Frogs Croke, Turkeys Gobble

Croke Park Classic 2014Here we go, folks! The first outing of the Nittany Lions’ 2014 season is a couple of days and several thousand miles away.

The Lions travel to Dublin to face the UCF Knights in what is ostensibly a home game for the Knights. It’s the only way Penn State would play a home-and-home series with UCF, because if they played in Orlando at Bright House Stadium, they’d lose a big chunk of revenue. But the two canny Irishmen, old football buddies George O’Leary and Bill O’Brien arranged this fiasco and stuck us with it. So here we go.

The first Turkeyesque observation is that we’re dealing with an 8:30 AM start, US East Coast time. The 82,000 seat Croke Park does have floodlights to illuminate the field, so why the hell didn’t the O’s come up with a more reasonable hour for US viewers? How about a 5:00 PM start, Irish time? That would be noon here. WTF? It’s hard to drink Guinness Stout at 8:30 AM. You have to be in good beer guzzling shape for that.

This game will be played for the Dan Rooney Trophy. Dan, you know, is the current patriarch of the Steelers family and a former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. The trophy is made from 4,200 year-old Irish yew trees and Pittsburgh steel that was left over from the construction of Heinz Field. Rooney at first did not want his name on the trophy, but he was eventually convinced. Said Dan:

“Being associated with the U.S. and football … and sport in Ireland, I was very much honored,” Rooney said. “Peter McKenna was the one who asked me. I said, ‘I don’t deserve that. You should get someone Irish.’ He said ‘we definitely want you because we’re going to play American football.’ It means an awful lot now. It’s a real honor for me.”

Lest you think that we might be dealing with some contrived, fugly piece o’ shit like the much maligned Land Grant Trophy, get those thoughts out of your head. This is an elegant trophy that looks like a football — an American football — and the oiled yew wood makes it a rich, football-like brown color. Quite beautiful. in this turkey’s opinion.

The game, though. What happens when the boys take the field? That’s what we’re really here to see about. Or for me to expound about and confound you about, anyway.

We have little but speculation about James Franklin’s ability to coach. The usual media wonks and bloggists are out there saying he’ll do this and he’ll do that, but no one really knows what the hell actually will go on. You see, they’re all trying to make a story out of nothing at all. They’re comparing Franklin to O’Brien on balance even though we haven’t yet seen Franklin coach a single game. And of course, the Sanguinarians are saying that he’ll be so much better than O’Brien, because most of them have already written O’Brien off as a Paterno-hater, at least subconsciously.

And of course, now we’re getting similar, Sanguinarian inspired comparisons of DC Bob Shoop to — who? — Tom Bradley! Say, what?! Last thing I want to see is a soft secondary, which is precisely how the Sandusky/Bradley defense worked. Fortunately, they’re talking about aggressive defense, too, taking chances and using the blitz regularly. They’re kind of thin in personnel, especially at linebacker, to be going full-bore on the pass and run blitzes, but they’re apparently planning to use the secondary more aggressively on running plays instead of hanging thirty yards deep.

The secondary is pretty experienced, as Adrian Amos moves back to his natural position this year. They won’t have Blake Bortles throwing balls their way this year, either. I’d like to see them make a few plays, for a change. Maybe an interception. What do you say, boys?

On offense, who’s going to step up at wide receiver now that Allen Robinson is gone? Is Geno Lewis up to the task? Of graver concern is whether Christian Hackenberg will have the time to get the ball deep working behind an inexperienced offensive line. I’ve said it many times and will say it again. This offensive line will lose games for Penn State this year. Against a talented and stable defense like UCF’s, I smell a disaster and hope that Hackenberg doesn’t spend too much time on his back looking at the Irish sky.

There’s the seeds of a decent running game for Penn State, with Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch all returning, but they, too, need an offensive line that can block in order to be effective. It will take a few games for that to happen if indeed it is to happen at all. Lots of freshman meat running around up there. Scary.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned, UCF, who went 12-1 last year, returned nine defensive starters and 24 of 30 defensive players overall. They might lack the polished offense they had last year with, Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson having been lost to the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars, but we know by virtue of K. John’s adept scouting that the Knights’ offensive line cheats, and thus, they will be pretty effective at keeping redshirt freshman starting QB Pete DiNovo’s jersey clean.

So, thus far I haven’t said anything. That’s because I don’t know anything. After this game, if I can stay sober through 11 AM or so, I’ll know a lot more. It’s not going to be like the old Paterno ain’t going to show his hand in the early games kind of thing. Franklin better have both barrels loaded and ready to use for this one.

There’ll be some early good football weather for these two teams, although it’s raining at Croke Park at the moment. Saturday’s forecast is partly cloudy, with a high of 66ºF and a low of 52ºF.

And so, let’s get down to the Official Indefatigable Infallible Turkey Poop Prediction for this 2014 season kickoff game. But first, let me tell you that UCF has the nation’s third longest winning streak in Division I college football, after FSU and Moo U. Unlike Penn State, UCF likes to schedule its early games against teams with winning records. In fact, only UCF, Iowa State, North Carolina, and USC open 2014 with their first six games against teams with winning records from 2013. For a team not in the power conferences, that’s ballsy. I bet even the Ohio State marching band would show them respect for that kind of scheduling. But I digress.

Our panel is split right down the middle on this game, with the consensus choice being a tie. Joe,  K. John, Mike, and Toejam espect a Penn State win, while Big Al, Drozz, RD, and this turkey expect the Lions to post an “L”. Faith and begorrah, the “home” team, UCF, is favored by a slim two points in this home away from home game on the Emerald Isle;  the over/under is 46.5. This suggests UCF winding up on the winning end of a 25-22 score. I don’t think it’s that close. UCF 30, PSU 13. (PSU’s TD comes late in the game). Take the under.

The game will be carried live on ESPN2 at that ungodly hour of 8:30 AM. The crappy kickoff time notwithstanding, we’ll all be watching it — those of us who didn’t make the trip. But lest anyone be fearful that a football Saturday will end too early and you’ll have nothing to do all day, we have OSU at Navy and App State at Michigan at noon ET, Clemson vs. Georgia at 5:30 ET, and FSU vs. Oklahoma State and Wisconsin at LSU in the evening at 8 and 9, respectively. There’s a full college football schedule for this blast-off weekend!

The Nittany Turkey will be back after the game with a recap and a humble “I told you so.” See you soon.

Comments

  1. rd says

    As you say, Franklin is an enigma. Paterno would likely have used power (mostly new OL, bruising back ‘Z28′, big TE’s). BOB would have heavily used Hack. O’Leary (and staff) will be a formidable match for the visiting team. While I don’t think Franklin will surprise UCF, the score will be more like UCF 21 PSU 20. Take the under and PSU.
    Hopefully, there will be enough Guiness to sustain us…

    • says

      Guinness and Irish Coffee… that might be enough… I know, right?

      But seriously, with Ficken kickin’, I’ll agree with you that if the score is close, PSU will lose by a missed FG or PAT. God help PSU if the NCAA would have gone for that NFL thing that they tried out during the pre-season: making extra points essentially the same as a 33-yard field goal.

      —TNT

  2. K. John says

    I think you may be hitting the Jameson’s a little too early. 30 – 13? Big problem. UCF generated next to no pressure out of its front line last year. They have had plenty of turnover. Penn State on the other hand has four new starters on the O-line, however, two of them are expected to yield immediate improvements while the other two are likely to be washes. I would not expect Hack to face much pressure against this group.

    On the flip side, UCF is also replacing four starters on the O-line. They lost three to graduation and are moving a guard to left tackle. The center just came back and will have had only a week a work since spring. Now how does that match up with Penn State? Not well. Go watch replays of the Wisconsin game last year. The Badger O-line was largely helpless against the current starting four. DiNovo is likely to spend the entire game on the run or on his back.

    Don’t be shocked if this one isn’t close. Take Penn State and the over.

    • says

      You really think I’m hitting the Jameson’s? Nahhh, this is my normal state. When I’m in the bag, I turn into a Sanguinarian, like you.

      I’m looking for UCF’s re-tooled offensive line to cheat to perfection, while the officiating crew pisses you off by not calling all the myriad versions of holding they usually let these guys get away with. They might be moving guards around, but they’re not so desperate as to have to throw some defensive goons in there, like PSU has done. Can these Neanderthals learn an offensive playbook? Draw your own conjecture, understanding that they were playing defense for a reason.

      I have ties to both schools, so I’d happily watch either side do well. In the end, I hope that whoever wins is the more deserving, the one who played the cleaner game. If Big Al is right and there are lots of turnovers, then neither would be deserving — I’ll jeer them both.

      —TNT

  3. BigAl says

    Given the personnel losses that both offensive units have, I expect LOTS of offensive ineptitude. The outcome will determined by the defense and special teams. And that favors the Knights.

    So, my prediction is a real snore fest filled with punts, incomplete passes, and missed field goals (I can hear the blue Kool Ade drinkers now -“What do you expect, Ficken has to get used to his holder/snapper). UCF 16 – Penn State 6.

    Think I’ll need at least 3 cans of Pepsi Max to stay awake through this game. And I imagine any natives who bought tickets will be thinking:
    “American football is almost as bad as peil na mban – I should have spent my money on Guinness.”

      • says

        Saieth the Lord.

        What orifice did you pull that defense favoring Penn State stuff out of? I think the defense is pretty much a wash between the two. Notice that I said “I think…” I don’t know. Neither do you.

        —TNT

      • BigAl says

        I don’t know what’s special about State’s defense. They were in the bottom half of the B1G last year in nearly all statistical categories. Yes, the defensive line is pretty good, but there is no depth at linebacker, and secondary is marginal, at best. Except for Barnes (and maybe Wartman in two years), nobody is going to get picked in the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft.

        UCF isn’t great, but they do return 9 starters and they were pretty effective against Baylor in the bowl game. They held Baylor to 42 points which is several touchdowns less than what State would have given up.

        The Wisconsin game was not an example of good defense. Yes, State stopped the run, but Wisconsin had receivers wide open the entire game. Without the Bolden like passing effort from Wiscky’s quarterback, State would have lost.

        • K. John says

          You also have been hitting the Jameson’s. Take a look at Penn State defense at the end of the year. While not special, they wrapped up the Big Ten season as the second best and were hands and feed above UCF, who were merely a solid unit, but never a good one.

  4. Joe says

    I bet every day for the past couple of weeks when Franklin is alone, he’s cursing BoB and Joyner about signing up for this “special trip to Ireland”!

    It is what it is, so looking back at last year’s game, both teams played pretty evenly from a statistical standpoint, with the Knights (what happened to “Golden”?) pulling out a 3 point victory. What I remember distinctly is John Butler’s CB’s playing 10 yards off of the line of scrimmage, piss poor contain and absolutely bald dog lousy tackling. Johnson couldn’t be tackled and Bortles consistently bought time or turned the corner. In other words we played like shit and still only lost by 3.

    I tend to agree with Big Al that this game is going to be fraught with mistakes and tired bodies (especially in the fourth quarter). The UCF defense appears to be the same as last year, but I believe the PS defense is much better especially on the d-line and in the secondary. I think you will see a much better plan from Shoop (with actual adjustments) than we ever saw from John Butler.

    On offense we’ve both got inexperienced lines, so both QB’s may be running for their lives. UCF has some great receivers, but you need a QB to get them the ball. We have the talent at tight end and the depth at RB and a receiving corps that may be underrated. One of the toughest jobs a new QB has is picking up his reads and knowing who to dump the ball to when under pressure. Also progressions and receiver choices are generally limited early on to keep the game simple. Also game speed for a first time starter is going to take some getting used to. We have Hackenburg, and they don’t-’nuff said.

    Placing an American Football field (120 yds x 53.3 yds) within the area of a Gaelic Football field (157 yds x 94 yds) may provide some perception problems, but it will be the same for both teams. Does 66 degree weather favor the Lions or hinder the Knights, don’t know.

    And I for one have always said I need to see Franklin coach a game, but if you read his approach to coaching during the game, doesn’t seem that he does a lot of it on-field choosing to trust his coordinators, so if you trust Shoop and Donovan based on their performance at Vandy, this may not be as big an issue as we think.

    I think Franklin will keep their heads in the game, O’Leary is thinking of retirement.

    PS 24, UCF 14

    • K. John says

      The biggest problem last year was not having Mike Hull in coverage, Butler’s game plan on defense and his play calling (he was clueless until week 10). And yes, to the Turkey’s dismay, bad officiating played its part. In hind sight however, it played a big part in every single game Big Ten officials worked last year as threw fewer than 1 holding penalty per game during the Big Ten season. Feel free to go check my math, I went game by game during the off-season.

      • says

        Yeah, LOOK IT UP!!

        Anyhow, tomorrow this time we’ll know a lot more about what we only THINK we know right now. The scoreboard will tell the tale, as will the losers’ stats, and the excuses, andandand…

        Time for the bullshit to cease and the playing to begin. We’re all anxious to see what Franklin and his crew will do on the field and how they’ll manage games. I like hearing about aggressive defense, but I want to see it for myself, too.

        I’m pragmatic about the secondary. Show me something. I don’t like this “on paper” crap. How about making a play or two and convincing the Turkey!

        —TNT

  5. Michael Geldner says

    For no particular reason, I think the score will be driven by the Hackenberg advantage. PSU 27, UCF 20.

  6. K. John says

    Into the third quarter Penn State has predictably dominated. Sadly for the good guys, the AAC crew has managed to keep the drastically inferior UCF squad in the game with its one sided officiating.

  7. K. John says

    And there we go, the officials have literally gifted a 15 point swing to UCF. I am done watching this rubbish.

  8. K. John says

    Post game recap. I tuned back in to see a late 3 and goal play for Penn State fall short. Of course the camera showed four Penn State receivers being held forcing a field goal. UCF then gets down field for a score before the AAC refs bungled the clock late on Penn State’s game winning drive costing State about five seconds in addition to the time State wasted themselves.

    In all, the game shouldn’t have been close and wouldn’t have been without a few pretty bad calls, or no-calls. Utlimately, I walk away very positive about the season. Penn State was the superior team in just about every way. Quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends, O-line, D-line, linebackers and in the secondary. Penn State was simply better at every level.

    The line’s pass blocking is well ahead of the run blocking which was a surprise. Usually the run comes before the pass. Hack is hack though he had a couple of bonehead throws. The defensive line was on fire for much of the game. The linebackers are better than most expected. A direct comparison shows Penn State was simply better at 21 of 22 starting spots.

    The game was a far closer than it should have been. The team needs to toughen up and no come unglued when faced with one sided officiating which they will face most weeks in the Big Ten. In all, they have some things to work but should go into Michigan undefeated and I believe they will be favored.