Penn State Preview: That Old Magic
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 .