UNIVERSITY PARK, September 17. The mighty Penn State Nittany Lions burned the pathetic Central Michigan Chippewas 40-3, in a game that no doubt will give many beleaguered yet hopeful PSU fans a false sense of confidence as we move into the “serious” part of the schedule. Three wins over three cream puff non-conference opponents, all of which rank in the bottom half of Division I-A, only tells us that we’re good at scheduling. This turkey will not join the overenthused legions of hyperoptimistic fans who now predict a 10-1 season on the basis of this early success. I’m still sticking to my somewhat shaky 7-4 prediction, which was a hairbreadth away from being 6-5.
I won’t dwell much on the victory over the Chippewas. Who cares about these first three games? They’re sort of like the NFL pre-season. It’s OK for Connor to be suspended for the first three games for precisely that reason. So, this tune-up schedule produced three wins. So what? Paterno says, “If we’re not where we need to be, we’re close.” What the hell does that mean? Two squandered first quarter opportunities against Central Michigan’s incompetent defense puts us where we need to be? Screwed-up red zone chances just won’t cut it in the Big Ten. But on what basis can I assume that this offense can even move the ball into the red sone against a Big Ten defense? Robinson throws a few bombs against Cincinnati and Central Michigan, whose defensive secondary couldn’t cover the wide receivers from the DePuy Orthopedic All-Hip Replacement team, and this is supposed to give me hope? Show me something against Northwestern and Minnesota. Then, I might change my mind.
The defense performed well but, again, the jury is out. They sure shut down the Chippewas, though, didn’t they? I was sort of worried about the loss of Johnson and Chisley, but the defensive line has been looking pretty good without them. So far—depite what Paterno said about Central Michigan, it is not a Big Ten team. On Saturday, lots of sacks and holding the Chippewas to 14 yards rushing. The defense also significantly put the clamps on the CMU passing game, allowing 158 yards in the air.
Is the defense up to the Big Ten schedule that lies ahead? They were last year, and there’s no reason for this turkey to believe that they won’t be this year.
I did spot one potential trouble spot in the defensive game plan. The Lions blitzed quite a few times early in the game, but gave outside receivers a lot of room. As I recall, they were burned twice. Now, maybe I watch too much NFL football, but I’m thinking that when you blitz, your forced into man coverage, which has to be tight. If you hurry the quarterback and he has outlet targets that are covered loosely, he’ll escape the blitz. It is one thing to beat the blitz on a well executed screen, but it is quite another to have wide open sideline targets to throw to. I suppose that the logic in playing soft against the outside receivers is that the defense won’t be burnt for major yardage on a perfectly thrown ball to one of those wide receivers if he got behind the defense. On the other hand, if you have a cover corner like Alan Zemaitis, he should be able to handle himself out there. I think in this blitz situation, the percentages are with impeding the receiver at the line of scrimmage and then staying with him, not playing prevent. This situation occurred a few times in the first half, and a pass was completed in two of those three instances. Perhaps the design was to allow the short pass and not be embarrassed, but this sort of defeats the purpose of the blitz, in my not so humble opinion. I realize that this could have been a tactic designed specifically for this game, so I’m not going to squawk about it much more until a trend has been established. (Shades of Sandusky’s soft zones and prevent defenses?)
Now, we move on to conference play. It’s been a reasonably good pre-season, and we start the Big Ten season with a perfect, 0-0 conference record. The Big Ten would seem to be up for grabs this year, as indicated by early, non-conference losses by Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa. No one appears to be clearly dominant. Michigan State just beat Notre Dame, who had previously beaten Michigan. Iowa was beaten by Iowa State and Ohio State was beaten by Texas. (Please take note of the caliber of those teams’ non-conference schedules.) Nevertheless, the top five teams in the Big Ten will include Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, and Purdue. That leaves room for one more. Could it be Penn State? I’ll argue that aside from Illinois, Indiana, and Northwestern, any one of the remaining teams could contend for second or third place in the Big Ten. Those teams would be Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and, of course, Penn State. The Turkey’s original prediction of 4-4 in the Big Ten puts the Nittany Lions in the thick of that mid-also-ran race.
Big Ten play begins Saturday in Evanston for Penn State (3-0, 0-0), who will face the Wildcats of Northwestern (2-1, 0-0). NWU’s two victories involved tune-up opponents; their loss this week was at the behest of the #21 Arizona State Sun Devils. (I wonder if the NCAA will come down on Satanic mascots like they did on Natively American ones? ASU, Duke, and Wake Forest better watch their backs!) The final score was Arizona State 52, Northwestern 21. It wasn’t as close as it looked. We can draw a couple of conclusions from this game, though. One is that Northwestern has no defense. We pretty much knew that when we noted that Northern Illinois had rung up 37 points against the the week before. Another is that Northwestern doesn’t mind playing a non-pussy in its non-conference schedule. Moving back to the non-defense, if Robinson can keep his act together, he can exploit Northwestern’s weaknesses. With good offensive execution and no damn turnovers, the Nittany Lions can beat Northwestern. I believe that the Penn State defense will hold NWU’s scoring low. However, there are still many “ifs,” and this win is by no means assured.
Let me get back to the point of including non-pussy opponents in the non-conference schedule. It is clearly a sham to have three cream puffs, as was the case with Penn State this year, in that it “almost” assures that about a fourth of the seasons games will be wins. What is this? Job security for Paterno? Let us look at the non-conference schedules of other Big Ten teams. I’ll highlight the opposition that I consider non-pussy:
- Illinois: Rutgers, San Jose State, California
- Indiana: Central Michigan, Nicholls State, Kentucky
- Iowa: Ball State, Iowa State, Northern Iowa
- Michigan: Northern Illinois, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan
- Michigan State: Kent State, Hawaii, Notre Dame
- Minnesota: Tulsa, Colorado State, Florida Atlantic
- Northwestern: Ohio, Northern Illinois, Arizona State
- Ohio State: Miami (OH), Texas, San Diego State
- Penn State: South Florida, Cincinnati, Central Michigan
- Purdue: Akron, Arizona
- Wisconsin: Bowling Green, Temple, North Carolina
Next year, we start the season with Akron, Notre Dame, and Lousiana Tech. Notre Dame is also on the 2007 schedule. Although there is much uncertainty in the non-conference scheduling beyond 2007, this Turkey favors scheduling at least one “real” game befor the Big Ten season. So what if they lose? The insatiable desire for the perfect record, mythical national championship, and big-money bowls cannot justify padding the schedule with push-overs. One good test before the Big Ten season starts will give us all (coaches and team included) a much better picture of our strengths and weaknesses.
Well, let’s bring on the Big Ten. This game should tell us a lot.