listed in order of value to the team this season, asterisk denotes likely starter).
  • Jr. RB Silas Redd* (transfer/USC)
  • Sr. WR Justin Brown* (transfer/Oklahoma)
  • Jr. CB Curtis Drake* (dismissed)
  • Jr. P/K Anthony Fera* (transfer/Texas)
  • Jr. CB Derrick Thomas (left team)
  • Jr. LB Khairi Fortt (transfer/Cal)
  • So. DT Evan Hailes (retired/blood clots)
  • Sr. WR Devon Smith (dismissed)
  • Jr. TE Kevin Haplea (transfer/Florida St.)
That's essentially nine of the top 55-60 or so players on the team, and three of the top dozen or so in Redd, Brown and Fera. The loss of Redd (244 carries, 1,251 yards, 7 TD, 5.1 avg. in 2011), a supreme talent, is devastating. The loss of some others stings. Overall depth and talent have taken a hit.

Time to move on. Time for others to seize the opportunity. Entering fall practice, here's the breakdown at each position for the 2012 Nittany Lions:

1. Sr. Matt McGloin (6-1, 200)
2. So. Paul Jones (6-3, 245)
3. Sr. Shane McGregor (6-1, 200)
4. Fr. Steven Bench (6-1, 205)

Summary: Head coach Bill O'Brien's leadership, acumen and resourcefulness will be tested. Not only in dealing with the surreal situation surrounding PSU football, and with everything about being a first-year head coach, and with succeeding Joe Paterno, but in crafting a functional, competent offense with the Lions' erstwhile clear No. 1 (Redd) and No. 2 (Brown) offensive playmakers having transferred in the past week. The key at QB will be O'Brien's and QB coach Charlie Fisher's ability to recognize McGloin's assets and limitations, and finding ways to maximize the good and minimize the bad with the soft-armed QB. Also, O'Brien and McGloin (54.1 completion percentage in 2011) must forge a special connection. The former walk-on is a senior and a team leader, and for the first time is entering the fall as the No. 1 QB. If he falters and/or his relationship with O'Brien sours, it could be a loooooong season. Jones needs refinement and reps but has some excellent raw tools. Beleaguered Rob Bolden transferred to LSU. McGregor is a veteran walk-on, Bench is O'Brien's first QB recruit.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

NCAA's restriction-free transfer "rules" decimating Penn State

Had the NCAA not administered its brutal sanctions with unprecedented swiftness on the heels of the Freeh Report in July, Penn State football likely would have done well this season. Instead, the team is losing key players and could struggle this fall - and for a long time.  

Of all the things the NCAA did to punish Penn State - and they did a lot, with huge scholarship losses, financial losses and postseason bans for years - perhaps none will prove more devastating to the football program than the timing.

The timing of the sanctions is killing PSU football, specifically the timing of the ridiculous total deregulation of transfer procedures for PSU players. By inexplicably and immediately permitting restriction-free recruiting of Penn State players - Head Coach Bill O'Brien likened it to free agency -  the NCAA created a Wild West, anything-goes, chaotic atmosphere about the PSU football program.

(Link to the "rules" for Penn State transfers:

And by doing this all in July, instead of August, it's having the intended effect: The Lions are losing lots of players. The program is leaking oil.

Had the timing been delayed just two weeks, had the NCAA used even a modicum of deliberation, the number of transfers would have been greatly reduced.

Coaches devoid of an ethical compass - that would be you USC and Oklahoma, along with some others - are exploiting the situation and swiping PSU players just a month before the season is set to start. The most notable and damaging loss is star RB Silas Redd, who transferred for USC. He is one of nine players at last count who are skipping out on probation-saddled PSU.