Folks, we’re here! Two days away is the moment you’ve all been eagerly anticipating since about five minutes into the 2009 Rose Bowl: the opening kickoff of the new football season! The Nittany Lions open in Beaver Stadium on Saturday, facing the Akron Zips for the fourth time.
With a noon kickoff (as is the case with the subsequent two games, versus Syracuse and Temple), the student section will arrive late and hung over. The game will be carried by the Big Ten Network, because there isn’t enough national interest in the match-up to entice ESPN/ABC to carry it. Thus, we’ll get a couple of duds for announcers, but at least we won’t get Pam Ward. These are the curses of the powder puff early season non-conference games: bleary-eyed students and crappy announcers.
Hey, this Turkey is never satisfied. If we should happen to get ABC’s Brent Musburger for one of our prime time games, I’ll be bitching about that, too. But I digress.
Penn State has won all of the previous encounters with Akron, and there’s no reason to believe that the trend won’t continue on Saturday. In 1999, the score was a mere 70-24. The Zips got as close as trailing by a score of 14-10, but then the Lions said “WTF???” and proceded to score 42 unanswered points. After that game, the gaps have narrowed, to 48-10, and 34-16. Let us hope that that particular trend does not hold. Against the Big Ten, the Zips are 1-18, and you have to go back to 1894 to find the lone victory, when this school, then named Buchtel College, whipped Ohio State 12-6 under their now famous quarterback and head coach, John Heisman.
Be that as it may, the two sides still have to line up and play the game. If you listen to Joe Paterno, he’s spouting the usual mantra he reserves for crappy teams: “this is a good football team”, “lots of returning starters”, “they play hard”, “they’re well coached”, etc., etc., ad nauseam. While I won’t call Akron a crappy team, because I’m a nice guy, I’ll give you the straight facts. You interpret them for yourself. Those kangaroos were 5-7 last year, losing the final three games to Buffalo, Ohio, and Temple. So, draw your own conclusions. Personally, I don’t expect PSU to lose, but the game will be very interesting for a several reasons, and you probably already know what they are. That won’t stop me from reiterating them for you.
First in this Turkey’s aging mind is the retooled Nittany Lion defensive secondary, particularly the corners. Of the starting four, there are no returning starters and only two with any significant game experience. Penn State will shut down Akron’s running game, which will be a double-edged sword. It will force the Zips to pass, and in doing so they will test the inexperienced secondary. Akron averaged 231.5 yards passing last season, good enough for a 45th national ranking among 119 FBS schools. They’re not stupid. They know that the PSU secondary is new and untested, so they’ll be testing it. Their senior quarterback, Chris Jacquemain, is a savvy guy who can read defenses. His experienced receiving corps is composed of seniors. The secondary can build on this game if they play well and keep plays in front of them; if they screw up big time, the resulting confidence gap will not portend well for a successful season.
Second, this Turkey is interested in seeing how well the Penn State offensive line functions against a pesky, if somewhat ineffectual, Akron defensive front. The O-line is mostly new, and those starters who have returned will be playing different positions than they did last year. Offensive lines must perform the most intricate and strictest choreography on the football field, and they have to be together. This requires not only practice time but also game experience. They’ve had some time to practice, but is it enough? With no game experience as a unit, this first real game for them will be intriguing to watch.
Third, practically everyone on special teams, with the notable exception of the punter, Jeremy Boone, is new. Last year, Derrick Williams could be counted on to break a few returns, and he did not disappoint us. This year, the Nittany Lions have untested players handling returns. On the other side of the shoe, Kevin Kelly is gone, leaving a vacuum for a kicker. Right now, Collin Wagner (a State College kid) has the job, but right behind him, should anything get screwed up, is true freshman Anthony Fera, who Joe Paterno keeps telling us has “a helluva strong leg.” So, this Turkey wants to see a few good returns and some convincing kicks.
Next comes the Penn State passing game. With Williams, Butler, and Norwood gone, who will step into those gold-plated shoes? Brett Brackett, Graham Zug, and Derek Moye will have to show something. The tight end play will take on added importance to provide additional targets, as well as additional protection. Behind a questionable offensive line, Clark might be rushed, and quickly acquired targets are essential. Quarless, baby, this is your time to shine. Everyone expects that the play calling early in the season will favor the shorter passing game, so tight ends are going to be primary for lots of plays. This is Quarless’ showcase year for the NFL. It’s put up or shut up time. Shuler and Szczerba are there to slurp up the crumbs if Quarless screws up.
Finally, there’s the good stuff! Clark, who everybody expects to have a great year; the linebackers of Linebacker U., all experienced and ready for action; and the defensive front four, although riddled by the transfer of Abe Koroma and several injuries, still a solid unit. And did I mention the running game? Evan Royster and his backup, Stephfon Green, are destined for a great year. Look for them to enter the game together for a few plays per game.
Well, there you have it. There’s certainly enough to keep us all interested in the goings on at Beaver Stadium on Saturday. And that, my good readers, brings us to what you have all been waiting for, perhaps since you cried in your beer after the Rose Bowl. Yea, verily, I’m certain you pined away just waiting for (drum roll) the first Official Turkey Poop Prediction of the 2009 Season! Yes, it’s that time! But first, let me say that the Lions are facing a team with not one, but two, head coaches. J.D. Brookhart is nominally the head coach, but his staff includes our old friend (?) Walt Harris, Brookhart’s former boss and mentor at Pitt. Harris’ title is Assistant Head Coach/Passing Game Coordinator/QBs—one helluva title! But I digress. The current line on this game has Penn State favored by four touchdowns, with an over/under of 58. That suggests a final score of 43-15. This Turkey feels that 15 is stretching it for Akron, even facing the untested Nittany Lion secondary. I also think that the Lions can improve upon the point production of their most recent effort against Akron. But the deep game will be shaky for this outing, so I’m thinking that PSU won’t beat the spread. Call it Penn State 37, Akron 13.