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:
Head Coach: A
Bill O'Brien's game management hasn't been great, and the opening two losses should, to some extent, fall on the head coach - both were winnable games, and PSU should have defeated Virginia, no question. But O'Brien has been so exceptional in so many ways that it feels grumpy not giving him an A+. He has dealt with all of the "other stuff" spectacularly well, from the Sandusky fallout, to the shocking and absurd NCAA sanctions, to the sudden transfer of many key players right before the start of fall practice, to recruiting, to succeeding the legend of legends, Joe Paterno, in most unnatural circumstances. He is unquestionably the right man, and very possibly the best man on the planet, for this most special job in these most extraordinary circumstances. In many ways, he has been brilliant. Now, if he can get the team to clean up some loose ends, he could be at the helm of an amazing season.
This rating belongs almost exclusively to fifth-year senior Matt McGloin, since true freshman backup Steven Bench has scarcely played and sophomore Paul Jones quit the team. McGloin, under the tutelage of O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher, is playing the best football of his career and is on his way to setting numerous PSU single-season passing records. He is 136-of-221 (61.5%) for 1,499 yards with 12 TDs, 2 int., leading the Big Ten in yards and tied for first in TDs, while ranking fifth in passer rating (134.6). His turnover rate is very low, which is critical and might be the best indicator of his improvement and value. But he has been shaky at times - even in the Lions' two Big Ten wins, in which they've scored 35 and 39 points - and has missed many makeable throws. His soft arm and inability to hit 20-yard passes downfield - his longest completion in 51 attempts vs. Northwestern was a meager 19 yards - forces PSU to grind for every first down. Regardless, his leadership has been excellent, he has been gritty and tough, and he has been composed on the big 4th downs. He even has done well on QB sneaks, which is important because it's O'Brien's favorite short-yardage play call. McGloin has been as good as PSU fans could have hoped so far in 2012.
Running backs: B
Tailback has been the most interesting position on the team. After the departure of star Silas Redd, who suddenly transferred to USC in August, no fewer than five running backs have been given a legitimate chance at TB, and all have between 26 and 68 carries. Versatile So. Bill Belton was No. 1 at the start, but he sprained his ankle in the opener, missed a few games, and opened the door for Sr. Derek Day, Jr. Curtis Dukes, So. Zach Zwinak and Sr. FB Michael Zordich. Zwinak and, surprisingly, Zordich have emerged as quality tailbacks (Dukes and Day have had their moments, too). Zwinak has an innate knack for getting an extra yard or two out of every carry with a forward lean/surge, and Zordich's previously suppressed ability to stay patient, read blocks and make cuts - as a FB he ran like a straight-on hammer - have been revelations. (If you predicted Zordich would be PSU's only back with a 20-plus yard run at this point, well, you need to be playing the lottery.) Zwinak (68 att, 317 yds, 4.7 avg, 3 TD) is the No. 1 back now. He was a workhorse vs. Northwestern with 28 carries, and also showed receiving skills with 6 receptions while tallying 173 total yards from scrimmage. Shifty former WR Belton (33-130-3.9) could be the change-of-pace back, with Zordich (37-167-4.5-1) providing a breather, and Dukes and Day in reserve. But that could change at any moment, and PSU has to be excited about the proven depth developed. And on the few occasions each game O'Brien employs a FB, Zordich has been an excellent lead blocker.
Wide receivers: B
Sophomore Allen Robinson (41 rec, 524 yds, 12.8 avg, 7 TD) has been a sensation, seizing the No. 1 receiver spot after the August transfer of erstwhile No. 1 Justin Brown (Oklahoma). He is arguably PSUs midseason team MVP, though McGloin and LB Michael Mauti likely would get more votes. He leads the conference in receptions, yards and receiving TDs, and could easily eclipse the school single-season reception record of 63 by Bobby Engram and O.J. McDuffie. The Lions lost other WRs, but in the case of Devon Smith, who transferred pre-sanctions to Marshall, it was addition by subtraction as he was overused by the previous staff and So. Alex Kenney (12-129-10.8) has more talent as both a slot receiver and kickoff returner. Clear-cut No. 2 wideout Jr. Shawney Kersey inexplicably quit after the second game. Junior Brandon Moseby-Felder (11 catches) is a middling athlete and a step down as Kersey's replacement. True freshman Trevor Williams is the only other WR with a catch (3 for 40 yards).
Tight ends: B+
Aside from a few drops, this unit has done everything PSU fans hoped for when O'Brien's TE-friendly attack, complete with two TE positions, a "Y" and "F," arrived in State College. This blog projected PSU would increase its TE reception output from a pathetic 15 last season to 45-50 this season. Well, the Lions have 40 right now and will blow by the 50 mark in Game 8. Walk-on Shippensburg transfer Matt Lehman (12 catches, 2 TD), a junior, is tall (6-6, 250) has good hands and run-after-catch ability, and fell into O'Brien's lap. Same with true freshman Jesse James (6-7, 264), who has a little more girth and blocking potential. Junior Garry Gilliam is another massive TE (6-6, 262) and the best blocker of the bunch. The star receiver of the group, however, is RS Fr. Kyle Carter (23 rec, 279 yds, 12.1 avg, 1 TD), an ideal "F" TE, able to do everything from traditional in-line TE to H-back to FB to WR, while running good routes and making plays. O'Brien elevated the usage, importance and value of the TE position, and these guys were ready.
Offensive line: B
The OL has been balanced, steady, solid and every other adjective for good, consistent and unspectacular. The pass blocking and the run blocking have been equally decent. The unit's one injury, for a few games to RS Fr. LT Donovan Smith, was mitigated by the versatility of Sr. T Mike Farrell. Sr. C Matt Stankiewitch is the anchor, Jr. RG John Urschel is the resident genius and has drawn praise, and So. LG Miles Dieffenbach has been effective, too. New OL coach Mac McWhorter has been liberal with his use of backups, and Jr. T Adam Gress rotates with Farrell, and Gs Angelo Mangiro (RS Fr.), Eric Shrive (Jr.) and Ty Howle (Jr.) are injected intermittently.
Defensive line: B
Senior DEs Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley have been disappointments, but that has been largely due to injury, especially in Massaro's case. He missed three straight games with a shoulder injury after playing sparingly in the first two with a knee problem. He showed glimpses in his return against Northwestern and finally might be ready to make an impact. He surely has a lot of built-up frustration. Stanley has been healthier, missing one game (back), but he is not registering big plays and must pick it up. He is capable of more. Redshirt freshman Deion Barnes (team-high 4 sacks) has replaced Massaro and displayed prime potential as a pass rusher. Soph. C.J. Olaniyan has been solid as a reserve DE, and RS Fr. Anthony Zettel is promising. On the inside, Sr. NT Jordan Hill has been a menace the past two games, looking like a potential All-Big Ten player. He's averaging almost 5 tackles a game, outstanding for an interior DL. Junior DT DaQuan Jones, and reserves Sr. James Terry and So. Kyle Baublitz, have been adequate.
This grade actually is a bit of a disappointment. These guys are too good to not make an A. Aside from the spectacular game against Illinois by Sr. OLB Michael Mauti (team-high 57 tackles this season, 2 int. and 2 forced fumbles), the LB corps has not dominated like it is capable of. Sr. OLB Gerald Hodges (50 tackles) has been very good but too quiet - he has no tackles for loss. He can be great if he seizes turnover opportunities like the floater he dropped vs. Northwestern. And for someone who showed superior pass-rush skills last season, the coaches need to turn Hodges loose on the blitz a few times a game. Junior MLB Glenn Carson has been solid but also a little too quiet, with no interceptions, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries. This stellar unit needs more tackles for loss and turnovers. (PSU has forced an average of two turnovers game.) Mike Hull has been adept in spelling the starters at all three LB spots, primarily Carson on some passing downs, and RS Fr. Ben Kline has a bright future.
Defensive backs: C+
This group has steadily improved. Burned relentlessly in the opener against Ohio, and beaten badly in key moments against Virginia, opposing quarterbacks are finding it tougher going these days. Northwestern may have completed almost 60% of its passes vs. PSU, but it averaged an anemic 3.8 yards per attempt, and many of those completions came against tight coverage, such as the 2nd quarter TD toss that threaded the needle. The steady improvement of safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a junior, and Jake Fagnano, a senior, has lifted the entire secondary. They had scarcely played before this season, and the live reps are making a difference in their progress. SO-A is showing signs of being a playmaker. The 3rd-down defense has improved exponentially. Junior safety Malcolm Willis has been steady, Sr. CB Stephon Morris has been solid (but he needs to turn his head and look for the ball on deep passes or he will surrender more big plays), and So. Adrian Amos has been the secondary's MVP, playing safety and corner equally well and exuding confidence. True freshman CB Da'Quan Davis has gotten his feet wet without getting scorched. No one in the secondary has in interception.
Special teams: D+
The problems with placements have been well-documented since So. K Sam Ficken's five-miss calamity at Virginia. Ficken's fate is a minor soap opera each week, with everyone wondering if O'Brien has no confidence in Ficken (3-of-9 FG, 19-of-21 PAT) or just is much more inclined to go for 4th down than most coaches (20 times so far in 2012), or a combination of the two. Obscured by the weekly Ficken-opera has been the foibles of Sr. P Alex Butterworth (36.5 avg - 8 of 12 Big Ten teams have a punter averaging more than 40 yards). In additon to having a tepid leg, Butterworth is unable to calibrate the length and direction of his punts when booting into a short field. When he does well, it almost seems like an accident. Butterworth's net average of 30.3 is more than six yards worse than PSU's opponent's punter. In other words, the transfer of K-P Anthony Fera to Texas in August has hurt, big-time. The return units have been so-so, with a couple of costly punt muffs. The coverage units have been good - lots of starters have been used on kick and punt coverage - with the glaring exception of the 75-yard TD punt return Saturday by Northwestern's Venric Mark, in which Mark changed direction once and 2-3 PSU defenders failed to adjust. PSU has yielded just 34 punt return yards otherwise.
You could make a legitimate case the Lions have played better each game. That's a testament to the coaching staff and the commitment of the players (and, you could say, to how poorly PSU played in the second half of the opening game). A few weeks ago the Massey Ratings, a respected computer program, was projecting PSU to win one Big Ten game. After the Temple win, the projection went up to two. After the Illinois win, it went up to three. Now? It's projecting five Big Ten wins for the Lions. That's real, tangible, measurable improvement. Another cause for optimism: If the kicking game can uptick just a little - it can hardly get worse - PSU will continue to get better. Next up is Iowa in Iowa City on Oct. 20. With the Hawkeyes' rejuvenated running game behind former FB Mark Weisman - Iowa's version of Zach Zwinak and Michael Zordich - the night tilt will be a tough one and is likely to go down to the wire. Regardless, PSU's 2-0 start in league play has ensured the remainder of the season will be exciting and meaningful, and has given optimism for the future of the program after the incomprehensible actions of the past 11 months. Most importantly, head coach Bill O'Brien is a keeper. There is more hope about the program than since the scandal hit, despite the sanctions.
A record of 4-2 the rest of the way seems most likely barring the unforeseeable. But how exactly that 4-2 transpires is hard to say, and 4-2 could become 3-3 or 2-4 very easily: The only game with a clear-cut favorite is PSU over Indiana, and even that could be tough with IU's offense playing well. The other five all could have a pointspread of less than 5 points, i.e. very close, depending on how each team plays leading up to it. Looking at the games chronologically after the bye: Closing out October, it has been 13 years since PSU won at Iowa (losses in '01, '03, '08, '10), and seven since the Lions beat Ohio State at home (losses in '07 and '09). Both will be tough, relatively even games. In November, who knows what to expect right now from erratic Purdue (PSU has won five straight over the Boilermakers) and Nebraska, but both surely are capable of knocking off the Lions in their stadiums. And the 'Huskers explosive offense will be a huge challenge. Then come the home finales vs. Indiana and Wisconsin, with the Badgers seeming to get on track recently but looking much more like pedestrian 2007-09 Wisky than the 2010-11 offensive juggernaut. At this point, call for wins vs. Indiana and Wisconsin, and tossups in the other four. Perhaps wins at Iowa and at Purdue, and perhaps losses vs. Ohio State and at Nebraska. We'll see. If PSU does actually go 4-2, and if one of those four wins is over Ohio State, then the Lions should win the Leaders Division. But that's a lot of "ifs" and Nittany-infused optimism. Blame it on Bill O'Brien and his determined, resilient team.