UNIVERSITY PARK, PA, Sept. 2 — The Nittany Lions braved inclement conditions at Beaver Stadium to capture their first victory of the season, beating the defending MAC champion Akron Zips 34–16. The game did not go completely as this Turkey expected; however, we got to see what works and what needs work.
Alas, unless you were lucky enough to have been one of the 106,505 rain-soaked fans at Beaver Stadium, you got to experience it through the veil of ESPN2’s worst announcing crew. The rain would have been preferable. More on this less than dynamic duo later.
What worked in this game was Morelli’s passing game. He went 16–32 for 206 yards. Three of those completions were touchdown passes and he was not intercepted. It was a solid performance in his first outing as a starter, even though Paterno thought that as the game wore on, Morelli started focusing on two receivers and not seeing the rest. His passes were generally precise and crisp. There’s certainly room for improvement. It was a relief that Morelli had the time to find targets at all, given the greenness of the offensive line.
The Turkey was wrong about the running game but if he had read his own diatribe about the offensive line and the Akron 3-5-3, he would have figured it out. Not only did Hunt not gain 100 yards, but also the inside running game as a whole, with both Hunt and Kinlaw, was just about completely shut down. Hunt had 14 carries for a total of 36 yards and Kinlaw rushed three times for –2 yards. Hunt scored his touchdown on a short run early in the fourth quarter. The bright spot in the running game was the skinny true freshman A.J. Wallace, who flashed his elusiveness in a single run for 42 yards. However, there is much reason for concern about the inside running game. Without it, we can’t soften the better defenses we’ll face to promote the deep threat. Akron’s 3-5-3 was used very effectively in putting the clamps on PSU rushers, with eight men frequently on the line. They knew what we knew about the Lions’ offensive line going into this game.
About the performance of the offensive line, which gave Morelli enough time to throw but was completely ineffectual in supporting the ground attack, Paterno told a reporter as the rain soaked but victorious octagenarian left the field, “They got the devil kicked outta them.” Indeed they did, and they better get better in a hurry with Notre Dame on the horizon.
On defense, Bradley threw some 3-4 looks in there for variety. We might see more of these as the season wears on, depeding on seriousness of the ankle injury sustained in this game by Jim Shaw, which was serious enough to require a trip to the locker room with the team doc. This team is not very deep at the defensive line, so any loss there will be costly. But the D-line was nevertheless effective. Defensive lineman Ed Johnson, who returned this year after some off-da-field issues, looked particularly good, playing much of the time in the Akron backfield. On the whole, the defense did well against the mighty Zips, holding them to 225 total yards, of which only 33 were on the ground. Vaunted Akron quarterback Luke Getsy threw two interceptions. The PSU secondary was not yet in sync, but with this game behind them, they should be coming together. One big point of concern: Akron was 4–4 in fourth-down conversions.
On special teams, the Nittany Lions would mostly seem to have their act together. Kevin Kelly was in game shape, kicking field goals of 39 and 42 yards, and kicking the ball deep on kickoffs. Jeremy Kapinos punted only four times, for a mediocre average of 34.5 yards. The return game is promising, with Derrick Williams and A.J. Watson splitting return duties. Wallace is a fresh new face, and was particularly impressive, although he goofily muffed one return. On the two he actually did return, he averaged 47.5 yards.
On a wet field, you can expect turnovers. Penn State fumbled twice and lost both. It was sloppy in other respects, too, with two screwed up field goal attempts requiring that holder Jason Ganter make a play. Neither worked.
There was one really awful screwup that no doubt will incur the wrath of the elderly coach. In the second quarter, with Akron mired deep in their own territory on fourth and forever, Penn State roughed the punter, giving the Zipparoos new life with an automatic first down.
On the other hand, Akron made their share of mistakes. So, a lot of the mistakes cancelled each other out.
And now, a word or two about the ESPN2 announcing crew, Pam Ward and Mike Gottfried. I cringe whenever I run into a game that is being called by Pam Ward, ESPN’s semi-androgynous concession to the erstwhile feminist movement. Ward is a former sideline reporter who requested to be moved to the announcing booth. OK, I understand that ESPN is headquartered in Connecticut, whose citizens lacked the brains and foresight to nominate Joe Lieberman in favor of crackpot anti-war activist Ned Lamont—but I digress. The boys in Bristol are no strangers to political correctness. So, they acceded to Pam’s wishes. I could go along with having a woman call games, but Ward’s thready alto voice is not powerful enough to be heard above the crowd noise. She just kind of merges in with it, creating a rather annoyingly monotonous drone. She rarely gets amped up. I can’t stand her. Her commentary adds nothing. On one particular play, a Penn State player lost his helmet, which Ward referred to as his “hat.” Mike Gottfried, erstwhile Pitt head coach (1986-1989), is the other half of the team—the color man. Listening to him is only slightly more exciting than watching paint dry. He is knowledgeable about football and he prepares very well for games, but it is painful to listen to his slow, somewhat slurred speech—kind of like Forrest Gump with a midwestern twang instead of a ‘Bama drawl. At one point, Gottfried described the crowd as “107 maniacs.” He was only slightly off—by three orders of magnitude. Maybe he had been listening to Natalie Merchant’s music or something (but even Natalie had 10,000). The dubious Ward/Gottfried high point occurred when during the game the director chose to show a shot of Ward explaining to Gottfried how to use his ESPN cell phone. Fortunately, nothing was happening on the field at the time. I was hoping that with the Nittany Lions success last year, we’d get better announcers this year, but I guess I was wrong. I can hardly wait to see who ESPNU assigns to us for the Youngstown State game.
So, what we do around here to offset the horribleness of the ESPN announcers is access the Penn State radio broadcast via the internet and pipe Steve Jones and Jack Ham into my home theater amplifier, selecting it instead of the TV sound. Having a Tivo makes it easy to synchronize the video with the audio. Steve Jones is the opposite of Pam Ward—not only can his voice be heard down the block but also his enthusiasm, to put it mildly, is at Red Bull level the entire game. That can be annoying sometimes, too, but it nevertheless is an excellent antidote for the likes of Ward and Gottfried.
As we look forward to Notre Dame, who beat Georgia Tech last night with DEFENSE, there are lots of things in need of improvement, among them the offensive line, the defensive secondary, and protecting the ball. With this game in the bag, and with some good practice time during the week, it will be interesting to see how ready the boys are next Saturday. The Turkey will be back mid-week with a preview of the big battle in South Bend, along with some controversial opinions.