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:
5. Execution: It's an entirely new offense and mostly new defense. There are no preseason games. How will each unit respond in Game 1?

On offense, O'Brien's new system has created high expectations. Eventually, everyone expects more production and more consistency from season to season. But it is unrealistic to expect this to happen now, especially with relatively tepid skill players.

One thing we will see is a faster tempo. It won't be Oregon whiplash-fast, but the offense will be ready for the next play more quickly than in the past.

That doesn't necessarily mean they will snap the ball right away. But in order to help keep the defense from changing personnel, expect McGloin and O'Brien to hustle the team into position, and then decide whether to snap quickly or wait and re-assess the play call.

O'Brien will have to rely on his instincts Saturday once the bullets start flying. He has to get a feel for what his offense is and is not comfortable with, what it can and cannot properly execute. It's Game 1 in a new system - there is just no way PSU is ready to plumb the depths of the playbook. And with seven of the 11 Ohio defensive starters being seniors who have started one or more seasons already, it's unlikely PSU can do much to fool the Bobcats.

One more thing about execution: Sometimes it is hampered by emotion. And surely the Lions will be an incredibly emotional bunch on Saturday.

The Penn State defense, under former coordinator Tom Bradley, represented something very simple and identifiable for the past decade. Except for those rare occasions when PSU clearly was outclassed - either overpowered, out-talented or injury ravaged - you could pretty much count on a high quality performance from a Cover 3 defense.

Stout against the run, very few medium-long passes allowed, very good tackling. Few broken coverages or missed assignments, ever.

Ready for everything - that was Nittany Lion defense under Bradley.

New DC Ted Roof has a national title (Auburn, 2010) on his resume, but his track record shows a lack of consistency that has been PSU's hallmark.

Roof wants to be more aggressive, and he might have the DL and LBs to do it. But with a painfully thin secondary, is it possible to transition to an aggressive man-to-man coverage scheme?

Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton will provide an immediate referendum on Roof's defense. He is an excellent passer and runner (267-415, 64.3%, 28TD, 10int in 2011, along with 658 yards rushing and 10TDs). The offense revolves around him. Will PSU be properly prepared, and have enough of an understanding of Roof’s system, to hold down Tettleton?

4. Injuries: How thin is the PSU secondary? Senior walk-on Jake Fagnano, who has scarcely played in his PSU career, was slated to start his first game at safety Saturday. But due to a hamstring injury that has kept him out of most of fall camp, he might be on the bench.

No big deal? Wrong. This is potentially devastating news.

Fagnano might not strike fear in opposing offenses, but the secondary is so bereft of experience and talent that after Fagnano it's cross your fingers and hope. There's seldom-used junior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, true freshmen and walk-ons. That's it.

Heck, maybe PSU takes the field in a hybrid 4-4-3 of sorts. Perhaps OLB Mike Hull could play an LB/SS combo position. There has been no indication something like this will happen, but were not joking. It is slim pickings in the secondary after CBs Stephon Morris and Adrian Amos and safety Malcolm Willis.

Another injury to a starter in the secondary and PSU will suffer greatly.

Offensive Line: Its hard to see PSU losing Saturday if the offensive line is consistently opening running lanes for Belton, et al. The confidence boost such a performance would provide for the rest of the team would be enormous.

But can a line replacing four starters do this? Yes, it can. All indications are this OL has more potential, especially in the running game, than last year's. The pass protection last season was consistently good, but the run blocking was average at best - departed RB Silas Redd was a genius at turning 1-yard losses into 3-yard gains.

New starters LT Donovan Smith, LG Miles Dieffenbach, RG John Urschel and RT Adam Gress or Mike Farrell, along with senior center Matt Stankiewitch, measure up favorably vs. their 2011 counterparts. Man-for-man, 2012 vs. 2011, only Dieffenbach is not as talented as his predecessor, powerful Johnnie Troutman.

"Upside" and "talent" should transform into "results" sometime this season for the OL. Can it happen Saturday?

2. Special teams: PSU has new starters and coaches handling virtually every aspect of special teams. Yikes.

Long returns allowed, fumbles and muffs, missed placements, poor snaps, blocked attempts - all could thwart the Lions on Saturday. And all are more likely to happen than normal due to everyone's inexperience.

1. Turnovers: This is directly connected to execution, of course. And it is the No. 1 indicator of the outcome on Saturday.

Don't believe it? Last season, in 10 of 13 PSU games, one team or the other had a turnover advantage.

The team with the turnover edge won 9 of those 10.

If McGloin, Belton, et al, protect the ball, and if Roof's defense forces a few turnovers, the rest will take care of itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment