This one isn't quite as extensive. I'm sure you understand.
The Ron Zook era started out well enough with a thrilling overtime victory over Rutgers, but whenever the phrases "thrilling overtime victory" and "over Rutgers" find themselves in the same sentence their buddy "harsh reality check" cannot be far behind. Illinois' did not arrive until the Big Ten opener, but when it did it took the form on an unholy beating at the hands of Michigan State that did not let up until Northwestern handed the Illini their ninth straight loss in the season finale. Over that stretch of eight games, Illinois allowed every team they played at least 35 points, lost by at least 17 points every week, and were obliterated 36-13... by Indiana(!). By the midpoint of the season the only people watching Illinois games were pissed-off Florida fans, who traded tapes of the debacles and watched them intently in pitch-dark rooms full of unpleasant, familiar noises best left unspeculated upon.
Yea, and woe followed him wherever he was suffered to lay his head.
Started on both sides of the ball last year.
It is likely things will improve during Year 2 of the Zook Epoch. One of the reasons the Illini were so bad at... well... everything is that this totally weird "tribute to the seniors" featuring picture after picture of cute babies serves as a fairly accurate assessement of the average age of the team. Illinois returns every starter from last year save fullback Jason Davis, defensive tackle Ryan Matha, and exhausted punter Steve Weatherford. A fair number of those starters were wet-behind-everything freshmen in way over their heads. Strides towards competency are probable, but there's a long, long way from last year's Travelling Bye Week extravaganza and respectability.
Last Year: Not good, but not the defense, either. Illinois managed to finish 47th in rushing yards -- the only stat tracked on the NCAA's team page that the Illini were better than 71st in -- and 72nd in total offense, but how many of those yards were pity yards gained against third-string walkons? Survey says "lots".
Courtesy of The State Journal-Register, Springfield, IL
Rating: 2. Senior Tim Brasic's numbers from last year are surprisingly tolerable on the surface -- a 61 percent completion rate and 424 yards rushing -- but with only 5.9 yards per attempt and 11 interceptions, Brasic didn't generate enough positives to justify the chance of a turnover or drive-killing sack. Some of the blame has to be placed on the offensive line, who yielded a massive 32 sacks last year, but Brasic's just another guy. The bubble-screen orgasm that is the Zook offense has a lot of dead simple throws that tend to drive up yardage and completion percentage metrics without requiring any actual skill on behalf of the quarterback (something Chad Henne benefited from extensively last year). When Brasic attempted something so daring as an actual downfield pass the results were often disastrous.
If things go poorly with Brasic, Zook might say "to hell with it" and insert true freshman Isiah Williams, the jewel of this year's recruiting class. Williams' implausible senior-year stats: 1,441 rushing yards at 21.8 yards per carry and 1,841 passing yards on only 128 attempts with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions. He's guru-approved and potentially the kind of guy who can lift the downtrodden into a state slightly less so a la Antwaan Randle-El. One caution: Williams only completed 56% of his passes as a senior, but it's not like Zook's going to have anything to lose after September.
Rating: 4. Bizarrely deep. Pierre Thomas and EJ Halsey return for their senior seasons but will have to hold off a challenge from sophomore Rashard Mendenhall, who -- get this -- was in the Rivals 100 two years ago. Between the three of them they had 1231 yards on 259 carries (4.7 each) and a fairly astounding 79 catches for only 492 yards (6.2 each). If you needed any further proof of the screen-y hell that is the Zook offense, there it is. Thomas, who got about half of the rushing yards last year, is the proverbial thunder to Halsey's lightning and Mendenhall is a combination of both.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Sophomore Kyle Hudson led Illinois with 31 catches and actually managed to get 15 yards per catch -- there is downfield passing! -- but I'd be lying if I told you I had any idea who he is. Receivers on terrible teams don't often get attention since it's usually focused on whatever grotesque injury is being inflicted on the quarterback this time. Hudson did have a 10-catch, 114-yard performance against Wisconsin but that's probably less impressive than it sounds given the way everyone with a half-functional quarterback diced the Badger secondary a year ago. Still, a freshman Hudson had more catches and more yards than Mario Manningham, Derrick Williams, and their hype entourages. He's one to keep an eye on, especially because you can count the inaccurate references to his valuable role as a possession receiver from their inception.
A rotating cast of other minor contributors has one name of note: sophomore Derrick McPhearson, who ended up at Illinois after an academic sojourn that took him to Virginia's Fork Union Military Academy. The year before McPhearson committed to Florida and then-head coach Ron Zook -- evidence of both considerable talent and questionable judgement. McPhearson missed a few games with a broken leg and finished the year with only 13 catches, but his role should expand greatly as a sophomore.
Rating: 3. The line, like everything else, was crap a year ago but this unit has a better excuse than most. The Illini found themselves starting two juniors, two sophomores, and a freshman and were unsurprisingly overwhelmed. This year all five starters return and the Illini can employ the services of Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington, who was projected to be a starter before his sudden departure. Millington will probably boot LT JJ Simmons to the bench and be the line's best player the day he steps onto the field.
They could be okay if things work out, but those 32 sacks in an offense that's pathologically reliant on short passing indicates extensive problems that will probably prohibit a rise to "good."
Last Year: Almost literally non-existent. Behold:
- Rush defense: last.
- Pass efficiency defense: second to last.
- Total defense: third to last.
- Sacks: second to last.
- Scoring defense: third to last.
Rating: 1. I don't care that three of four starters return; the assumption here until proven otherwise is that the Illinois defense will be a mere rumor to opposing offenses. Defensive tackle Chris Norwood's 7.5 TFLs are nice, but that's about it as far as playmaking goes. The true sophomore defensive ends were awful a year ago and will probably be slightly less awf
ul this year, but I'm saving all my miracle points for "Lloyd Carr understands probability"; "Illinois defensive line is half-decent" will have to wait.
I mean, what does it say when you're so desperate for any positive recognition that you grab a straw from freakin' College Football News and slap it up on your website? It means you're no good.
It will always be Burma to me.
See defensive line; I don't care that three starters return. This is what you need to know about the Illinois linebackers: one of them claims to be named "J Leman." No word on whether he plans on fleeing to
Rating: 1. Detroit DePorres' own Sharriff Abdullah is the top returning corner; he is 5'8" and has zero interceptions and four breakups in about two full years of starting. This neatly summarizes the experience of being an Illinois cornerback: it's nasty, brutish, and you're short.
The previous paragraph is not entirely fair, since Abdullah's partner Alan Ball -- also from DePorres -- is both tall for a corner (6'1") and clearly better than Abdullah, but I plead Too Funny To Check. Ball's one interception and five pass breakups are not the stuff of legend, however, and the safeties are reminiscent of Cato June. Cato June before he was a Pro-Bowl linebacker.
Kickers & Coverage
Steve Weatherford's punting leg has been dunked in the sauna for the last time; in his place is some guy destined to be second-team All Big Ten for three years. Looking up biographical details of the new Illinois punter crosses the line from "fun hobby" to "dangerous obsession" and inevitably leads to something like the end of Requiem For A Dream and so will be forgone here, but I can tell you that kicker Jason Reda was 13 of 20 a year ago and banged in a 52-yarder, so he's all right.
Non-Conference: One I-AA meatball (Eastern Illinois) then the thrilling rematch against the Scarlet Knights, a fascinating matchup of the Illini's Easily Movable Object defense versus Syracuse's Eminently Resistable Force offense, and a MAC game they could lose against Ohio.
Conference: Since Illinois is the worst team in the conference Big Ten bylaws mandate that they skip Michigan. Minnesota also misses out on a chance to whack the pinata.
We're Sure About
The defense. The scoreboard operators at Illinois games are going to get a nasty case of George Jetson button-pushin' finger.
We Have An Idea About
The running game. Could be... um... good with the return of all those running backs and the offensive line. It was half-decent a year ago.
We Have No Clue About
The future. As odd as this sounds, hiring Ron Zook looks sort of brilliant. Illinois is no longer recruiting MAC rejects and confused Eastern Europeans. If you believe the gurus, a meaningful number of Zook's first class of recruits could have played for anyone in the Big Ten not named Penn State, Michigan, or Ohio State and Illinois is off to a good start this year. It will take another year or two, but a respectable Illinois is a possibility in the near future.
An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt
The schedule is wonky enough and the bowls desperate enough that the Illini could wander on to the hallowed ground of some place like Shreveport, Mobile, or Fort Worth to take on the fifth place CUSA team if things fall right. Every starter returns and if some of the Zook recruits live up to their e-clippings in their first year there are enough teams of equal hopelessness -- Syracuse, Indiana, Rutgers, Ohio -- on the schedule that with a ton of luck and a victory stolen from the likes of Minnesota or Purdue the Illini could reach 6-6. But probably not.
Remember last year? This time they lose to Rutgers. 1-11.
The good news: Illinois should improve, possibly quite a bit. The bad news: they could improve quite a bit and still win two games.
Wins: Eastern Illinois
Probable Wins: Ohio
Tossups: Syracuse, Indiana, @ Rutgers
Probable Losses: Purdue, @ Northwestern
No Chance: Iowa, Ohio State, @ Penn State, @ Wisconsin, @ Michigan State
It looks like 3-9, but an encouraging 3-9.
Northwestern's new coach is Pat Fitzgerald -- yes, that Pat Fitzgerald, the one who spearheaded the Wildcat defense during their improbable '94 Rose Bowl run. He's all of 31, the youngest coach in D-I.
Hate crime! Hate crime! Prepare for more boarding calls at Yost this fall, as the NCAA has re-affirmed its commitment to making even the slightest brush along the glass a five minute major and game misconduct. The NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee was undeterred by the frustrating results of that decision last year, which saw games won or lost based on how many innocous bumps were adjudged mortal sins. By the end of the year boarding, cross-checking, and charging penalties were all the rage as referees desperately tried to skirt the intent of the law. Despite the awkard-to-infuriating results, the "point of emphasis" returns to plague us anon.
There is no rationale behind this save-the-children hand-wringing. The NCAA's sudden interest in those little stop signs youth players wear stems from one incident in which North Dakota's Robbie Bina was sent to the hospital after an ugly hit from DU's Jeff Paukovich. Paukovich got two minutes; the NCAA flipped out and ruined dozens of games the next year because of a single incident, tragic though it may be. The same reasoning-type substance caused goofy, vision-obstructing nets to sprout over hockey rinks across the nation because of a girl's death at a Columbus Blue Jackets game. The NHL decided that 100 years of not killing their fans was a total fluke -- the girl had a rare condition that made her susceptible to head trauma -- and overreacted. These things are undoubtedly tragic but that doesn't make them statistically significant. I'm sure that sounds cold, but Bina's injury is the only serious one I can remember in the eight years I've followed NCAA hockey and the hit that caused it was so flagrantly illegal that any competent referee would have booted Paukovich immediately without needing a reminder from points of emphasis. Instead of reprimanding and possibly spanking that ref, the NCAA lowers the standard for dismissal to levels approaching self-parody. I only wish I could feign surprise.
One bit of good news: linesmen will wave off icing that results when an attempted pass does not connect, cutting down on stoppages in play.
All hail the geniuses of SI ... er... for Kids, who rank Michigan #2 in the country for reasons obscure. Michigan Sports Center is confused.
With the World Cup reaching its end, it's time for a bunch of posts about improving soccer. This year's edicion del mundial is running short on goals: the worst output since 1990, another cup that spurred rules changes. Some blame the ball. Others get the tinkering hat out. The Sports Economist has not one but two suggestion posts; Braves & Birds chips in a set; I've got mine:
- No more yellow cards for time wasting. Just add two minutes of stoppage time for every incident.
- Slightly relax offsides by allowing the offensive player to be past the defender as long as some part of his body overlaps, sort of like the blue line in hockey.
- (Maybe) remove offsides entirely once the ball enters the box.
- Players who are stretchered off must remain off the field for five minutes unless they were fouled.
- Review game tape and harshly sanction divers after the play is over, as Steve Wilson suggests.
- Allow the referees some discretion on fouls in the box. The all-or-nothing nature of the penalty kick causes referees to swallow their whistle in marginal cases and thus permits defenders to get away with actions that are fouls anywhere else on the field. I'm not sure what form the foul-that's-not-a-PK would take but it could just be a regular DFK from the spot of the foul -- dangerous but not 80-90% of a goal.
PKs are deadly to attractive attacking soccer. The referee's reluctance to impose them allows defenders to use illegal tactics to prevent attacks. The illegal tactics makes scoring from the run of play difficult, causing offensive players to swan dive like mad. The rampant flopping in soccer is not due to the character defects of swarthy Europeans but rather to a cost/benefit analysis that usually comes out in favor of acrobatic falls.
All right: I have been fielding a steady stream of BlogPoll membership inquiries and have put them all off until RIGHT NOW! Feel the excitement!
So: in approximately two weeks the poll's membership will add a selection of blogs that have requested entry and excise those that have gone dark. To apply, send an email to email@example.com with your blog's URL and school of choice (if the blog does not make it obvious). If you've already sent me an email, your blog should be in a special category of my RSS reader already, but I would re-send it if you're paranoid.
Last year the poll took on anyone who wanted to tolerate the vote-entry interface, but as it's a little more established now the criteria for entry are going to be a bit more strict. The Admissions Committee* will be looking for the following things:
- An established readership on the order of hundreds of hits a day.
- An attractive design.
- 2,000 words of college football content per week during the season -- blockquoting articles doesn't count.
- Consistent posting during the offseason, though not necessarily as fevered during the season -- some offtopic-icity is fine.
- Participation in the roundtables and the CFB blogosphere in general.
- Coverage of teams that currently lack representation.
These aren't requirements -- you can have a template and still get in. Think of it like a point system: you get points for each category and if you edge past the line you're in. The most important thing by far is content, which -- despite what you may have heard -- is still king.
Changes should be finalized by the end of the month.
Mathophobes can skip this section. I've subscribed to Smart Football for a while now and recommend anyone with an interest in the coaching side of the game do so as well. The latest post over there is titled "Run/Pass Balance and A Little Game Theory," which makes the tingly bits tingle. In it, proprietor Chris Brown proposes a different way of looking at run/pass balance based not on a straight ratio of run to pass plays but on the yards per play each achieves:
The idea is if you are a very good passing team you pass most of the time, then you run when it is favorable and see positive results without having had to practice it too much. Same goes vice-versa--we all know how dangerous play-action passes are from heavy run teams, especially say a veer option team.
Again, I don't think yards per rush and yards per passing attempt should be exactly equal--passes are riskier than running plays. Specifically, they more often result in lost yardage (sacks) and turn the ball over more often (both fumbles and interceptions). So you should expect your yards per pass attempt to be higher than yards per rushing attempt.
The idea here is that if your results from the running and passing are out of wack you should be adjusting your run-pass ratio in a counterintuitive fashion because the defense will be expecting you to do what you're good at. If your yards per play for both are approximately equal with the addition of a "passing premium" of about a yard per play, your offense is operating with the correct balance between run and pass: you've reached a Nash equilibrium that balances what your offense is good at with game theory considerations. The implications of this can be startling:
Pass-happy Mike Leach at Texas Tech attempted 697 passes for 4857 yards, averaging 6.97 yards per pass attempt. (I also recognize how many of these are shovels and the like but I'm just being simplistic.)
They ran the ball 172 times for 1040 yards, or 6.05 per rushing attempt.
The result? Tech, for all its crazy stuff, is pretty balanced.
What about Michigan? Last year the team ran for 1902 yards on 435 carries -- all quarterback rushes are counted as passing plays -- for (ugh) 4.35 yards per carry. If you include Henne's sacks/rushes, which were all passing plays save for two or three unsuccessful QB draws and a few sneaks, Michigan averaged (ugh) 5.85 yards per pass play, so they should have thrown more... I guess. Michigan's reliance on wide receiver screens that should more properly be classified runs seriously distorts those stats. In any case, it's an interesting way to look at things. Texas Tech is balanced in their way.
And another thing: Smart Football mentions in passing that certain stat gurus harp upon the as-of-yet fictional "yards per passing play" statistic as the most important metric in the passing game, but I think you can take that assumption a step farther. If you remember this graph from way back when...
...then you might have an idea in your head that the value of the yards you gain is not linear. Getting into third and one or third and two is much more valuable than third and four. I've had an idea to measure the expected value of each situation on the field -- third and six from your twenty, first and ten from their sixteen, fourth and twenty from midfield -- and assign "points" to each play based on the differences between each expectation. For example, you have a first and ten at midfield. On average teams in this situation find after the next score (by either team) they're up an average of 3.3 points. That's the expectation. On first down, Chad Henne wings one six rows into the crowd. You have second and ten at midfield, which is only worth 2.7 points. Chad is charged -0.6 points. BAD CHAD!
Anyway, add all that up and you get a measure of A) my insanity and B) offensive efficiency that is accurate by definition. Possibly coming soon-ish. Or late-ish.
Aaaaand another thing: That post keeps on giving.
Q. What's the only way to make Hal Mumme look smart?
A. Put him in front of sportswriters:
I remember someone asking Hal Mumme when he was at Kentucky about how his teams' yards per carry had dropped around a yard or so from the season before. The reporter was incredulous and turned red faced at Mumme's response: Mumme told him that he saw the same thing, and that to fix it he would throw the ball more. The reporter cut him off and essentially called him an idiot, mentioning that everyone knows you run better by simply running more (wear them down!).
Michigan: not so crappy at football after all. Paul Westerdawg has an interesting post up on the states that provide NFL talent. It has the usual states at the top (California, Florida, Texas), but supposed basketball state Michigan is #8 on the list with 50. Ohio has 78 and Pennsylvania 58. Insofar as NFL talent reflects collegiate talent -- an imperfect comparison, surely -- the implication is that OSU's main asset is not OMG Ohio High School Football but the fact that they're the only BCS school in their state.
Thufferin thuttcotath! Lou Holth: The Biography!
A standout is Holtz's long-term position at Notre Dame, of special importance not just because of his devout Catholicism but also his refreshing devotion to strict academic standards for the players. In fact, what stands out is his modesty and adamant belief that football is ultimately less important than education.
EDSBS has your incredulous scoffing covered.
Etc.: Maize 'n' Brew ponders the eternal question "Is a Ball State ticket worth somewhere between 50 and 100 dollars?" and reaches the eternal answer "no"; Bruce Ciskie rounds up his roundtable, accuses MGoBlog of cheating and sucking, MGoBlog laughs at result of UW-UM football... er... hockey... er... basketball... er... softball (yeah! that's the ticket!) game.
You find me a prediction from someone other than a 13-year-old from Aliquippa that projected Penn State winning a BCS game last year and I will find you an excellent supply of those tree frogs you can lick for a gooooooood time. In retrospect the entire thing seems like a hallucination: Michael Robinson, effective quarterback! Tony Hunt, All Big Ten runner! Penn State, Big Ten champs! There's a strong possibility that the only thing standing between Earth and the apocalypse was a referee-related-conniption-fit-causing loss to Michigan that set Penn State message boards aflame with conspiracy theories. But that was the only outpost of sanity in Penn State's ... um ... 11-1 ... Orange Bowl winning ... Big Ten Championship ... season. Memo to self: must quit the frog.
How did this happen? The leading theory, as is only appropriate for the only D-I team coached by an ancient brain-eating zombie, is a lot of really old guys. Seven starters are gone from the defense, as are four of five offensive linemen and quarterback Michael Robinson. In the game of football-teams-as-other-things so capably played by SMQB '05 Penn State has to be Walter Matthau, the crotchety old man of college football. Excellent work in the 60s and 70s, a long dry spell, and an unexpected resurgence (Grumpy Old Men) followed by an immediate flatline (Grumpy Old Men 2). And now Walter's passed on, just like Michael Robinson, et al.
It's reasonable to declare Penn State's repeat hope dead (Jim), but there's life in '05's corpse yet with Derrick Williams, Levi Brown, and the three-headed Cerberus at linebacker. If Anthony Morelli has a Flowers-for-Algernon leap forward, if the offensive line is stunningly competent, and if any sort of pass rush materializes Penn State could do it again.
If they do, though, you'll find me wandering the streets, muttering about bad frog.
Last Year: Managed to scrape by on Tony Hunt's running and Michael Robinson's moxie, but not exactly thrilling aerially. The numbers are shockingly good for anyone who's seen Penn State play over the past four years: 14th in rushing, 74th in passing, and 33rd overall in yardage. But how much do last year's numbers mean? Not much. PSU's nonconference schedule was Gopher-iffic -- South Florida, Cincinatti, and Central Michigan -- and they didn't even play two of the Big Ten's four non-putrid defenses, their own and Iowa's. The results against OSU, Michigan, and FSU:
- OSU: 17 points and 195 total yards.
- Michigan: 25 points, seven by fumble return, and 400-some yards. However, a review of the UFR from that game shows two huge plays given up when the backup safeties blew assignments and a horrendous day from Grant Mason allowing their array of screens and such to work. When not gifted yards by substandard play, they had one substantial scoring drive. That was at the end of the game when Michigan retreated into its awful prevent-a-victory shell.
- FSU: 26 points but only 16 in regulation, two from a safety. Respectable yardage numbers (351) aided by three cracks in overtime.
The jury is still out, and ornery.
Rating: 2. Given the level of accuracy of last year's prediction -- "Michael Robinson is not a quarterback. You can tell because he has no arms," or something similar â€“- you would do well to take this section with a heavy pinch of salt, as that accusation was leveled at a quarterback I had seen play on and off for three years. No one aside from the Penn State coaching staff has seen Robinson heir Anthony Morelli throw anything other than a Hail Mary here and there.
But for the sake of completeness, this is what is known about the junior:
- He was VHT OMG shirtless as a recruit... a Pitt recruit, which he was up until mere hours before he could sign his letter of intent, at which point he switched to Penn State. Pitt was left completely in the lurch, unlike Penn State when a certain other VHT OMG shirtless quarterback picked Michigan several months before signing day. You would do well to laugh contemptuously at any Penn State fan that looks down on Chad Henne's character.
- Blessed with a big arm, he was inserted late in Penn State halves/games as a freshman to hurl balls 30-40 yards farther than Zach Mills could.
- There was low-level internet panic that asserted that Morelli was functionally retarded when it came to reading coverages and finding open receivers before last year's annus mirabilis. After PSU started winning stuff, all problems with the program precipitously disappeared. The rumor persists that Morelli is going to be working with a skeletal playbook and perhaps a Speak 'n' Spell.
- He's a pocket passer, not a scrambler. The quarterback position is not going to produce 806 rushing yards.
- He's going to have to score more points than Robinson did if Penn State hopes to approach last year's performance.
- He's being coached by Jay Paterno.
Taken together, Facts About Anthony Morelli bode unwell for Penn State's chances for a repeat. He's a raw recruit with no experience coached by the most widely reviled son this side of Jeff Bowden being handed the starting job in an offense that has to change drastically to accommodate his talents.
Er... good luck with that.
Rating: 3. Starter Tony Hunt is a trier who can run over the unprepared linebacker but is a long way from a gamebreaker. He's thoroughly average; even PSU's official site says he possesses a "hard-running, straight-ahead" style, though they claim a "big play burst" that has never materialized in front of my eyes unless you'd like to count a terrible angle by freshman Brandon Harrison a year ago. Penn State partisans will no doubt point to his 6.0 yards per carry as evidence of his explosiveness, but let's review: Cincinatti, Central Michigan, Northwestern, &c. This is a case in which the stats are being very naughty and fibbing with elan. Hunt is okay and no more.
Backup Austin Scott was busy morphing from a heavily-hyped recruit into a heavily-hyped total disappointment when a Hunt injury thrust him into the starting lineup in the Orange Bowl. He responded with a career day: 110 yards against the slavering Seminole defense. He then proceeded to tear his MCL during spring practice, though he should be back by the fall. In direct contrast to Hunt, Scott's problem in the past has been his soft-running, left-to-right style. He does have more speed and wiggle than Hunt and could break out this year if he maintains the directness he showed in the Orange Bowl, but given JoePa's crotchety old-manness something will probably have to happen to Hunt first.
Williams go zoom
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Rating: 3. Derrick Williams did not exactly take the Big Ten by storm before breaking his arm against Michigan, but 22 catches and 298 yards over about half a season isn't bad for a true freshman. He can also juke people out of their pants (video courtesy IBFC). Williams is on a stardom vector that only more unfortunate injuries can derail.
Behind the big star will be sophomore Deon Butler, a tiny minnow of a slot receiver who led PSU with 37 receptions, 691 yards, and nine touchdowns a year ago, and similarly diminutive Jordan Norwood. Both are generously li
sted at 5'10" and around 160 pounds and are effective in their way but are prone to dropped balls and have physical limitations against press coverage that opposing defenses could exploit if the offensive line does not keep Morelli clean. Watch for recruit Chris Bell to get some time. A highly touted recruit, he has more size than anyone in this unit and could fill a valuable possession receiver role if he adapts quickly.
As mentioned in the Michigan State preview, this blog lacks the hubris to tell readers exactly what to expect from offensive linemen no one has ever seen play, as will be the case for four out of the five starters Penn State fields in '06. The lone returnee is a good one -- LT Levi Brown is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick easy -- but everyone else is more or less fresh off the turnip truck. Sophomore enter AQ Shipley got spot plays in every game a year ago... at defensive tackle; Junior Jon Shaw and senior Robert Price picked up starts against USF. Sophomore Gerald Cadogan got in two games. This concludes your turnip-truck mitigation.
Employing the standard heuristics (based on age, playing time, and the quality of the unit in front of you), Shipley will probably be good or better. PSU has been pumping him up for a year or so now and rather than let him sit on the bench after narrowly losing out on a starting spot at guard they decided he would be useful on the other side of the ball. Price will likely be mediocre as a senior who hasn't seen any time. Cadogan and Shaw are unknowns.
Last Year: One of the Big Ten's two truly terrifying units with Ohio State being the other: 12th in total yards, 7th against the rush, 14th in pass efficiency defense, and 10th in scoring defense. The linebackers return but it's the turnip truck again for almost everyone else.
Rating: 3. Three starters including the talismanic Tamba Hali depart, but there's still a good bit of experience in the unit. Senior DT Jay Alford started every game a year ago; fellow senior Ed Johnson started no games but that was due to expulsion rather than a lack of talent. Alford quietly had an outstanding season next to Tamba Hali, racking up 11.5 TFLs and 8.5 sacks. He's not one of your Watson-esque man-mountains, but rather a penetrating 1-gap DT in the mold of Iowa's Jonathan Babineaux. Without someone who demands copious attention next to him Alford's big play numbers should drop, but the threat of his penetration will demand extra attention from the offensive line and help keep the intimidating linebackers clean. Johnson is a fireplug DT physically reminiscent of Michigan sophomore Terrance Taylor who saw a lot of playing time as a sophomore (three starts and 20 tackles) and should be above average. DT looks fine aside from depth, which is a concern.
The defensive end situation is not so rosy. Witness these inspiring words from CFN on projected starter Jim Shaw:
Shaw, the brother of offensive lineman, John Shaw, came to Penn State from Rice and made six tackles and a sack last season. Now he'll need to prove right off the bat that he can be consistent.
Ut oh. The bet here is that VHT incoming freshman Maurice Evans plays the Jamison to Shaw's Biggs. On the other side, sophomore Josh Gaines draws the herculean task of attempting to fill Hali's shoes. A middling recruit in '04 (three stars, offers from the likes of Purdue, Wisconsin, and Michigan State), Gaines redshirted then picked up nine tackles behind Hali in '05. "Serviceable" would probably be a great outcome for him in '06, a major step down from Hali's "terrifying".
Rating: 5. Even though Paul Posluszny didn't deserve the Butkus Award he received (AJ Hawk hello what), he's not a player to be trifled with. Neither are fellow starters Dan Connor -- unlikely to miss about a third of the season playing Crank Yankers again -- and Tim Shaw in what's unquestionably the Big Ten's finest linebacking corps.
There might be some concern from some quarters that the new defensive linemen will not keep the linebackers clean and reduce their effectiveness. Something similar happened to Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway a year ago; stripped of Roth and Babineaux they went from all-world to all right and the Iowa defense went clunk. Penn State, however, has the luxury of returning a second-team All Big Ten DT in Alford and getting back a talented senior in Ed Johnson; Iowa was starting newborn babes -- big newborn babes, but still. With an extra year of experience and a full tour of duty from Connor this unit may well increase their production. They'll have to if anyone is to pick up Hali's slack.
Rating: 3. All four starters from a year ago are gone and question marks abound. One corner will be manned by uber-recruit Justin King, who split his time between offense and defense a year ago in an effort to prop up the sagging PSU passing game. The other is in the hands of sophomore Tony Davis, who was unknown when he committed to Penn State a couple years ago but apparently had interest from various schools around the Big Ten, including Michigan. King will probably be a star at some point, but a year after playing mostly wide receiver probably isn't the time; Davis is a mystery. There's going to be a dropoff from Zemitas and Phillips.
New safeties Donnie Johnson and Nolan McCready are journeyman seniors with little playing time. There's no shame in getting stuck behind Chris Harrell and Calvin Lowry, but it's unlikely either can replicate the performance of the departed starters from a year ago. If they're mostly staring down third-and-long after the linebackers eviscerate a running back, however, they should do fine.
Kickers & Coverage
Both kickers return from a year ago. Punter Jeremy Kapinos was eminently average with his 41.3 yard gross and 34.9 yard net averages, both of which placed him right around 40th in the country. Kicker Kevin Kelly was fairly good a year ago, hitting 16 of 23, but doesn't have a huge leg and occasionally clunks one -- think Rivas.
Non-Conference: Weak. One good game @ Notre Dame, one designated MAC patsy in Akron, and two embarassments against Youngstown State and Temple.
Conference: PSU misses Iowa and Indiana; the key games will be the Big Ten opener in Columbus and their attempt to snap a seven-game, nine-year losing streak against Michigan at night in what promises to be a howling maelstrom of a Beaver Stadium.
We're Sure About
Run Defense. It probably won't be quite as intimidating with the meh safeties, but the line is full of competent-to-good run defenders and the linebackers are without peer in the midwest and perhaps the nation. Running against Penn State will be a chore.
Derrick Williams. He good.
We Have An Idea About
Pass Rush. It's going to drop off significantly without Hali, who not only drew double-teams but beat them consistently. There appears to be no one on the roster who can replace half his production.
Anthony Morelli. He will struggle early, especially with a patchy offensive line. A big arm is nice but not everything and I tend to believe the Internet undercurrents that say he's struggling with the playbook and such; Jay Paterno still hasn't coached a quarterback who could actually throw -- Robinson got by on his legs more than anything -- and the streak contues thi
s year. Probably.
We Have No Clue About
Offensive Line. Four new starters indicates bad, but with Levi Brown occupying the all-important LT spot and surrounding counties and Shipley looking like a player they could be acceptable.
An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt
The defense gets enough pass rush from the linebackers to make up for Hali's absence and manages to scrape by early in the season. Morelli is intermittently brilliant but occasioinally boneheaded; Hunt lives up to Lion fans' expectations even in the face of a meh offensive line. This team still isn't a BCS contender unless a lot of things break vastly right -- beyond the reasonable expectations of this category -- but could finish 9-3 with some luck.
Morelli throws a ton of picks and Hunt's production is entirely reliant upon the offensive line, which is awful. Offense drops off a cliff. The defense is still good but isn't the sort to laugh in the face of terrible field position ten times a game and concedes too many points for the Keystone Kops on the other side of the ball to overcome. Only wins on the schedule are the five that come by default and maybe one more; PSU finishes 6-6.
The PSU defense will still be good, but great (again) is asking too much. When you can choke out the opponent's run game consistently you are going to be one of the better defenses in the country, but I would be surprised if Penn State got much of anything from their defensive ends this year. Penn State will have to generate much of their pass rush via the blitz, which will leave them open to exploitation and drive that pass efficiency defense down, especially with a raw secondary that will spend the first half of the season finding its legs.
The offense? All signs point to a reversion to well-below-the-mean.
- The offense's effectiveness from a year ago is greatly overstated by the numbers because of the terrible defenses it played.
- There is one returning starter on the offensive line.
- There's a new quarterback.
- The same guys who drove this bus off a cliff the past few years are still around.
Hope exists in the form of Morelli's recruiting rankings, Levi Brown, and Derrick Williams, but recent evidence indicates that the only time in the last five or so years Penn State has been able to cobble together a semblance of offense has been with veterans everywhere and a pounding ground game. This offense figures to have neither.
A step back is coming, though it won't be as disastrous as the '03-'04 seasons. A large portion of the blame for those years falls squarely on the shoulders of noodle-armed Zach Mills and Robinson, who were so inept that passing was not an option for two solid years. I do think Morelli will disappoint, but he would have to implode to send the PSU offense all the way back to the bad old days.
Wins: Akron, Youngstown State, Temple, Illinois, Northwestern
Probable Wins: @ Minnesota, @ Purdue
Tossups: Michigan State, @ Wisconsin
Probable Losses: @ Ohio State, Michigan, @ Notre Dame
No Chance: None
Adding it up yields 8-4 .
I'll be back Wednesday.