UNIVERSITY PARK, PA, Sept. 30 — The Nittany Lions could have sulked following their loss to Ohio State, but they didn’t, and the result was an important victory over Big Ten rival Northwestern. The final score of 33–7 doesn’t reflect the complete dominance of the Lions over all aspects of the game. What’s more important is that some significant problem areas for Penn State showed some signs of resolution during the game.
The standout individual achievement award goes to Deon Butler, who broke O.J. McDuffie’s long-standing record for completion yardage in a single game. McDuffie had 212 yards in 1992 against Boston College; Butler eclipsed that with 11 receptions for 217 yards. The articulate sophomore received a call from McDuffie after the game and later humbly reflected that his great day was partly a result of the maturation of Anthony Morelli.
“Maturation” is not a jock word. It has four syllables. Most jocks think it means something you do in your dorm room when you haven’t seen your girl friend for a while.
Beyond Butler’s vocabulary is some raw talent that Michael Robinson used quite a bit last year, but that Morelli has heretofore inexplicably failed to exploit. That Morelli has begun to see that Butler can get free deep is indeed an important step in his maturation. This Turkey hopes that it portends well for the future of this previously shaky offense.
However, the offense was still pretty shaky in the first half. The big knock on them all year, by none less than head coach Joe Paterno, was that they couldn’t make the big play. In the first half, the abysmal red-zone record continued. Committing turnovers, poor judgments, and just plain screwups, the Lions repeatedly shot themselves in the paw.
The first drive, a 71 yarder, ended with a Tony Hunt fumble at the NWU 9. The next three drives, still in the first quarter, stopped short of the goal line and Penn State had to settle for field goals in each case. Fortunately, Kelly was making them on this day. We ended the first quarter leading 9–0, but it could be argued that we should have been up 28–0 at that point.
The offensive woes continued in the first drive of the second period, as Morelli was intercepted at his own 16 yard-line. Morelli still has some problems trying to force the ball into coverage and not putting it where defenders can get to it. The Wildcats converted this gift into their only score of the day, on a one-yard run by Tyrell Sutton. The extra point made it 9–7—way too close given the almost total dominance of the Nittany Lions over the Wildcats.
Finally, with 2:39 left in the half, Penn State managed to score a touchdown as the culmination of a 10 play, 79 yard drive. However, From first and goal inside the 2 yard-line, the Lions needed three plays to get the ball over the line—the same, damn problem they had with Ohio State the previous week. This time, however, Tony Hunt was able to get the ball over the line by the skinniest of observable margins. The offensive line is not getting the surge to move the defense back and allow our runners to power into the end zone.
In view of this weakness, I don’t know why our coaches insist on running up the gut every time. There is no variety at all, other than who gets the ball: Morelli, Hunt, or Snow. Since we have everybody thinking that we’ll always run the same damn goal line plays, wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a play-action fake to Snow with a tight end leaking out into the zone for a quick throw by Morelli? Or how about just a naked bootleg? Why must stubborn Joe continually relive the Suhey saga of the 1979 Sugar Bowl? Does he think that he can erase that defeat by making this same damn straight-ahead, no-frills play work once? A few years ago against Michigan, the Wolverines got the credit for a great goal-line stand when they kept the Lions out of the end-zone on four consecutive plays from the one yard-line. Well, hell, if you know where the play is going, you don’t need brilliance. The play-action toss to the tight end could have won that game for the Lions.
Moving right along, you know that the Wildcats were shut out for the rest of the game, and that the Nittany Lions scored another field goal and two touchdowns in the second half. OK, final score, 33–7, and it wasn’t that close. It did indeed look like many aspects of the offense improved in the second half, but please remember, my faithful readers, that this was Northwestern and their defense had been on the field an awfully long time as the second half progressed. So, please do not jump to any hugely optimistic conclusions about the efficacy of this offense. They need to make some very large strides before facing #6 Michigan in two weeks.
Some things are encouraging. While Morelli still forces the ball into double-and triple-coverage (boy, was that first quarter desperation lob, desperately throwing it up for grabs in the end-zone not pure stupidity?), he seems to be learning to see more of the field. His first play from scrimmage was a 40 yard completion to Butler, who was able to get open behind the Northwestern secondary all day. (Big redundant, you-heard-it-here-before caution: Northwestern ain’t Michigan.) Morelli needs to learn how to get rid of the ball—or eat it—when he’s in trouble. If he cannot learn this, he can forget about the NFL. Anthony, my boy, even this aging Turkey knows that if you’re about to be sacked because all your receivers are covered, flinging it to them in desperation is not going to cause them to become open. Who do you think you are, Troy Smith? Seriously, though, knowing when to throw it away will be a very major step in—dare I say it?—Morelli’s maturation. Nevertheless, he’s looking better. (Against Northwestern.)
As I mentioned before, Kevin Kelly had a good day, going 4–4. They all were good looking kicks. Paterno said that with Kelly’s back problems, he didn’t want him kicking too much. Whatever they’re doing with him, they should continue to do. The rest of the special teams’ performance was decent.
The much maligned (for good reason) offensive line continues its slow improvement. They protected Morelli quite well again, even without their standout, Levi Brown, who is recovering from a knee sprain. But they still are mediocre, as all those trips to the red zone without a touchdown attest.
Tony Hunt continues to impress, particularly because most of the 137 yards he gained in this game were withough significant help from the offensive line. He takes quite a beating without having big blockers out there in front of him, but Hunt has proven to this Turkey that he is a tough and durable running back. He also scored Penn State’s three touchdowns.
The defense was nothing short of outstanding. Justin King is finally learning how to cover receivers and how to play a complete game at cornerback. (Yeah, Justin, you’re there to stop the run, too.) Posluszny, Connor, and Shaw were phenomenal. The oft forgotten Sean Lee contributed to the defensive mastery with a sack and an interception. Jay Alford, however, had the best move of the day when he took what he presumed to be a fumble into the end zone, punctuating the play with a somersault exclamation point that was sure to draw the ire of the conservative Joseph Vincent Paterno. It attracted the attention of the game officials, who called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Alford, even though the video review later overturned the call that the ball was fumbled. So, not only did Penn State not get the touchdown but also Northwestern got to keep the ball and advance it fifteen yards on the penalty. Not the kind of stuff Paterno likes to see.
Next week, the Lions might or might not play in Minnesota, depending on how the Major League Baseball Twins and Tigers do on Sunday, October 1. If the Twins have to schedule the Metrodome for the MLB Playoffs, the Lions-Gophers game will be moved to November 26th. That sucks, but until we can convince the University of Minnesota administration to build a stadium on campus, we’re stuck with scheduling conflicts at the Metrodome.