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.

10. Maximize Turnover Differential - This could be No. 1 on this list every year, as turnover differential is an uncanny, immutable, relentless indicator of wins and losses.

How much so? Penn State's won-loss success the past seven years has mirrored its turnover differential. 
  • In PSU's best three seasons in that span (2005, '08 and '09) the Lions won 11 games each year and were a combined +16 turnovers.
  • Three other seasons PSU won nine games each (2006, '07 and '11) and the Lions were a combined +4 turnovers.
  • In 2010, when PSU was just 7-6, it had its only negative differential of the past seven seasons, -4 turnovers.
It's simple: If the offense protects the ball, and the defense creates and seizes turnover opportunities, PSU will finish with a winning record. Virtually guaranteed.

No matter how mundane QB Matt McGloin's performance this fall, as long as he's not forking it over (and neither is anyone else on the PSU offense), the Lions will exceed expectations. It's a lock.

Meanwhile, the veteran playmaking defenders - DEs Sean Stanley and Pete Massaro, DT Jordan Hill, LBs Gerald Hodges, Mike Mauti and Glenn Carson, and DBs Adrian Amos, Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris - all need to be involved in forcing multiple turnovers this season.

9. Minimize Injuries - The Lions are way too thin to incur significant injuries at most positions. And the star players of course need to stay healthy. Those stud veteran defenders can't wreak havoc on crutches.

Knock on wood: So far so good with regard to injuries midway through preseason camp. OT Donovan Smith (hamstring), a promising first-year starter who might return to practice full-time this week, has been the biggest injury news among starters. A redshirt freshman, Smith will be replaced by competent senior Mike Farrell if he's not ready to go on Sept. 1.

Keep tapping your knuckles on the wooden table, Lions fans. A few bad injuries to the wrong players could blow up the season. The most vulnerable position is defensive back. PSU simply has no quality depth there after the dismissals of CBs Curtis Drake and Derrick Thomas a few months ago.

8. Backfield excellence - Three positions lost their top performers and were most harmed by the NCAA-mandated no-holds-barred shopping spree on PSU in late July/early August:
  • Tailback (Silas Redd to USC)
  • Wide receiver (Justin Brown to Oklahoma)
  • Kicker/Punter (Anthony Fera to Texas)
Redd was a truly special playmaker and will be most greatly missed. He was sensational last season (244 att, 1,241 yds, 7 TD, 5.1 avg) despite an anemic PSU passing game and figured to match those numbers this season.

That said, the TB position might have a little more talent than WR, and definitely more than the K/P positions, so more will be expected from the next TB in line. True sophomore Bill Belton (5-10, 202), a coveted recruit in 2011, has established himself as the clear No. 1 back according to Head Coach Bill O'Brien.

Expect the explosive Belton to break a few long runs this season, but he will not be as effective in most situations as Redd, who had a Blair Thomas-esque knack for straining the most out of each carry.

Backups Curtis Dukes, Zach Zwinak, Derek Day and true freshman Akeel Lynch all figure to get carries at some point. Rumbling power-backs Dukes (6-1, 245) and Zwinak (6-1, 232) could be short-yardage specialists, and Day and Lynch could see third-down duty.

7. Backups Step Up at WR - Allen Robinson, Shawney Kersey and Alex Kenney figured to be complimentary components this season.

Now, they are new WR targets No. 1A, 1B and 1C for McGloin. 

Emphasis on new. Robinson (6-3, 201), a true sophomore who turns 19 on Aug. 24, and Kersey (6-1, 197), a redshirt junior, combined for a meager eight catches last season, while Kenney (6-0, 192), a speedy redshirt sophomore, spent almost all of 2011 at CB. Or more precisely, as a backup CB epoxied to the bench. He has never caught a pass. Yet he'll be counted on for third-down production, and expected to break a few short passes for 20-yard gains this season.

This blog has long championed Kersey receiving more playing time, and now he'll get his chance. Kersey is a downfield threat, while Robinson appears to be solid in all aspects and getting better rapidly.

How did we get to this point at WR? Brown (35 catches in 2011) departed for Oklahoma two weeks ago, veteran Curtis Drake moved to CB in the spring and then was dismissed from the program, and Devon Smith (25 catches in 2011) also was dismissed following a marijuana bust and recently turned up at Marshall (along with Thomas, the CB). The top receiver from 2009-11, Derek Moye, graduated.

So here we are. The exodus of the team's top receivers means some newcomers and previously unrecognized WRs move up the depth chart behind Robinson/Kersey/Kenney and possibly into the playing rotation, including heralded true freshman Eugene Lewis (6-1, 199) and big target Christian Kuntz (6-4, 218), a redshirt junior.

The TEs figure to pick up some pass-catching slack, though perhaps not as much as initially perceived. O'Brien has emphasized the PSU TEs are not the New England Patriots TEs. The TEs are mortal in Happy Valley, unlike Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Regardless, PSU received a paltry 15 TE catches combined in 2011 from graduated Andrew Szczerba and transferred Kevin Haplea. With O'Brien's increased emphasis on the TE position, the Lions should triple those numbers this year. Between Garry Gilliam, Kyle Carter, Jesse James, Matt Lehman, Brent Wilkerson and Brian Irvin, PSU should net 45-50 receptions.

Whether Robinson/Kersey/Kenney can springboard from afterthoughts into reliable primary WR targets, and whether the TEs can dramatically increase production from 2011, will go a long way toward determining PSU's success in 2012.

6. Kicking and punting - PSU's foot-to-leather specialists were unwatchable early last season. Then Fera (17-21 FGs, 20-20 PATs, 42.0 avg. punting) took over and both aspects vastly improved.

Now, Fera suddenly has transferred to Texas. That leaves Sam Ficken (1-2 FGs in 2011), a true sophomore, next in line at kicker. How will he do? Who knows. Cross your fingers. Reportedly he is doing well in practice.

Punting is less settled and more complicated. Penn State was atrocious at booting punts into the end zone last season, worst in the Big Ten by far. The Lions had 13 touchbacks (12 by Fera); nine of 12 league teams had five or fewer, and none had more than nine. Thirteen touchbacks is terrible. PSU must do better.

In fact, besides cleanly fielding the snap and not getting the punt blocked, the highest priority for PSU punters in 2012 is not mindlessly booming it into the end zone. It's not that difficult: Aim a little right or left when punting from inside the 50. Everyone else seems to be able to do it.

Three walk-ons are battling for the job. With a leg up is junior Alex Butterworth, who has 20 punts the past two seasons spelling Fera, with a tepid 38.3 average. Redshirt freshman Matt Marcincin and true freshman Reynolds Parthemore, a former pitcher in the Red Sox system ( are in the mix.

None apparently has raw power of Fera. But if they do a much better job of directional punting and avoid disasters, the position actually could be improved this season.

5. Special Teams Coverage Units - Boring, yes. But critical.

Special teams covers such a broad spectrum of activity, it can get complicated. Not counting the extra point - which unless the other team is going for the 2-point conversion, is a routine play - there are six different special teams segments, and all are vital to field position and/or scoring:

Kickoffs and kickoff return, punts and punt return, field goal attempts and field goal defense.

The coverage units are essential to field position, and the Lions have been wildly inconsistent in recent years. Continuity and athleticism are most important for coverage units, so the loss of so many players since the end of last season, and especially in the last few weeks, does not bode well. The coaches have scrambled to remake the respective units and get repetitions in practice.

Kickoffs will be especially important in 2012 due to rules changes. The kickoff spot is moved closer by five yards, from the 30 to the 35-yard line, so touchbacks should be more likely. However, touchbacks now place the ball at the 25, not the 20. So craftier teams will be less likely to boom kickoffs into the end zone and forfeit the 25, and instead try to loft high kicks that land near the 5-yard line and then blanket the kick returner inside the 20.

Whether Penn State can effectively take advantage of the new kickoff rules, and also have solid coverage and return units, will greatly impact field position and overall success in 2012.

4. Rage Against the Machine ... - If you can't understand how the PSU players would feel unjustly targeted, persecuted and grossly wronged by the NCAA in the wake of the Sandusky scandal and irresponsible Freeh Report, and still at the same time feel tremendous sadness, remorse and support for the victims, well, that's your shortcoming, not theirs.

But they do. Of course they do, and justifiably so.

The players needs to utilize that rage like turbo-fuel on the football field.

3. ... But Channel the Rage, Don't Lose FocusIt will be a delicate mental and emotional tightrope Penn State straddles this season. The Lions need to transform the anger accumulated from uncontrollable forces aligned against them into a positive force. It will not be that simple.

If things go bad for a spell, it's a dangerous, precipitous fall from the raging high into self-doubt, misplaced anger and ultimately bad performance.

The rage can cause counterproductive emotional swings. Therefore the coaching staff, and team leaders such as Mauti, Hodges and Michael Zordich, need to calibrate the rage. Dispense it judiciously. Parcel as necessary.

If overused, it will backfire. The team will lose its stability, or flame out, or overreact to adversity and bad breaks.

The PSU football motto this season is We Are One Team. It could be subtitled Apply Rage As Necessary.

2. No Rookie Coaching Mistakes - Sorry, Coach O'Brien. You just don't have the luxury of any growing pains. There's no time for your staff to grow together. The team needs coaching cohesion from the get-go.

This is a little unrealistic to expect. O'Brien is a first-time head coach. He has cobbled together a seemingly quality coaching staff from various locales. Most of them are working together for the first time.

Which means, of course, there will be a learning curve. It takes time for players to assimilate to the system, for coaches to assimilate to the players, and - critically - for the coaches to assimilate to each other.

But there's no more time for that. For example, PSU is counting on having a very good defense this season. The Lions will need that stellar D right out of the chute in the non-conference games against Ohio, Virginia, Navy and Temple. Yet DL coach Larry Johnson Sr. and LB coach Ron Vanderlinden have never worked with DC Ted Roof and DB coach John Butler.

Roof, the new defensive coordinator, has a different philosophy from predecessor Tom Bradley, whose system was entrenched for more than a decade and was very successful. Such dramatic coaching transitions typically take awhile to develop and mesh. There is a process. It takes time.

The coaching staff must be streamlined and battle-ready by Sept. 1, and avoid most bumps in the road thereafter, or it will hurt the Lions. PSU likely will play many close games this season, possibly beginning on Sept. 1. If the coaches aren't clicking precisely, it will be costly.

1. Win All The Home Games - There is no reason the Lions can't run the table at Beaver Stadium. Or go 6-1. The worst-case scenario at home should be 5-2.

There should be an enthusiastic, invigorated 100,000-plus at every game. There will be a deeper sense of pride than ever before permeating the stadium and the team. The players will be as purpose-driven as ever. If the games are close and competitive the crowd will be electrifying.

The Penn State culture has been viciously, unfairly and incorectly attacked due to the terrible actions of very few that had nothing to do with anyone currently on the team (or anyone supporting the team, for that matter). The team has been unfairly depleted by the NCAA sanctions and opposing coaches with low ethical standards.

So naturally, the home games will be a cauldron of emotion, and PSU will have a chance to win every one.

That said, there are no gimmes. PSU should win the three home noncons vs. Ohio (Sept. 1), Navy (Sept. 15), and Temple (Sept. 22). But few will be surprised if they lose any of those three. The Lions likely will be only a modest favorite in each, since PSU 2012 is a team with little depth, bereft of its best offensive playmakers and with an all-new coaching staff.

The home Big Ten schedule consists of Northwestern (Oct. 6), Ohio State (Oct. 27), Indiana (Nov. 17) and Wisconsin (Nov. 24).

PSU likely will be a small favorite vs. Northwestern and a medium favorite vs. Indiana. Both are must-wins.

Ohio State? PSU won in Columbus last season, and the Buckeyes won't be so much better this season and PSU won't be so much worse. Probably won't be, at least. A win definitely is possible.

Wisconsin? The Badgers won't be as good in 2012 as they were in 2011. Paraphrasing Jerry Maguire, one-year QB rental Russell Wilson completed Wisconsin. The Badgers offense will be good but mortal in 2012, and the defense will be good, not great. Also, this will be the PSU home finale, it will be a new trophy game and it will be PSU's de facto postseason/bowl game. Nov. 24 is a long way off and a lot will transpire between now and then. But the intangibles in this one make it hard to bet against the Lions, no? 

1A. Win The First Game - It's the opening game of the O'Brien era. The first game without JoePa. The first game after the NCAA's unprecedented attack on the program. The debut of the new era.

If Penn State beats Ohio then, barring a rash of injuries or onslaught of turnovers, the Lions should be on their way to a .500 season or better. 

Lose to Ohio? Don't want to think about it. The emotional letdown will be massive. And with the Bobcats predicted to contend for the MAC title and just a 6.5-point underdog, surely PSU could lose. 

But know this: O'Brien will have Penn State ready to compete each week, and with a chance to contend in each game.

Whether that's enough to have a winning season, time will tell.

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