Like Penn State's competence in the red zone, I've been missing for a few weeks. PSU's season is now
completely half over, and we're coming out of a much-needed bye week and looking forward to seeing how the team is going to perform down the stretch. This post is mostly a look at where the PSU season is right now in light of the first half of the season, and then a look at Minnesota. If you're sick of hearing about PSU's 2010 woes, hit the jump and get down to the Minnesota stuff. If you're a a fan of another team (and a sadist) or a PSU fan (and a masochist), stick around (link NSFW unless your Boss is a geek for Arnold throwing knives through people...in that case you may be up for promotion).
To put it mildly, things are not going well. I've never been a very pessimistic fan or "doom and gloom" guy when things go sour. However, while I don't think of myself as a huge kool-aid drinker, I will admit that my expectations are usually a shade optimistic. I went into this season predicting (yikes) 10-3. We would lose to Alabama and Ohio State, stun Iowa, and drop a game we should not have against Northwestern. I thought the offensive line would be better (more later), and that our run game and solid defense would keep us in games. I wasn't terribly far off from other people's predictions; the general consensus of the other writers on this blog was that PSU would go 9-4, with some others thinking 10-3.
Unfortunately, I was far off from real world results. We've gone 3-3 so far. 2 of the losses were generally expected, but no one can say they thought they'd both be 20+ point chokeslams. And then Illinois showed up and really twisted the dagger.
Now we play a 1-6 Minnesota game days after their head coach has been fired...and it's a must-win.
Penn State fans are worried about losing to this 1-6 Minnesota team. Hell, I am one of the fans concerned about tomorrow. Anything can happen on a given Saturday in college football. If things go the wrong way tomorrow, Penn State will take it's place in dead last in the conference. In that possible future, the [internet] sky starts falling. "Joe Must Go" gets back into the [internet] mainstream. [Internet] pigs will fly. The last one doesn't really fit, but suffice to say things will get crazy.
The Illinois Loss and Where We Are Today:
ESPN's Adam Rittenberg summarized the status quo pretty well coming out of the Illinois game two weeks ago:
Joe Paterno might not get No. 400 this season: The bye week comes at a good time for Penn State, which looked like an absolute mess against Illinois. Penn State has some major issues on defense after losing five players (three starters) to injuries against Illinois and another (end Jack Crawford) to a foot injury in practice. But the bigger concerns have to be on the offensive side, which can't convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns and has no identity through the first half of the season. Paterno needs three more wins to reach 400 for his career. The question always used to be when he's reach the magic number. Now the question is if.
Penn State has enjoyed 5 very strong seasons since the "Dark Years" ended with 2004. We've seen 13 losses in those 5 years. A couple of those losses were cases where a clearly-superior team put PSU in it's place: a couple Ohio State games, USC in the Rose Bowl, Notre Dame in '06. But for the most part our losses have been competitive and turnovers played a major role in the outcome: Michigan '07, Michigan State '07, Illinois '07, Iowa '08, Michigan '05, Iowa '09 (damnit I will include this game in this category). In no game since 2005 has a team from a significantly less-prestigious program come in and dominated the Nittany Lions. That happened against Illinois. And after that kind of loss, the first loss to Illinois at home ever, you have to expect there is going to be a lot of discontent. At least in that regard, we weren't let down.
If you were a casual PSU fan or a fan of another team, the Rittenberg summary of the game is about as bad as you thought things were. Unfortunately, those who looked a little closer saw some troubling cracks in the program. Public finger-point between players and coaches, rumors of serious problems with the Penn State leadership from Paterno down, and a very real admittance that players have quite on the coaches took center stage. Frank Bodani of the York Record:
This, certainly, will be Joe's -- and his staff's -- last great recovery attempt.
And it certainly will be even tougher. Joe is 83 and isn't as involved in the details of the team the way he used to be. He depends on his staff in a way that no other big-time head coach does, and that makes Penn State vulnerable.
What happens when Joe leaves practice early and the players are left with the assistants to run things? Or when he doesn't fly home with his team? Who's in charge? Who is still hungry to make this team better?
Because while graduating key stars made this team vulnerable from the beginning and an unprecedented crush of injuries has derailed it now, the most disturbing vibe from this 3-3 start is that some players appear to have given up.
Now, I did not think the sky was falling then. I don't think it is now. Illinois has a solid team this year. Penn State does not. You may have thought we had an mediocre-not-good offense, but the truth is that our offense is dead last in the Big Ten in both scoring and in total offense. It's not mediocre; it's bad. The defense was good-not-great. One brutal rash of injuries later and the defense is struggling to be average. This loss alone is not the end of the world.
To me, the [internet] sky falls when this team continues to lose games without showing any progress. Fans don't accept that this offense is the worst in the conference solely because of a true freshman quarterback. Penn State has out-recruited all but one or two other programs in the Big 10 and has top-level facilities and resources. We should be able to field an offensive line that can block (at all). We should adapt our gameplan during the season to better fit what our team is good at doing. We should be able to see improved fundamentals from the players over the course of the season. These are the types of things the coaches owe the fans.
If the coaches can deliver some progress on offense I think the season will work itself out. Games against Minnesota, Northwestern, and Indiana are only going to require a few touchdowns a piece. Two, maybe three, and those games are very winnable. Right now no one can say that this Penn State team is capable of that. That is why we are at this point. I don't feel like I'm even in a position to talk about maybe winning against Michigan, Ohio State, or Michigan State. Win those three easier games and Joe gets to the
arbitrary magical #400 and one more bowl game. People are unhappy,including myself for the record, but the sky does not fall. Lose one or two of those, and we will see a fanbase lose it's [internet] shit like none other.
Penn State @ Minnesota, tomorrow 12:00 e.s.t.:
How about this for a disclaimer: I haven't seen Minnesota play yet (!), so I'm going to just provide my thoughts on some statistics/results in each team's previous games and see how they compare.
You've already heard me rant about PSU's offense being last in the Big Ten. The good news? Minnesota is last in scoring defense and second-to-last in total defense in the conference (after Michigan). The least anyone has scored on them is 28. South Dakota scored 41. Northern Illinois scored 34. The run defense in particular is bad. If Penn State can't move the ball consistently, rattle off some big runs, and score more than 20 points, it may be time to invest in a protective shield for your television* for the rest of the season. This is worst defense Penn State has played this year, and combined with coming off of a bye, there is reason to hope for a very solid showing by Rob Bolden and Co.
* = If any of you order one of those I demand a commission. That was my business idea, damnit.
Minnesota on Offense:
Now, interim coach JeffHorton is also the Gophers' offensive coordinator, so nothing major should change this week on that front. From seeing him last year, I think Adam Weber is a very capable/good quarterback. Running the ball, it seems as if Minnesota's rush offense will be about the fifth-best Penn State has seen so far - Alabama, Iowa, Illinois, and Temple all field better units in that regard.
Penn State's efficacy on defense will revolve around how many players get back from injury. It looks like linebackers Gerald Hodges, Bani Gbadyu, and Michael Mauti will be back. We can hold our breath for DE Sean Stanley, and Massaro should be back. Even if Stanley and Massaro return, though, the DE position is still missing Jack Crawford and Eric Lattimore. Nick Suckay is gone for the season, and it seems like Drew Astorino and Andrew Dailey are, like, swapping positions from Free Safety and Strong Safety? At least our tackles will be solid?
While I know the transitive property really has no application in college football, I'm gonna use it anyway in a general way. This Minnesota offense put up 21 on USC and 23 on Wisconsin - there is no reason to think that Penn State's depleted defense is going to hold them significantly more than those teams did. Moreover, Minnesota hasn't scored less than 17 in any game this season.
Prediction: PSU 23 - Minnesota 20
A lot of people are worried about this game, and so am I. I, for one, don't see us holding Minnesota to a season-low score when we are playing an 11:00a.m. away game in the farthest destination in the Big Ten. I think the best realistic expectation is probably right around that low of 17. On offense, the Nittany Lions just have to look better. They've had plenty of time to fine-tune their gameplan and get motivated. The fact of the matter remains that they've shown us almost nothing so far this year against teams in their league.
Also, there are two intangibles that work strongly against Penn State: 1) Morning away game, far away. Just because this long-time bugaboo subsided in 2008 and 2009 does not mean it's gone. Look for the Lions to come out slow and be down early. Also, 2) Minnesota's new coach. While I originally thought this could go either way, I'm worried after having read that Horton has gone on record to say that his team has got " "Nothing to lose. We can try anything." Yikes.
In the end, Penn State comes out slow and goes down early. But the Lions are so much more talented, have played better competition, are coming off a bye, and flat-out have too much pressure on them to lose this game. I think the game is tight in the fourth quarter but Penn State pulls it out by a score.
And if they don't, the [internet] sky begins to fall.