Penn State Football 2012: The Rebuilding Begins

This will be the first Penn State post I’ve written in months which is solely about football.  I’ve got plenty of other posts in which I discuss the obvious problem we’ve just dealt with.  There are a bunch of kids who showed the one thing Paterno always preached: loyalty.  Now its time to talk about them and the game they play; there’ s plenty of other places to discuss the ugliness of the past nine months.

I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel a bit strange to be writing about a Nittany Lion football team which now finds itself without the man who built the program.  Not only is this team entering the post-Paterno era, but its also one that has some immediate needs on the field.

The dawn of the Bill O’Brien era in State College is going to face some immediate challenges. Contrary to what people may think, this isn’t the year Penn State football is going over the cliff due to the sanctions NCAA imposed. With the exception of the bowl ban, those penalties won’t start to show their effects until 2013.

So, let’s talk about the upcoming season.  Don’t let PSU’s nine-win season in 2011 get in the way of the truth.  The Nittany Lions have many personnel issues to address, and even without the obvious distractions, they were at best a fringe Top-25 team going into 2012.  They can forget about that now.  A breakdown of the 2011 season illustrates why.

Penn State’s 2011 wins over Temple, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois, and Ohio State (by a combined total of 33 points) kept the Big Blue’s faithful hopes alive that the Nittany Lions were a team of destiny in the Big Ten; they had the inside rail to the inaugural Big Ten championship game.  But those dreams ended on the turf in Camp Randall Stadium in Madison when Wisconsin used 22 starting Big Blue Nittany Lions jerseys as floor mops.  Wisconsin provided a physical mismatch along the lines of what Alabama did to Penn State at Beaver Stadium in early September.

Both were telling losses.

In both the cases of Alabama and Wisconsin, Penn State’s offense went nowhere against a competent defense.

In both cases, the hallmark blue bulldozer offensive line of a Paterno team proved to be only adequate at best.

In both cases, the Nittany Lions proved they lacked a difference-maker at quarterback.  Penn State’s sole touchdown against Alabama came in garbage time; it was clear the Big Blue offense had no shot at finding the end zone against the Crimson Tide when it mattered. The drubbing at Wisconsin was even worse.  If there was a silver lining in the last few dreadful months, it was that Penn State is finally rid of alleged quarterback Rob Bolden with his transfer to LSU.  Now, the team is all Matt McGloin’s; which should be an improvement simply because there will be no more of this two-quarterback nonsense.

Any honest Penn State fan has no choice but to admit the issues along the offensive front and at quarterback.  McGloin helps to solve the problem under center, but the front five doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon.  But there’s another big problem nobody is really discussing.  A Paterno team with a bad offensive line is shocking enough, but Penn State has a HUGE weakness on defense: they can’t stop the passing game.

Even with All-American Devon Still on the defensive line, Penn State throughout 2011 lacked the ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.  It didn’t get any better going further back; the defensive secondary was the Nittany Lions’ hidden weakness.  Paterno’s trademark defensive style depended on a brutal defensive line and linebackers who treated opposing offenses like the Vikings treated the villages they invaded. Without that sort of pillaging power, Penn State’s 2011 defense relied far too much on a second-rate secondary in an era when the Big Tweleveten is no longer a conference based on “three yards and a cloud of dust.”  Today, as we speak, you can beat the shit out of Penn State all day long throwing the football because their soft zone defense just doesn’t cut it in a league that transformed with the Joe Tiller/Drew Brees approach.

It didn’t get any better in the low-rent bowl game where Penn State’s defense got humiliated by Case Keenum of Houston and the offense couldn’t muster more than two touchdowns against a glorified FCS team.

Having said all that, Bill O’Brien has three major on-field challenges.  By the way, don’t be that guy who is going to comment with the obvious when it comes to sanctions, recruiting issues, and the like.  We all already know that…save your breath and try thinking outside of the box.  Now, back to the on-field challenges facing Bill O’Brien.

The Silver Lining: getting rid of Rob Bolden means the quarterback job is all Matt McGloin’s.

1) The Offensive Line:

Ironically, it will be how O’Brien tackles the blocking issue which will determine how deep the recesses of NCAA sanction-land are going to be. It’s a football fundamental.  If you can’t block, you can’t win.  If Penn State can’t at least get guys off the line of scrimmage, the ghost of Joe Paterno will go to the undisclosed location where they are hiding his dismounted statue and chop it up himself.

2) The Defensive Line:

As he has said throughout his time at Penn State, O’Brien said on Thursday that the defensive front seven would the strength of the 2012 Nittany Lions.  This may very well be an improved unit as Jordan Hill, Da’Quan Jones, Pete Massaro, and Sean Stanley are on track to start up front, but this unit will be deep. The same is true for the linebacker corps with Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti,  and Glenn Carson in starting spots, but there are several players capable of providing significant playing time.

3) The Secondary:

The secondary has a number of good returning players like Stephon Morris, Malcolm Willis, Adrian Amos, and Stephen Obeng; but there are also some youngsters who have a chance to help improve this unit, such as Da’Quan Davis and Jordan Lucas.

The Bottom Line:

There were three times last year when the Nittany Lions were clearly over-matched. They couldn’t handle the speed of Alabama, Wisconsin’ s dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson gave them fits, and Houston’s pure-passer in Case Keenum did little more than expose the Penn State secondary. Even though this marks the beginning of a new era in Penn State football, the solutions to these problems have roots in the past. For Penn State to have a winning season, they must control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.  They also must improve on pass defense; the Big Twelevten is now full of offenses which love to throw the ball.

The Schedule:

September 1st – Ohio

Ohio is a good MAC team, but they are still a MAC team traveling to Happy Valley. Three years from now, Penn State may be Purdue’s homecoming bitch, but even Purdue can beat MAC teams.

September 8th – at Virginia

Here’s the first road test, and the first chance to see how brutal road fans are going to be.  Both Virginia and Penn State figure to be middle-of-the-pack team in their respective conferences.

September 15th – Navy 

See the synopsis of the Ohio game and replace the term “MAC” with “Service Academy.”

September 22nd – Temple

Temple never once beat a Joe Paterno team. This is isn’t a Joe Paterno team anymore, but this also isn’t the year this streak ends.

September  29th – at Illinois

Penn State opens conference play on the road, and Big Blue doesn’t have a very good record in conference openers away from Happy Valley.  Both these teams had disastrous ends to their seasons last year, and this will be a question of who made the right moves to right their respective ships.

October 6th – Northwestern 

The last time these two teams met in Pennsylvania, Northwestern rocketed out to a three-touchdown lead before Matt  McGloin led the Nittany Lions on a 2nd half comeback.  Neither team will be as good as they were two years ago.

October 20th – at Iowa 

Even good Penn State teams have been snake-bit against the Hawkeyes in the last decade, and that streak doesn’t look likely to end this season, especially not in Kinnick Stadium.

October 27 th  - Ohio St. 

I really hope this is the beginning of a great rivalry between Bill O’Brien and Pope Urban I.  Since both teams are bowl-ineligible, this could prove to be a slug-fest for bragging rights in one of the hotbeds of football in America.

November 3rd – at Purdue

Here’s the bitter rivalry game, not for what happens on the field, but because this represents a division in the Dubsism house.  As previously mentioned, J-Dub is a Penn State alum and Mr.s Dubsism graduated from Purdue.  Either way, the local police will surely be at the Dubsism house; it’s just a question of who is leaving in handcuffs.

November 10th – at Nebraska

Once again, Penn State has some of its toughest games late in the season. This likely will be a long day for the Nittany Lions.

November  17th –  Indiana

Indiana never once beat a Joe Paterno team in conference play. This is isn’t a Joe Paterno team anymore, but this also isn’t the year this streak ends.

November 24th –  Wisconsin

I’m not going to be a fan of this game at the end of the schedule, considering for at least the next four years this will mean my last view of Nittany Lion football will be a 30-point drubbing at the hands of the Badgers.

Wins: 

Ohio, at Virginia, Navy, Temple, Northwestern, Purdue, Indiana

Losses:

at Illinois, at Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin.

The Results:

If it weren’t for the ineligibility, Penn State would likely find itself in another low-rent bowl for the second-division Big Tweleveten. But, since that won’t be the case, the Nittany Lions will have to settle for a seven-win season and continue to focus on the future.

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6 responses

  1. I see Penn State as a middling team as well. Although I will be praying for your well being during the Purdue game. We should have cameras at your place for that one!

    1. Worry not. All the deadly kitchen implements will be hidden.

  2. Penn State will be irrelevant for a long time. Not only did the University lose players, they also lost Bowl Games, something that the school has been use to for a very long time.

    1. I think “irrelevant” is too strong of a term. If you look at what the NCAA laid on Penn State, a lot of the sanctions either don’t mean much or the world has changed since the last time the NCAA went medieval on somebody (SMU).

      Granted, the $60 million fine will sting, but Penn State also has an endowment of close to $2 billion and the largest dues-paying alumni group of any American university. $60 million is car-ashtray change to PSU.

      The loss of scholarships will also be a challenge, but not that big of one. See, the guys who won’t get scholarships are the third place-kicker and the sixth left guard on the roster. The big challenge will be the stigma of going to such a scandal-ridden program, but even that has been mitigated by the fact there wasn’t a mass exodus of players given the fact they were given a free shot to split. The bottom line is that anybody tho has real talent that commits to PSU will still get a scholarship.

      The probationary period means nothing because if Penn State doesn’t fix the cultural and leadership miasma that allowed this problem to happen in the first, then they deserve to get blown up.

      As for the bowl ban, USC is coming off a two-year ban with no discernable effect. The reason is that no matter what, big programs like USC and Penn State have 7 or 8 home game a year in front of huge crowds, and thanks to the explosion of cable/satellite television, Penn State will still be on television every Saturday anyway. Not to mention, PSU football was headed into the level of the mid-level bowl games anyway. Going to the Ticket City Bowl or the Little Caesars’ Pizza Bowl doesn’t really do anything for a big program. Back in the days when SMU got the “Death Penalty,” there weren’t 35+ bowl games and the Big Ten Network. Even today, there’s really only about ten bowl games that matter, and Penn State wasn’t headed for any of those anytime soon anyway.

      The bottom line. Penn State will still get recruits (although not as many), they will still be on television, and they will still win some games. That’s hardly irrelevant.

  3. Should be an interesting and emotional year in Happy Valley.

    Kudos to the juniors and seniors who decided to stay with the program instead of jumping ship.

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