Penn State Preview: Stupefying
No matter Penn State's final record, every edition of the Nittany Lions as the Paterno era trundles to its end in the near (or possibly distant and zombie-run) future seems to be the same team: tough defensively, tough in the run game, inept with the ball in the air. The varying levels of toughness and ineptness produce either Big Ten championships and BCS bowl victories or, like, losses to Toledo. Last year "very," "moderately," and "immensely," respectively, combined to go 8-4 without impressing anyone or beating any team with a winning record save the fraudiest of delicious frauds, Purdue, until an unexpected victory over Tennessee in the Outback Bowl validated the Nittany Lions as a team that was not complete crap.
This seems like faint praise, but after Penn State's last fairly respectable season -- a 9-4 2002 squad that lost in OT twice and by narrow margins two other times -- Penn State did morph into complete crap, and how. Over the next two years Penn State scratched out a 7-16 record as their fanbase studied Oedipus Rex for brooch-wielding tips. So, yeah, they'll take it.
Now Penn State fans look at a couple returning all-everything guys on defense, a senior quarterback, and a wide array of the sort of unproven talent SMQB has aptly dubbed "alleged" and dream big. The natural tendency, at least around these parts that haven't experienced a loss to Penn State since the father-son combo in the White House had the last name Adams*, is to gently pat the excited on their adorable heads and fight back giggles.
But... um... while no one in their right mind is truly excited about Anthony Morelli, you are invited to consider this question privately: who, exactly, is the second-best quarterback in the Big Ten?
No, it isn't possible. Is it?
*(may be a slight exagerration. possibly.)
Not good. The departure of once and future "slash" Michael Robinson to the fertile grounds of the CFL or Arena football or wherever stripped the Nittany Lions of their best passer and (debatably) best running back simultaneously. While Tony Hunt's yeoman work in his final season was remarkably effective given the constraints he was working with, when paired with a pure pocket passer it was not enough to maintain the running game that propelled Penn State to the BCS in 2005. Penn State skidded from 14th to 43rd in rush yards per game. That would have been all right if Morelli had perked up the passing game, but he did not. Though yardage increased, efficiency plummeted along with total yardage, scoring, and sacks allowed.
Rating: 3. Anyone who's been reading these previews the last couple years can tell you what's coming next.
1. Rip on current PSU quarterback.
All the mockery extended here and elsewhere about Anthony Morelli's lack of mental faculty proved more than founded. The indelible memory from the first year of the Morelli era was the back-to-back pick-sixes he threw against Ohio State that turned a tight 14-6 game into a three-score blowout faster than Morelli can spell "dubble cuvrage." They were hideous, appalling, memorable, kind of hilarious -- everything you want as an on-the-record skeptic of a particular player. The rest of the year was not much better. Morelli completed 54% of his passes, averaged only 6.3 yards per attempt, and had a dire 11-8 TD-INT ratio. Five stars my ass. Though the problems in the passing game weren't entirely on his shoulders, 92nd in efficiency is 92nd in efficiency.
In The JayPa Era
2. Rip on Jay Paterno.
If Morelli was the only fly in Penn State's passing ointment, you could see some sort of light at the end of the tunnel. But it wasn't Morelli that called the option play against Notre Dame that turned into a spectacular fumble and Irish touchdown. It wasn't Morelli's decision to blow his redshirt year for 13 garbage time attempts. It isn't Morelli responsible for the table at right. These things are the doing of the Penn State offensive brain trust, which has clearly been powering the unholy zombie body of Joe Paterno for the past half-decade instead of coming up with clever plays and stuff.
The rule here until proven otherwise is this: assume the Penn State quarterback is going to suck. Call this the JayPa Theory. Even in PSU's improbable '05 Orange Bowl season, Michael Robinson was a fairly crappy quarterback, completing 52% of his passes and finishing 57th in efficiency. Fortunately for PSU, Robinson doubled as a decent running back and the Nittany Lions were able to overcome their passing game issues with a top 15 run game. Last year they fell back to the pack and results dipped accordingly.
Except... dammit. I have a hard time picking against one of the few senior quarterbacks in the league this year. The one thing indicative of probable Michigan dominance more than any other is this list of experienced senior quarterbacks other than Chad Henne:
- Anthony Morelli
- Curtis Painter
That's it. And I think even less of Painter than I do Morelli, largely because Morelli was kind of competent against Tennessee -- though not very, let's not get ahead of ourselves, Penn State scored 13 points on offense that day -- and Painter was miserable in Purdue's bowl game against Maryland. Painter also had the luxury of a deep, varied receiving corps, the pass-happy Tiller offense, and a veteran offensive line. Morelli had none of these things.
So... what do you do? I think it's likely that one or two of the young guns pass him by year's end, but as of right this second he's probably the second best quarterback in the Big Ten. He will probably be above-average when all is said and done. If you have not seen London or France or the queen's undies, watch Penn State this year and you may well see something every bit as stupefying as you'd see in any of those other places: Anthony Morelli, All Big Ten. (Second team, of course.)
Tailback & Fullback
Rating: 3(?). The vastly underrated (by everyone, including me) Tony Hunt is gone and with him goes thumping fullback BranDon Snow. Into Hunt's shoes steps erstwhile blue chip recruit Austin Scott, a fifth year senior who took an unusual voluntary senior-year redshirt for the shot to be the Nittany Lion starter free and clear in 2007. The job is now his, virtually by default.
Scott's career has been one disappointment after another but does have one shining moment. It came when Hunt was knocked out of the Orange Bowl... well, let's let Penn State's hilariously overwrought official page do the talking:
Like an understudy in a Shakespeare play, Austin Scott learned his lines and knew them well. The curtain went up on the highly-anticipated 2006 FedEx Orange Bowl but, the play's lead at running back, Tony Hunt, went down in the first series with an ankle injury. Like any good understudy, Scott was ready in the blink of an eye to take his place on center stage and make sure the show did not skip a beat. He did not disappoint, as the only thing skipping beats were the hearts of Nittany Nation watching the thriller. Scott ignited the offense, carrying five times for 57 yards on Penn State's second drive and skipped [sic] untouched off left tackle two yards for the first score of the game. He demonstrated his multiple skills by rushing for a game-high 110 yards on 26 carries and scoring twice in the pulsating 26-23 triple-overtime win over Florida State.
I... wow. "Pulsating." Note to self: refer to coming Appalachian State win as "pulsating."
Anyway, yes, Florida State had a intimidating defense that year and Scott did have a nice game against them. He also has high school accolades few others do. But he's spent most of his Penn State career disappointing coaches and fans with substandard play and lackadaisical practice. A tendency to dance his way to pretty one-yard gains has not endeared him to Penn State's old-school coaches.
In short, he has talent that he's on the verge of squandering. At this point he could either be David Underwood or Chris Perry. If he's like Perry and motivation is the real issue, he could be a revelation as he enters a contract year of sorts. If he's like Underwood and the issue is an inability to play football, nothing will help. I lean towards the former given the Orange Bowl, but not much. Scott is one of the biggest wildcards in the league; much hinges on his performance.
It's thin, thin, thin behind Scott. Redshirt freshman Evan Royster is the top backup. A three star recruit out of Virginia, Royster had 45 yards on nine carries in the PSU spring game. Penn State fans seem inordinately enthused about this. This concludes all available information on him. Senior Rodney Kinlaw has spent three years tantalizing Penn State fans with his speed on kickoff returns (though AJ Wallace largely took over those duties last year) and doing nothing much in a structured offense; he might be the third down back. There are few options if Scott comes up craps.
Wide Receiver & Tight Ends
Rating: 3. This group was an enormous disappointment last year largely because the waxing star of former national #1 recruit Derrick Williams went back on the wane. The sophomore caught 40 balls last year, which is fine. Official Big Ten receiving Jesus Mario Manningham only hauled in 38. The issue is the yards per catch: Williams managed just 440 yards on his catches, a pedestrian 11 per. By way of comparison, noted non-deep threat Steve Breaston beat that by a good half yard on his 58 catches. If you remove his anomalous 62-yard touchdown against Indiana, he still ends up at 10.7 per. A less frequently deployed Steve Breaston is not what Penn State fans had in mind coming into the year; one touchdown does not a luminous star make.
Running mates Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood had similar seasons, both catching 40-some balls for several hundred yards and finding the endzone rarely (twice each). If there is a deep threat on the Penn State roster it's Butler, who managed 13.2 yards per reception. But there isn't, so ignore that last sentence except for the YPC data.
One problem the Penn State wide receivers have is they're all basically the same. All three are at least smallish, with Norwood and Butler checking in at plain old "small" -- the duo is listed at 5'10", which means they crack 5'9" on a good day. Williams is asserted to be six foot even, which is not quite smurfy but isn't exactly not. None of these guys are going to be Calvin Johnson or Braylon Edwards type threats on jump balls. For any of them to get open deep they would have to be Breaston-esque guys who can kill you with YAC and use a quick change of direction to get open deep. (Despite all Breaston's problems with actually catching the deep ball, holy Lord could the guy get open.) Unfortunately for Penn State, no one has shown that sort of ability. Compound that with Morelli's inaccuracy, Penn State's protection issues and the result is five touchdowns from your receivers. There is no quick strike in this unit.
Nor is there the sort of player who can fight through a jam and catch a slant on third and seven, at least not yet. This is where sophomore Chris Bell enters the picture. Bell had a downright Michigan freshman year, spending a year of eligibility to acquire five catches for 66 yards as he polished his blocking and route running. A highly touted recruit who chose Penn State over Michigan and a host of other suitors, Bell has the size (6'3", 210 pounds) to fill that Avant role. He's a good bet to move past one of the mighty mites.
Ha! I kill me.
Another third down target will be sophomore tight end Andrew Quarless, who picked Penn State over Michigan and others in 2006. He was a bright spot as a true freshman, catching 22 balls for 288 yards (a better per catch average than Williams!) and establishing himself as an up-and-comer.
This unit should be better than it was a year ago with everyone of note returning, but the two leading receivers from last year seem fundamentally limited players unlikely to discover a hidden cache of talent and Williams' stock is in a tailspin after his uninspiring first couple years. Quarless should be a major target and Bell is a good bet to emerge into an Avant-type possession receiver; a lack of big plays will still hamper Penn State.
Rating: 2. As a Michigan fan, my perception of this unit is hopelessly biased by the sieve job it put up against Woodley, Branch, et al., in PSU's 17-10 October loss. This is de rigeur:
img src="http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/1074/130/1600/269998421_fb32303bd7.jpg" />
Any game in which two quarterbacks were sent to the sideline with concussions does not reflect well on your blocking prowess. And that was with future top ten pick Levi Brown at left tackle, albeit with a scoped knee that wasn't quite right. With Brown off to the NFL, I probably can't find any way to predict this unit to do anything other than suck in heinous fashion. But let's try anyway.
Points in favor of the PSU OL: they return four of five starters (sort of... Gerald Cagoden started half the season before losing his job at LG and RT John Shaw has been moved inside to RG to battle with fellow returner Rich Ohrnberger) from a line that paved the way for a strong season from departed tailback Tony Hunt and his grinding ways. Hunt was a power runner of the sort that needs the designated hole to be in its expected location to leverage his strengths; his success necessarily reflects well upon the line that cleared the way for him. Center AQ Shipley was a fine starter all of last year and will probably be on the MGoBlog preseason All Big Ten first team, for what little that matters.
But, um... no. Earlier this summer Black Shoe Diaries took a crack at projecting the starting lineup this fall. It includes two returning starters not switching positions, two total unknowns who were ignored by the gurus (though it should be noted that offensive line is a notoriously tough position to rate kids), and a left tackle who a was not only a guard last year but one who "wasn't very impressive," losing his job halfway through the season. Holy heebie-jeebies, Batman. Outside of Shipley, there isn't a spot on the line that is settled. Steele says this is a "much more experienced" unit than last year's edition... I am not so sure.
Predictably badass. Virtually nothing changed from the Orange Bowl 2005 season, as you can see at right. The similarities go beyond the coincidental and into the eerie, with only one question remaining: WTF was up with getting smithereened by Notre Dame? Penn State finished sixth in sacks with 40 thanks in large part to heavy and effective linebacker blitzing but chose to play virtually the entirety of its September game against the Irish in standard seven- and occasionally eight-man zones. Brady Quinn, free of the pressure that made him whimper and implode against Michigan, USC, and LSU, had a field day against the passivity. This is yet more fuel for the idea that Penn State is no longer a particularly well-coached team, at least not at the top. Mark Bradley evidently has some chops.
But, but, but... the rest of the year! If you discount the two touchdowns gifted to Ohio State by Anthony Morelli, the only other team to crack 20 against Penn State was (weirdly) Minnesota, and their total of 27 was assisted by an overtime touchdown.
One thing that does not show up in the stats: Penn State's #7 ranked rush defense may have been significantly overrated. Granted, in several games they were dominant but they were also aided by some ridiculously pass-happy opposition. Brian Hoyer threw 61 times in the Michigan State game. Erik Angie had 37 attempts for Tennessee despite Arian Foster and Lamarcus Coker going for 101 yards on just 17 carries. Take a look at the better run games on the Penn State schedule last year:
|Good job but against the #72 rush offense; Travis Thomas had 44 yards on 3 carries. Probably depressed by a lot of obvious garbage time runs.|
|Owned. Wells 5 for 11.|
|Close to a push. Started out strong then faded down the stretch as their offense hung them out to dry. Live and on tape an impressive job thwarted by Hart's ineffable awesome.|
|!!! 79 yarder distorts, sure, but 13 carries for 80 yards still ain't good. Did control Williams, who had 19(!) rushes for 4 yards, though sacks were probably much of the losses.|
|Hill had a long of 16. Steady grinding PSU could not stop.|
|Fat man love to throw.|
A steady diet of sacks and some amazingly low RB utilization by opponents (14 RB carries for Purdue, 17 for UT, 6(!) for crazy-ass John L. Smith, 11 for NW) obscured a run defense that was pretty average when pressed.
Rating: 3. Gone is the, um, pulsating heart of the Penn State defense. Paul Posluszny is taking his ill-gotten trophies to the NFL, but that's another section; here we talk about the absence of Ed Johnson and Jay Alford, two of the best defensive linemen in the conference last year. Fortunately, the figuratively and literally enormous holes left by their departure will be filled with a host of guru-approved recruits.
Despite the presence of the heralded, It's the relatively un- Abe Koroma who is atop the depth chart at defensive tackle. His running mate is likely to be enormous Phillip Taylor, a run-stuffing space eater who hovered around 350 pounds as a high schooler (named "most likely to eat your baby," FWIW). The top backup appears to be sophomore Jared Odrick, a top 100 recruit in 2005 spent his freshman year as an oversized defensive end a la Ohio State's David Patterson, picking up four tackles and a sack in limited time. He's moved inside to his more natural position and will get a lot of time in the defensive tackle rotation, particularly on passing downs.
I am a little confused by the projected depth chart since Odrick has both guru approval and, seemingly, coach approval on his side over the Koroma, who redshirted as Odrick played. It wouldn't be surprising to see Odrick force his way into the starting lineup.
Last year the Nittany Lions struggled to generate anything from their defensive ends until they moved linebacker Tim Shaw to a weird but effective standup DE position; Shaw would pick up seven sacks by year's end. Now he's gone, leaving Josh Gaines, Maurice Evans, and the 3.5 sacks between them.
Traditional MGoBlog heuristics lead one to be skeptical of a major leap forward for Gaines. He was a meh recruit in 2004 who contributed little in his first year starting despite playing next to a couple of defensive tackles who demand more attention in the passing game than most and in front of an aggressive, blitzin
g linebacking corps. The picture painted is one of a lot of effective single blocking of Gaines by right tackles. He was a redshirt sophomore a year ago -- less upside than a guy in his first or second year in the program -- and started largely because the situation at defensive end was so dire it required the Shaw move. If Penn State can get a mediocre season out of him, it would be a small victory.
The player starting opposite Gaines is still unknown. Depending on who you ask it's either true sophomore Maurice Evans or a player whose name might be a slight annoyance to Michigan fans who follow recruiting: Chris Rogers. Evans was a moderately shirtless recruit who was forced into early action as a freshman, picking up a dozen or so tackles and a sack and a half. Rogers was a Michigan recruit in 2004 who redshirted before fleeing back to the cozy confines of central Pennsylvania. The common reason given was homesickness. Unfortunately, there was more than a little disappointment at his departure. The general impression gleaned from message boards was that the coaches felt he had potential to be a plugger in the mold of Rondell Biggs, a high motor guy good against the run with adequate pass rush ability. Rogers had three TFLs in the spring game and should be adequate to good.
Redshirt freshman Aaron Maybin is also in the mix. He probably needs another year of adding bulk before he is anything other than a pass rusher.
Rating: 5. Though this blog has often claimed Paul Posluszny overrated, those criticisms were specific to the very foo-foo awards he was granted by voters stunned into mute submission by PSU's admittedly rich linebacker tradition and were limited to "is not as good as AJ Hawk" and "is not the best defensive player in the country." Oh, and "you're crazy if you take him before David Harris." Mustn't forget that one. Anyway: his departure is not to be scoffed at.
...At least not entirely. Penn State, in keeping with that whole Linebacker U thing, is in fine shape despite losing its most decorated performer at the position since Lavar Arrington was leaping offensive lines in a single bound. Senior Dan Connor, a terror on the weakside when not suspended for prank-calling his own coaches, moves away from his quaintly-named "Fritz" position to Posluszny's vacated middle linebacker spot which probably isn't dubbed "Hun" but should be. Strongside -- "Jerry"? -- linebacker Sean Lee was a quiet revelation when I UFRed the Michigan-Penn State game...
Probably the difference between PSU and other defenses: Sean Lee, a sophomore linebacker, reads this very quickly, getting out on Butler and preventing much in the way of YAC.
...and his 90 tackles, 8 TFL, 5.5 sacks, interception, and two fumble recoveries indicate that the "surprisingly heady" Lee was not turning in a fluke performance. Racking up those numbers next to a pair of tackling machines like Connor and Posluszny is truly impressive; Lee may have been the best strongside linebacker in the conference as a sophomore. Insert grumbling about where they get these guys here.
So the only question is at the old Fritz position; even there Penn State has options. Tyrell Sales, Navarro Bowman, and Jerome Hayes will compete for the position. Redshirt junior Sales is the front runner. He has three starts to his credit because of the Connor prank calls and was the senior's sparingly-used backup in 2006. Eleven tackles in the spring game also help his cause. Bowman redshirted last year; he receives high praise from the coaches when queried. Hayes is evidently the top backup at middle linebacker, playing opposite Connor in the spring game, and may win a job if the coaches decide their best lineup has Connor on the outside.
(Side note: Wikipedia has a subarticle on offensive terms for various ethnicities and nationalities. This subarticle has a sub-sub-article on terms levied specifically at Germans. It includes six different English slurs plus nasty words from Austria, Croatia, Denmark, France (three), Finland (two), Italy (three), Luxemborg, the Netherlands and Belgium, Norway, Poland (four), Portugal, Russia (designated "unfriendly" instead of "offensive"), and Bavaria, which you will note is a part of Germany. By my count, Paterno could specifically enumerate different anti-German slurs for each position on offense and defense and have five left over for kickers and other special teamers. I fully support this effort, Joe.)
Rating: 5. Junior Justin King is the headliner. I hardly need to discuss him, do I? For those in the dark: King was the ur-disappointing cornerback "lock," a top ten player and five star supposedly ticketed for Michigan from day one. This did not occur. In retrospect, the only surprising thing is that anyone was surprised. King's stepfather is Terry Smith, formerly a diminutive but effective wide receiver for Penn State from 1988 to 1991. Smith was also King's head coach in high school. Result: Penn State commitment. Duh.
Anyway, King spent his freshman year as a two-way player, acting as PSU's nickelback and tooling around on the offensive side of the ball as Penn State searched for anything approximating offensive confidence. The nickelback thing provided an opportunity for this Nelson moment to transpire:
Ha-ha indeed. Everything was right in the world and King's decision was foolish. Then he dumped the wide receiver gig, focused full time on cornerback, and became one of the country's best cover corners as Michigan's secondary stood between it an a national championship game berth. The ha-ha was on us. Don't be fooled by King's somewhat scanty numbers (six PBUs and an interception). Offenses avoided him like the plague, instead choosing to test a capable Tony Davis. He is one of the country's premier cover corners.
The other returning star is safety/dispenser of vigilante justice Anthony Scirroto. Since Joe Paterno has decided to punish Scirotto for gathering together a posse and performing a daring nighttime raid on a party that contained someone who said or did something nasty to his girlfriend by instructing the rest of the team to clean up Beaver Stadium it appears he will dodge serious repercussions, though an FIU suspension seems plausible. Scirroto was probably the best of a weak crop of Big Ten safeties a year ago. His six interceptions led all defensive backs in the conference, and his 14 passes defensed is an impressive total.
Tony Davis was an adequate to good cornerback a year ago who moves back to safety. Yes, this is a position switch starter but it's way less sketchy when you move a corner to safety than vice versa. This one seems especially innocuous because it appears designed to get uber-recruit AJ Wallace on the field every down. Wallace was
the team's Designated Reverse Guy as a kinda-sorta two way player as a freshman; he'll try to follow in King's footsteps this year.
So this appears to be a hell of a starting secondary: the best corner in the league, the best safety in the league, another returning starter, and a highly-touted recruit entering the starting lineup as a sophomore. Beauty. There is a small catch: depth. Backup safety Spencer Ridenhour transferred away, leaving Penn State very thin beyond their starters. Past nickelback Lydell Sargent the situation at corner is similar.
Rating: 4. Frequently deployed Kevin Kelly returns for a third year at kicker. Kelly, 22 of 34 last year, is a version of Garrett Rivas with delusions of grandeur. Inside 40 yards, Kelly hit 80% of his attempts. From 40 and out he was 5/13, though three of those were from 50+. He's all right, but no Mike "Ted" Nugent.
Punter Jeremy Kapinos is gone. He was pretty good, averaging just under 42 yards a kick last year (34th nationally) and helping PSU to a respectable 37th in net punting. I know nothing about replacement Jeremy Boone, as befits a person who occasionally leaves his house. He will probably be marginally worse.
Penn State's return units should be above average as long as they get the right people the ball. Their overall rankings (40th and 43rd on punts and kickoffs, respectively) obscure better performances from their primary threats: Derrick Williams had a punt return touchdown and was 18th in PR average while AJ Wallace was 30th in KR average.
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
|2006||Int +||Fumb +||Sacks +||Int -||Fumb -||Sacks -|
|0.08 (55th)||13||12||3.08 (6th)||9||15||1.8 (47th)|
This heuristic doesn't tell us much about teams that are near zero, so take the following lightly, but: this category projects marginally worse in 2008 unless Penn State can keep up their prodigious sack rate. The interceptions against are much lower than you might expect largely because of the extreme conservatism of the Penn State offense. No throws across the middle of the field (according to fans more familiar with the predilections of the Nit offense than I), few chancy deep balls, and a decided preference for running Tony Hunt limited Morelli's turnovers but did little to actually help the offense move. Assuming the offense opens up, the line remains kind dodgy, and Morelli is still prone to mental errors, interceptions should go up, but a reduction in fumbles lost should help.
But this is all a long way to say: turnover margin treated Penn State fairly last year. Their results on the field weren't distorted.
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
We have three. One trips our alarm bells: failed guard Gerald Cadogan moving to left tackle to replace Levi Brown. A second, shift of Tony Davis from corner to safety, is probably all right but might speak to a lack of depth in the secondary. The third, Dan Connor to middle linebacker, is not an issue.
Dumbest Thing In CFN Preview
The team will be far better if ... the offense starts to scores on defenses with a pulse.
Charlie Weis would be proud of that Grayson-Moorehead moment.
If you've never been to State College it's hard to imagine. You get off the freeway and there is a field and then there is a 110,000 seat stadium amongst an open vista of dormant farms and trees. It would look just as out of place in the Amazon.
And this one's not for downloading, but any Nittany Lions wondering what they'll be doing after games this year should check this shot out.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
The defense has no falloff at all. Morelli turns into a bonafide quarterback and the receivers find a way to get open; the line is decent enough to... naw. Who am I kidding? Best case scenario for the Nit passing game is a leap to average, maybe slightly better, when coaching is taken into account. If Scott turns into Perry/Larry Johnson PSU could turn in a season like their Orange Bowl run of 2005, but that's a lot of ifs. Still, 11-1 could happen, though I think undefeated is out of the realm of possibility.
Even in the worst case I don't see Penn State's defense being below average. Lee, Connor, and King are really good and there's enough supporting talent that they should be able to weather their offseason departures well enough. The run defense could take a significant step back, but they'll still be tough to score on.
Offensively, though, there could be a comical stagecoach explosion complete with single burning wheel skittering across the camera lens. If the offensive line is AQ Shipley and the 'tards, hypothetical Morelli improvement will be negligible and the passing game will remain mired; if Scott goes bust the resulting ugliness could hearken back to the bad old Mills/Robinson/Agony days... though not quite. Those were some of the worst offenses ever seen in the Big Ten and Morelli has at least proven he's not broken Zach Mills. A series of tight, ugly games could lead to 8-4; a return to the bowl-less days of recent yore is not in the cards. I can't see this team being worse than last year's edition, especially with the soft nonconference schedule.
Even though I am deeply skeptical about Morelli and the Nit offensive line, the comparison that is foremost in my mind is Wisconsin. The teams were virtually identical in 2006, stiff defenses coupled with mediocre or worse offenses heavily reliant on running the ball.
The Badgers are a trendy pick for Big Ten champs based on their 12-1 2006, but replace Bowling Green with Notre Dame and rejigger the Big Ten schedule to include Ohio State and you're probably looking at 10-3 and more reasonable expectations for a team that didn't prove all that much last year. Unit by unit on offense:
- QB: PSU. Even if Morelli was meh, he has a year of experience over Donovan/Everidge.
- RB: Wisconsin, but they have similar depth issues and Scott has one-year wonder upside.
- WR/TE: Penn State. Beckum is all the Badgers have; Penn State has Q
uarless, two guys who would be fine #2/#3 players, and at least the hope Williams lives up to his potential, plus Bell.
- OL: Maybe a push based on the similarities -- uninspiring starters returning from last year's team; top ten LT off to NFL -- but Bob Palcic fought in 'Nam and Wisconsin doesn't have a failed LG playing LT this year.
I figure the defenses will be near mirror images. The secondaries are a wash if not a slight PSU advantage -- more faith in AJ Wallace than Allen Langford -- and the presumed Wisconsin advantage on the D-line is offset by what should be one of the nation's premier linebacking units. If you consider the skill positions even, you're picking between the Wisconsin OL's advantage over PSU's line and Morelli's advantage over whoever Wisconsin throws out there.
My point is this: if you're looking for a darkhorse challenger to consensus favorite Michigan in the Big Ten, this is probably your team. I kind of hate saying that what with JayPa and all, but there it is. The differences between UW and PSU last year laid mostly in the quality of their opponents. The defenses will both be stout, intimidating things; if you made me pick between the offenses I would wince and take the Nittany Lions.
|9/8||Notre Dame||Probable win|
|11/10||@ Temple||Functional DNP|
|9/22||@ Michigan||Probable loss|
|9/29||@ Illinois||Probable win|
|10/20||@ Indiana||Probable win|
Penn State sweeps its candy OOC slate -- I weep crocodile tears for whoever the ND quarterback is against this defense -- and goes a solid 6-2 in conference. 10-2 it is.
Oh, and: play Pitt, for Christ's sake.