The #19 Nittany Lions (1–0, 0–0 Big Ten) travel to South Bend on Saturday to play the rubber match with #4 Notre Dame (1–0). The series is currently tied at 8–8–1.
The various sports books list Notre Dame as a 7 to 8 point favorite on their home turf. The over/under ranges from 47 to 48.5. Given the wide disparity in the rankings, this shows either a lot of respect for Penn State or a lot of doubt about Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish dropped from #2 to #4 after their 14–10 victory over Georgia Tech last week. Some of the poll voters obviously felt that the Notre Dame performance was less than impressive. One voter, the always controversial Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star, admitted that he voted Notre Dame 10th. That’s probably closer to where they belong.
Whether it is real or imagined, most of the pseudo-experts of the press corps seem to be biased toward Notre Dame. And when Charlie Weis was hired, the event was heralded as the Second Coming of Knute Rockne, if not Touchdown Jesus Himself. So, the polls will continue to overrate the Irish until they get slapped down by a better team. Kudos to the few rogue sportswriters who knocked them down in the ratings after last week.
Everybody is talking about Charlie’s “gutsy” call on second-and-goal from the five yard-line trailing Georgia Tech 10-zip with 11 seconds to go in the first half. Only Sir Charlie could have ever made that call, right? Good thing it worked, with quarterback Brady Quinn running it in himself, because the four point difference between a field goal and a touchdown and point-after was the winning margin in the game. It was a good call only because it worked. It was a gamble that could have backfired. Maybe a smarter play would have been to try a quick pass from there and the field goal option would have still been there on an incompletion. What do I know? I just didn’t see that the call was such a big deal. It was the end of the half, not the end of the game.
One thing that became apparent in the game was that either Notre Dame’s defense has significantly improved over the sieve it was last season or Georgia Tech’s offense bites the big one. The Irish allowed only 259 yards and 10 points. Their scheme in the second half was to shut down Tech’s star receiver, Calvin Johnson. It worked—the Yellow Jackets were shut out after halftime. Tech obviously did not get its running game going, either, with a paltry 119 yards rushing.
On the other side of the ball, Heisman hopeful Brady Quinn was spraying passes all over the field, and demonstrating all the steps to Riverdance with his happy feet. Quinn was 23–38 for 246 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s a reasonably good performance, though. We’ve got four new guys trying to work together in the secondary, so they had better be sharp. I think that one of the keys to this game will be for the front seven to keep up the pressure on Quinn, but in order for them to do that, the secondary has got to keep receivers covered.
Darius Walker is a decent running back who fell a yard short of a 100-yard game on 22 carries. He scored one touchdown. I think we can rely on our front seven to keep Walker under control. Paterno said that DT Jim Shaw should be ready for this game, having suffered a minor injury against the mighty Akron Zips.
Lest the sloppy victory over Akron give you a false sense of optimism, let me say that this game will be no walk-over, even though my simple-ass defensive keys to the game above appeal to my blue and white spirit. I could spew a dozen more platitudes about why we should win this game, but the game still won’t be decided in this column. It will be won or lost on the field.
Quarterback Anthony Morelli, too, contracted a strain of Riverdance-itis before unzipping the Zips. In spite of that, he had a serviceable outing, 16–32 for 206 yards. Our green offensive line, dissed after the game by Paterno, managed to provide enough protection for Morelli to hit some deep targets. But this is not the Akron Zips he’ll be facing this weekend and, say what you will about the Notre Dame defense of last year, it appears to have come together a bit more this year. They knew how to bracket Calvin Johnson, but with this Penn State team, Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood are all legitimate deep threats for Morelli’s deadly accurate and powerful passing. Terrell Golden might play, as well. You can’t double-team them all. Nevertheless, for them to get open deep, Morelli will have to have enough time in the pocket. The offensive line better come together, or the same pressure strategy I proposed for our D will also work against us.
Paterno criticized Morelli for being fixated on one or two receivers after a while, being lazy on his reads. You better believe that Joe prescribed some work on that for Coaches Hall, JayPa, and McQueary. Let us hope that the QB-receiver drills went well this week.
I’ve got one word for you—Zbikowski. Ain’t that a Notre Dame name? He’s a safety and he had eight tackles last week. The Mohawked wonder even gets his own press conference!
And now, the running game. It never got on track with Akron—geez! Tony Hunt was essentially a non-factor, as was Rodney Kinlaw. The bright spot was true freshman A.J. Wallace, with impressive speed and slipperiness on a reverse that went for 42 yards, but I digress. The unglamorous, grind-it-out running game must be established in this game if Penn State is to win it. The running game does all kinds of things for you, and one important one is keeping your own defense off the field and fresh. Again, the key is the offensive line. To humor all those of you who like that hackneyed old crap where reviewers give letter grades to one unit or another after a game, let me just give these guys an I for Incomplete. In their first game together, they sucked, OK? After the game, a reporter accosted the dripping Paterno and, among other inane questions asked what Joe thought about the offensive line’s performance. Joe’s snappy response: “They got the devil kicked out of them out there!” Later, in the apres-game press conference, he changed the wording to “they got their ears kicked in.” One way or the other, the old coach speaks the truth. They got their asses kicked and they better improve quickly. Like by Saturday. I’m calling the running game a key to this game. If it’s there, it will give Morelli plenty of opportunities for the long ball. If it’s not, this time we’ll go down in flames.
So, where does this all go? I’ve already said it. It comes down to offensive line performance. Morelli and Quinn are both capable quarterbacks, and the Penn State front seven can keep the pressure on Quinn if they can dominate ND’s O-line. Furthermore, the Irish offensive line screwed up several times all on their own. Notre Dame was penalized 11 times for 80 yards. As for Notre Dame’s defensive unit, in his Wednesday press conference Charlie Weis described his defensive line as a capable group of veterans and said that he was counting on them to make some plays to win the game. He went on to say that it was more important to put pressure on Morelli than to sack him, “…given that he’s a drop-back quarterback, you’ve got to make the pocket collapse.” He described Penn State as a well coached team that would have innovative blocking schemes, which his defensive line would have to beat to be successful. So, this is what it comes down to—line play on both sides of the ball by both teams. Win the battle in the pits and you’re a leg up on winning the greater war.
Well, I guess it’s time for the Official Turkey Poop Prediction. Man, this one is a tough one, and I keep coming back to whether our offensive line is up to the task. I think that our front-line defense can keep the game close, unless they’re on the field too long. I’m thinking that Coaches Dick Anderson (who, by the way, is old enough to have been the graduate assistant who led this Turkey’s Phys Ed class at ‘State), and Bill Kenney have made great strides with the offensive line. But will it be enough? I think it might be. I think Morelli can throw two or three TD passes and Tony Hunt can gain 100 yards, too. And I think Johnson, Conner, Shaw I and Shaw II, and Posluszny will have the upper hand with B-Quinn. Hey, Jason Whitlock, the same AP voter who placed Notre Dame at #10 this past week also picks Penn State to win this game. So, why can’t a Turkey? What the hell! Penn State 26, Notre Dame 22.