So, here we go! On Saturday, September 2, the 2006 Penn State Nittany Lions season kicks off at Beaver Stadium with a great spirit of optimism carried over from last year’s rags-to-riches campaign. Our first opponent: the Akron Zips. This is a good first game test of a talented group of Lions, many of whom have never before played together in a real game. And this Turkey thinks that it will be a closer game than the 16.5 point betting line indicates. I just don’t see it being a 48-10 laugher, which is what it was in 2004 when these two teams last met.
It is very hard to speculate on the Lions’ potential performance given that I’ve only seen them in game situations in the Blue-White Game. It is equally hard to write about our opponents at this early juncture. I could plagiarize the Akron U. media guide, which I’ve seen done elsewhere, but you can get that information easily enough on the Zips’ web site. No use coming here for that sort of information, because it abounds elsewhere. Instead, you get my opinions on everything, so you can come back and tell me I’m full of shit! What could be better? I’ll give you a brief overview that I wrote for the PSU Alumni Association Central Florida Chapter web site and then I’ll kick some things around with you.
Oh, while I’m on the subject, a commercial for the Central Florida Chapter is in order. Those of you who live in the Orlando area and its environs should seriously consider joining the Chapter. We have great watch parties for all the Nittany Lions games, among other events—for example, in the past couple of years, we’ve had Mike McQueary and Tom Bradley speak at dinner functions. Here’s the web site, if you’re interested.
Now, let’s take a look at our opponent. We last faced the mighty Akron Zips, ranked #56 out of 119 Division I-A teams by Sports Illustrated in their pre-season rankings, back in 2004. The Nittany Lions prevailed over the Zips 48-10 in the best PSU result in that year’s four-win season. However, this year the Mid-America Conference champion Zips (7-6, 5-3 MAC) are coming off their first-ever bowl appearance, in the 2005 Motor City Bowl, and they are early favorites to recapture the MAC championship. Thus, they begin the 2006 campaign on an optimistic note. The good news is that their offense lost some major producers at the skill positions, although their star quarterback from last season, Luke Getsy, returns. The Sporting News has ranked him the #10 signal caller in the nation entering the season. He’ll be looking for new targets, but his offensive line remains intact. On defense, the Zips wound up ranked #32 in Division I-A, allowing only 339.8 yards per game, and they will have eight returning starters.
In the meanwhile, our Nittany Lions have only eleven returning starters and, folks, that’s half a team. In the pits, we’ve lost all but one of last year’s starting offensive linemen and all but one of last year’s starting defensive linemen. We’ve also lost our entire starting defensive backfield. Significantly, we lost team leader and major producer Michael Robinson. On the positive side, we’ve got some great athletes at wide receiver positions and we have a great linebacker corps. Anthony Morelli is green, but he has a cannon of an arm. He’s a pocket passer, so the mostly new offensive line will have to provide enough protection to take advantage of that arm. The big guys will also have to execute well to support the running attack. Fortunately, Levi Brown is back and he’s now a co-captain (along with All-Everything linebacker Paul Posluszny).
If I sound worried about the O-line, it’s because I am. Levi Brown, a second-team All-America last year, returns at left tackle. That’s it. The rest are newbies. A. Q. Shipley, who is Paterno’s choice to play Santa Claus at Christmas and who most recently has been playing defense, will be the starting center. The guards have no game experience. Thus, we’re dealing with the unknown. This is a very dangerous game for an inexperienced offensive line for a couple of reasons. The first thing that comes to mind is that they’re facing a defense that ranked #32 last year, and that ain’t bad. It’s not like they’re playing Temple here. Moreover, Akron uses a defensive scheme that these guys have never seen before, and one that’s hard to recreate in practice.
The 3-5-3 or 3-3 stack, whatever you want to call it, essentially is three down linemen with five guys in the next layer. The middle three are legitimate linebackers, while the outside two are hybrid linebackers/safeties. The outside guys can either put pressure on the passer or drop back in coverage. With all those linebackers, there’ll be a lot of stunting going on, too, to further confound the newbie O-line. Lions Head Coach Joe Paterno has a lot of respect for this defense, to wit:
Akronâ€™s scheme is a very sophisticated scheme. That would be a difficult question for me to say whether it is more difficult for us to protect the passer or run the ball against them. Obviously, some things they do from it, we can run the ball. When they make some adjustments, then we are going to have to be able to throw the football. When we start throwing the football, then we have some other problems because they are not sitting there on their hands saying, â€œWell, we guessed wrong.â€
Uh, yeah Joe. As usual, he ain’t giving anything away. But about the 3-5-3, he went on to say:
Akron ran it when we played them the last time. We have seen variations of it. Ohio State has run variations of it. Ohio State ran it frequently last year. I donâ€™t know whether we have ever played anybody outside of Akron that has used it as their predominant defense. There have been variations of it in certain situations against certain personnel where they want to stick an extra pass defender in there and you end up with three guys on the line of scrimmage. In that sense, we have seen the 3-5-3 with some other people. As far as a basic defensive scheme philosophically, I donâ€™t know whether we have played anybody but Akron. Donâ€™t hold me to it because I may be wrong on that, but I think I am accurate on that. They give you a lot of problems. They play it well and know what they are doing. The kids enjoy playing it and play with a lot of enthusiasm and make it very tough. I think the big thing is, not necessarily because they play it 3-5-3, but it is the way they play it and their belief in it and their ability to make some adjustments when you think you can do something to them. It will be a cat and mouse game on Saturday.
Hopefully a LION and mouse game on Saturday, Joe. Here’s Joes word on the offensive line:
That is probably my biggest concern because a lot of those kids have never been in a football game. You mentioned Levi Brown and A.Q. Shipley. Shipley hasnâ€™t played much at center. I think that offensive line is going to have a lot of pressure on them; particularly, the way Akron plays football. They do an awful lot of stunting from their 3-5 and they come from every different way. We have not practiced against it that much because we are a stack 4 defense with an over shift and an under shift, which is what we see most of the time. We have to get a foreign team that will give us the kind of look that these guys are going to see. I think we are going to have troubles. I think they are all going to have troubles on the offensive line. Levi canâ€™t carry them all by himself. Shipley, even though he played a little bit, hasnâ€™t played a lot. He is playing against a noseguard that is one of their better football players and he doesnâ€™t offset one way or the other as most of the people we have played take that nose and offset him. He is sticking his nose right up on Shipley. Shipley is not a big man. So I think we have some work to do there. That would be the number one concern I have right now.
So, our O-line will have their work cut out for them. They have to be ready if we are to expect a decent result. Furthermore, they have to be serious about their commitment to this game. There is no looking past this game to Notre Dame, or we could potentially be surprised on our home turf.
Morelli really needs that line to perform in front of him. He is certainly no Michael Robinson, and I do not see him doing that sort of magic. He is a pocket passer, pure and simple, with one helluva great arm. For a pocket passer to do his thing, there has to be protection and the pocket cannot collapse. If Morelli is sacked three or more times in this opening effort, it will be a long season. If he gets the protection he needs, he has terrific downfield threats in Williams, Butler, and Norwood. If not, it will be a long day of 5-yard sideline passes, 3-step drops, and passes batted at the LOS.
The offensive line will be critical for the running game, too. This Turkey was singularly unimpressed by the running game displayed in the Blue-White game, particularly in the red zone. They could not punch the ball in. The line has to open holes for our talented runners, and their inexperience might prove to be a problem in this area, too. BranDon Snow will not play in this game due to injury but both Tony Hunt and Austin Scott are healthy. Snow’s absence at fullback is another thing that will negatively impact the run blocking. I would expect Hunt to gain 100 yards in this game, but he’s going to have to get a lot of carries to do it, grinding it out the hard way.
I am not as concerned about the Lions’ defensive line. Paterno seems to be convinced that they’re going to be fine. There was some talk about playing a 3-4 this year because of a perceived lack of depth on the D-line coupled with an overabundance of good linebackers, but it now appears as if the 4-3 will return.
The secondary is all new, but those guys are talented and they’ll be playing the neo-Sandusky soft zone, so they’ll have a lot of cushioning. Nevertheless, they’ll be tested by Zips QB Luke Getsy’s talented machinations.
Here’s what Dr. Paterno has to say about the D:
I think we have good linebackers and, really, our problem will be depth up front. Jay Alford is a very, very fine football player. Jimmy Shaw will be a good end and so will Josh Gaines. They are both good football players. They are not duds. They are good football players. Now that Eddie Johnson is back in the pictureâ€¦if he just keeps his weight under control and does some things, those four guys are pretty good up front. They are not a bunch of lemons. They are good football players. They all can run and there is some size. Eddie Johnson is 295 lbs. Jay Alford is 295 lbs. I donâ€™t feel that way about it. The same way with the secondary, outside of the fact that they are inexperienced, I think we have some awfully good athletes back there in the secondary. I think we have some very fine athletes. We have experienced linebackers. We have some places where we donâ€™t have the experience you would like to have, but we have good athletes. I think, eventually, as we play the season out, those guys will get better as we go along.
Luke Getsy, the Zips quarterback, is quite a story in himself. As I’ve said above, The Sporting News ranks him #10 among Division I-A quarterbacks. Don’t minimize MAC quarterbacks. A lot of them have wound up their careers playing on Sundays, and very well, too. Ben Roethlisberger is a former MAC quarterback. So have some respect, here. Luke started his college career at Pitt where he was relegated to second string. Getsy longed to be someone’s starting quarterback, but Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris wouldn’t release him from his scholarship commitment. Thus, he couldn’t even talk with other schools. He researched the available programs completely on his own. It helped that former Pitt offensive coordinator J.D. Brookhart had moved on to assume head coaching duties at Akron. So, Getsy transferred to Akron as a non-scholarship student. There, he pays his own way but he has the starting job. Read the whole story here.
In summation, this Turkey is concerned about a few things: the offensive line, underestimating the opposition, and rookie mistakes by a relatively green team. In any case, I’m going to pull a prediction right out of my ass. The official Turkey Poop prediction is: PSU 27 Akron 17.