STATE COLLEGE, October 1–With another season of mediocrity potentially looming, the Nittany Lions could have believed all the media hype about Laurence Maroney being the premier rusher in football history. With this Turkey and other nattering nabobs of negativism in the sports media heavily discounting their 4-0 start, the Lions could have been appropriately cowed. With fans abandoning ship, leaving vast empty spaces in the upper reaches of Beaver Stadium, the Lions could have been discouraged.
But they had faith. They ignored the naysayers. They knew they could do it.
On a warm, clear autumn day in State College, the Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0) played their first real game of the season against respected opposition—perhaps too respected—and won convincingly, 44-14. (Kudos to friend JT, who predicted a 42-14 win in the face of severe scorn from the Turkey.) They won convincingly, deflating the Big Ten championship hopes of the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-1, 1-1). Not only did the Lions hold the Heisman candidate Maroney, who had been averaging 175 yards per game, to a mere 48 yards, but also they dominated the game in just about every category, both on offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
The Gophers only managed 287 total yards, breaking a string of 31 consecutive games with 300 yards or more of total offense. Their first three possessions were three-and-outs. They gained only 32 yards on the ground in the first half. Maroney was a non-factor.
“They just shut us down,” stated Minnesota quarteback Bryan Cupito. “There was a lot of things that went wrong. They are a better team than I gave them credit for. I thought we could come in here and control the game.”
Is that what you thunk, Bryan? Maybe you’d think better if you made it to a few of your English classes.
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley challenged his defense to make Maroney look like an ordinary running back. They succeeded. “I told them that this may be the greatest running team in the history of college football, but not today,” Bradley said. “Today we’re the best defense in the country.”
Meanwhile, the offense was making itself felt. Most surprisingly, the much maligned offensive line was seen doing its job, opening up big holes for Robinson and Hunt against a very experienced front four of Minnesota. And…and…and…no damn turnovers!
Yes, that’s right. One of the Turkey’s keys to the game was to hold onto the damn ball—and they did.
Another key to the game was keeping the offense on the field long enough to give the defense a blow. That happened, too. The Lions were able to run at will against the defenseless Gophers to the tune of 364 yards on the ground, 112 of which were gained by Michael Robinson on quarterback keepers.
Robinson played an excellent game. While he was only 13-32 passing for 175 yards, it was his running that distinguished his performance in this game. He had 18 carries for the aforementioned 112 yards. And he hung onto the damn ball!
This performance could possibly quiet some of Robinson’s critics in the Penn State fan base—fans beleaguered by Robinson turnovers and errant throws. However, I know that Robinson gained more than a few fans by going helmet-to-helmet with a Minnesota safety at the end of one his runs—and winning. The safety was on the ground for several minutes. Robinson never left his feet. Yeah, this will win him some fan support.
The game was a victory for the coaching staff, too. They properly analyzed Minnesota’s strengths and weaknesses and adopted an appropriate game plan to shut down Maroney and exploit the porous defense. To this Turkey, it was a model of a well coached game.
After the game, Cupito gave his take on the loss. “We got embarrassed,” Cupito said. “This is disappointing coming off that big win [over Purdue]. Now everyone’s going to think we’re not that good again.”
Hmmm, Bryan. A few polysyllabic words in that astute analysis.
Gopher coach Glen Mason was only slightly more articulate. “Any way you cut it, we got our butts kicked good,” he said. “Credit Penn State. They played extremely well offensively and defensively, and we left a lot to be desired.”
This win will force the national sports press to show a little respect to the Blue and White. After a long, broken string of being in the “Others Receiving Votes” category, Penn State should finally crack the top 25 in this week’s polls.
OK, Rabid Reader. Enjoying the glow? Reality check time! Famous for their mid-season collapses, this Minnesota team finished 6-5 last year. Though we now share the top spot in the Big Ten, there won’t be an air of legitimacy about it until we knock off a team with a lot more respect than the Golden Gophers. This game was a stepping-stone. Let’s not rest on the laurels of it long enough to get twigs up our asses! The Buckeyes are coming to town.
And what do those bitter tree droppings have that we must fear? After all, they have already lost a game and we haven’t.
The #6 Ohio State Buckeyes (3-1, 1-0) did lose a game—to #2 Texas—but it was a close one, 25-22. In their last outing, a week ago, they dismantled respected Big Ten rival Iowa, 31-6. In that game, Iowa, who had averaged 428 yards a game, managed only 137 yards of offense. The Buckeyes have the nation’s #1 defense against the run, allowing only 41 yards per game. In total defense, they rank #5 nationally. Compare this to the last two defenses the Lions faced, scoring 34 and 44 points: Nortwestern is ranked #115 and Minnesota is ranked #77, both solidly in the bottom half of Division I-A.
If the Buckeyes have shown any weaknesses, they have been evidenced—somewhat surprisingly—on the offensive side of the ball. Vaunted wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. has not yet gotten on track this season. After wowing the college football world last year, Ginn would appear to be in a sophomore slump. Could defenses around the country have figured Ginn out? Perhaps. However, some would say that coach Jim Tressel is not getting the ball to Ginn frequently enough. Ginn has had only 13 receptions for 352 yards in four games this year, five of them for 75 yards happening in the season opener against Miami (Ohio). The Buckeyes rank 57th in total offense and 60th in scoring offense.
So, this Turkey sees our restored defense, currently ranked 27th nationally after an off-day against Northwestern, being able to corral the Bucks, unless Ohio State can figure out how to get Ginn in the game. It will be interesting to see whether our corners are exhorted to play soft on Ginn because we’re afraid of the long ball or whether there is enough confidence in the likes of Phillips and Zemaitis to play bump and run with the scurrying sophomore.
More importantly, how are the Nittany Lions going to score on that amazing defense? With linebackers like these Buckeyes, it is unlikely that the run will be effective. The passing game will be disrupted at the line of scrimmage by the same linebackers and a monstrous, experienced defensive line. The Nittany Lions will feel like another breed of “bucks” had roared into Happy Valley—the Tampa Bay “bucks.” While I don’t think the Buckeyes will ring up a lot of points against our defense (unless our boys think they can mail it in, as they did with Northwestern), I think the Lions would be lucky to score 10 points against the fresh and rested Buckeye D. Chances are, they won’t. Special teams may be the biggest problem for the Lions. In the last outing against Ohio State, special team play was putrid. It has showed few signs of tightening up thus far this year. Thus, Ohio State has the edge there, too, with Ginn burning us big time. The best thing the Nittany Lions have going for them in this game is a raucous home crowd. Perhaps they’ll disrupt to offensive rhythm of the Buckeyes. That’s not enough, in this Turkey’s opinion. The Turkey’s take on the final score: Ohio State 17, Penn State 6.
Looks like we did, in fact, crack the top 25. AP has us at #16, and USA Today at #18.