EVANSTON, IL, September 24 — Initiating their Big Ten schedule with a road game, the enigmatic Nittany Lions pulled out a come-from-behind victory, edging the Northwestern Wildcats 34-29. The Lions improved to 4-0, while the Wildcats sank to 2-2 before a small, yet enthusiastic home crowd at Ryan Stadium, snapping an eight game home winning streak for the ‘Cats.
For the first 51 minutes of the game, the larger cats looked like the Titanic running into that fateful iceberg. Against a team of lesser cats who had allowed 700+ yards by Arizona State the previous week, the Lions’ offense screwed up miserably. The first quarter looked more like a game of ping-pong than Division I-A college football—every time the Penn State offense got the ball, they gave it back.
The offense found heretofore unimaginable ways to play hot potato with the ball. Michael Robinson was responsible for three interceptions and one fumble. The Lions were lucky to wind up with only four turnovers—they coughed up the ball three more times, but were fortunate to have recovered those three. Another “turnover” that doesn’t show up in the stats came when, after a Northwestern score, the kickoff was “pooched.” (Who the hell ever came up with that term? Pooched? Does the flight of the ball resemble that of a kicked dog, or what?) The “pooched” kickoff hit the ground around the 20 yard line then bounced backward five yards, where a Northwestern defender was in perfect position to cover it. Instant non-turnover turnover. It ain’t in the stats, but it sure as hell made the Penn State offensive effort look even more offensive!
(Hah! This Turkey has used that offensive offense play on words a lot over the past couple of seasons. I wish I didn’t have to.)
OK, OK. Can’t The Turkey find anything good to say about the win in Evanston? After all, as a friend said to me last night, “A win is a win.” Well, yeah. Sort of. In the end, when we look back on this 7-4 or 6-5 season (the Turkey is still sticking with his prediction), this game will just have been one increment of the left-hand number. On the other hand, some lessons need to be learned from the dismal performance of the offense before they decided to get serious and score 17 fourth quarter points against a sievelike defense. The biggest lesson they still need to learn is to protect the damn ball!
The bright spot in the offense is the performance of our freshman corps of wide receivers. Their play is impressive, if only Michael Robinson could throw the ball on target. As it were, Robinson went 17-37, with three interceptions and three touchdowns. While some of his tosses went awry because the offensive line’s inability to give him enough time to get set and pick a target, others were just crappy throws. Robinson seems to be gaining confidence, but he’s still not throwing accurately, and he’s still sometimes not seeing open receivers. And he’s still not protecting the damn ball!
My guess is that should-have-been-redshirted quarterback Anthony Morelli will not see significant playing time the remainder of this year. That’s a pity, given all those juicy targets Morelli could be hitting.
Meanwhile, the vaunted defense thought that they could mail in a performance, or lack of same. Were these the same guys who were upset when the long string of games with fewer than 21 points allowed ended during garbage time with Cincinnati, three games ago? If so, they must have decided that they could wait a while to start a new streak. Northwestern was able to move the ball at will down the field, long drive after long drive. This vaunted defense gave up 427 yards, 197 of which were on the ground. The Wildcats were able to ram the ball down our throats, as well as finesse us with the option. Friend R.D. said that we had the option solved in 1970, when we shut down Texas’ wishbone. We geezers can remember the good old days all we want, but yesterday, we sucked against the option.
Could our defense be overrated? Or are they still good, and just had an off-day? If the latter, why they had an off-day is important. If they’re overconfident and thought they could let up against “inferior” opposition, we’re in deep shit. They need to come to play every day, and play for winning the game in the first quarter. We can no longer—for the past eight years—consider ourselves as playing on a par with the elite of the Big Ten. We’re just not up there. We need to maintain the clawing persistence of a team on the way up—or we’ll be back on the way down again.
Oh, sure, the defense was tired, given that for most of the game the offense could not sustain a drive. They were beaten up by the time the fourth quarter rolled around. When they needed to hang tough, they were hanging on by the skin of their teeth. They couldn’t hold Northwestern in the fourth quarter—we were only saved by some oddly conservative coaching from the Wildcat sideline. Instead of going for the touchdown on third down, they set up for a field goal, trading a potential seven point lead for a two point margin. This Turkey feels that the way they were manhandling our defense all day, with the extreme fatigue the defense had to be suffering, and with a home crowd behind them, the ‘Cats should gone for the six. But back to the point, it was not by virtue of a valiant defensive stand that the Nittany Lions pulled this game out.
Let me regurgitate—I mean reiterate: Penn State is not a contender in the Big Ten. Do not sit there, O Feisty Reader, palavering about the 4-0 record and the magnificent come-from-behind victory. Do not give me crap about it being a wide-open Big Ten this year because Michigan lost to Wisconsin, and Minnesota beat Purdue. The truth is that we had trouble defeating Northwestern, perennial whipping boy of the Big Ten, and we’ll have trouble with all of our remaining Big Ten opponents: Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. There was a time when we could talk about the Lions being on the same stratum with Michigan and Ohio State (the usual suspects), but that was 1994 and this is now.
Furthermore, until we can better protect the ball, we’re not going anywhere.
Protect the damn ball!
It might seem odd that I, The Nittany Turkey, would see a win as an opportunity to go off on the team. My name is not Phil Grosz. I do not issue 8-3 predictions and then defend them to the hilt, whining up a storm when the prediction gets no respect. While I don’t want to be accused of setting sights low in an effort to avoid disappointment, in this Turkey’s opinion, it is far better to promote realism than false optimism. I’m sticking with my 7-4 prediction, but with each week my doubts increase, leading me to wonder whether 6-5 should have been my target. In fact, how likely would it be to wind up 4-7, like last year? All we would have to do is “lose out.” Is that a stretch? No, not if we play the remainder of our Big Ten schedule like we played Northwestern.
My pre-season analysis called for the Lions to lose this one, for precisely the reasons that they almost did: it was their first road game of the season, their first Big Ten game of the season, and they would be overconfident coming off three cupcake wins. So, with this win, why am I going the other direction?
Because I see a team that cannot play at the top level of the Big Ten, as I keep saying. Northwestern and Illinois aside, I do not know that this team has the moxy to beat any of its Big Ten opponents this year. That makes my 7-4 prediction, even waffled down to 6-5, look extremely optimistic.
Yesterday, on ESPN’s College Football Today, Lee Corso issued the same prediction for Penn State as this Turkey: 7-4 at best, maybe 6-5, and “a bowl somewhere close to the Mexican border.” Kirk Herbstreit felt that Penn State could go 8-3, winning at Northwestern and at home against Minnesota, setting up a big, prime-time match-up with Ohio State in October. Let us focus now on that Minnesota game.
This past week, the Golden Gophers (4-0) defeated the Purdue Boilermakers (2-1) 42-35 in an epic, double-overtime struggle. Minnesota rang up 572 yards, 301 of which were on the ground, 217 of these by Heisman contending Junior running back Laurence Maroney. In passing, Junior quarterback Bryan Cupito was 22-35 for 271 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions. Turnovers aside, that’s a lot of offense. Purdue was ranked #11 coming into this game, and had the nation’s #1-ranked rushing defense, having given up an average of 16 yards a game against Akron and Arizona. So, think about our vaunted defense’s performance against Northwestern and how we struggled to come from behind to beat them, and then imagine Laurence Maroney ramming the ball down their throats for four quarters. What does that tell you?
It tells me that to win, the offense needs to mount sustained drives and hang onto the damn ball! If we leave the defense, already beaten up in the Northwestern game, on the field for twice as long as the offense, we’re doomed. Unless the offensive line suddenly improves and enables development of a running game, we have to make short passes to move the ball upfield and we have to make long passes to score. Michael Robinson’s inaccuracy gets in the way of the former, while the offensive line’s inability to protect Robinson impedes the latter. This has been easy to see with USF, Cincinnati, Central Michigan, and Northwestern; how are we going to look against the top defenses in the Big Ten? They’re much quicker and stronger. Deep, deep doodoo.
One game at a time. If our boys were looking forward to Minnesota while they dawdled against Northwestern, it serves them right that they almost lost the game. If they look past Minnesota to Ohio State, they will lose to Minnesota. The coaches have to emphasize the importance of every game and instill the one game at a time sentiment in every player. Paterno speaks of this often, but do he and the assistants communicate it effectively?
Did you notice that JoePa looked bedraggled on the sideline during the Northwestern game? Frequently, he was bent over with hands on knees. Friend R.D. said, “That’s the position you’re supposed to get into when you get kicked in the nuts.” Perhaps so. Although Joe claimed that it was a bad case of the flu, watching your team commit four turnovers and a bunch of bad throws is just like getting kicked in the nuts.