Lots of people think that Penn State still is in the running for a BCS bowl this year. That might well be the case, but I cringe at the thought of crappy special teams play making the Nittany Lions a laughingstock in a big, highly visible BCS bowl.
I don’t think the coaching staff has any answers for the lousy play. In fact, the big guy himself was his old, testy self at the press conference, throwing out flippant responses to serious questions about the special teams’ incompetence.
Yes, indeed. Joe Paterno’s got me worried. He says that he’s going to go out there and show them how he did it at Brown, where he still holds the record for most yards gained on punt returns in a single day. Perhaps the Nittany Lions would be better off with Joe returning punts at 83 years of age, bionic hip and all. When it gets down to Joe offering to do it himself, then you know there’s something to worry about. It might have been tongue-in-cheek and, yeah, he was talking about practice, not the actual game, but how bad is it when the old man himself offers to take over? Pretty bad.
So, here we are, facing the last game of the year with a dysfunctional special teams unit — still. Well, “still” is too bland a word in that context, as they’ve gone from bad to worse. This is a season of regression to the mean, not of raising the level of play. It seems pretty obvious that many of the special teams guys don’t want to be out there, and those who do aren’t getting support from the rest. When you can’t count on guys like Graham Zug, you know it needs to be nuked and rebuilt from the ground up.
I’m not suggesting a special teams coach. The NCAA only allows each school so many coaches. If I was as smart as all the message board geniuses, blogwonks, and lowly sportswriters who think a special teams coach is a pat solution that will transform this fucked up recon platoon into an elite company of fighting men, I’d be pontificating about it here. However, I’m obviously not that smart, as I have no solution to propose. I tend to agree with Paterno that personnel changes are necessary on the field, though, although this is sure as hell not the right time of year to be thinking about that. The special teams coach deal is TFE (that means “too easy”), much akin to changing the head coach if the team has a losing record. You can’t fire the team, so fire the coach. That’s the way fandom works these days. This Turkey is of the opinion that if you don’t have the personnel on the field, you can’t do the job. I’m sorry to say that this year’s personnel pool is largely mediocre, if not in talent, then in attitude. Accordingly, don’t expect any marked improvement between now and the end of that wonderful bowl game you are all hoping for. Moreover, you ain’t going to see what you perceive as a panacea — the vaunted special teams coach — anytime soon.
There. I got that off my chest. Now on to the Michigan State game. Moooooooooooooo U!
The #12, 13, or 14 Penn State Nittany Lions (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) travel to East Lansing to face the hated Michigan State Spartans (6-5, 4-3 Big Ten) in the annual contrived rivalry battle for the ugliest of trophies, the Land-Grant Trophy. (All the forthcoming adjectives, adverbs, and nouns cannot adequately describe the repulsive hideousness of this odious monstrosity, so I have once again provided a photograph of it for your edification and enlightenment. I hope it does not fuck up your computer monitor.) The series with Moo U., as this venerable land-grant institution is sardonically referred to by condescending Michiganders who attended the presumably more prestigious institution run by Rich Rodriguez in Ann Arbor, is a wild and wacky one, with home field advantage being a significantly palpable outcome influencing entity. In other words, more often than not, da home team win.
Penn State has not won in East Lansing since that great Orange Bowl year, 2005. Of course, the Lions only played there once since then, so that in itself is not so bad, but the 4-8 record in games played at Spartan Stadium sucks the big one. Penn State leads the overall series 13-12-1, with the home team winning in 11 of the past 13 encounters. Being chronically scheduled as the last game of the year, it’s always Senior Day at whichever venue it is played. Nittany Nation’s best hope for winning this game is if Sparty’s seniors play as crappily as Nittany Lions seniors did on their own Senior Day. Spartans head coach Mark D’Antonio has a pretty damn good end of season record; he’s 6-2 in November.
Moo U. leads the Big Ten in both passing offense and total offense. With Penn State’s pass defense being suspect, this Turkey thinks that the Spartans can ring up some big numbers on the scoreboard. Sophomore quarterback Kirk Cousins leads the Big Ten and is ranked #13 in the FBS in passing efficiency, with a 149.7 rating. His gifted receivers, senior Blair White, junior Mark Dell, and sophomore B.J. Cunningham have combined for 272 receptions, 3,972 yards, and 19 career touchdowns.
Another wide receiver, sophomore Keshawn Martin, is the only is the only NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision Player this season who has recorded 80-yard scoring plays in three different ways: 84-yard run vs. Minnesota, 91-yard reception from Keith Nichol vs. Wisconsin and 93-yard kickoff return vs. Minnesota. Last week at Purdue, he totaled 236 all-purpose yards, marking the second time this season he has gained more than 200 all-purpose yards (294 vs. Minnesota). He had 166 kickoff return yards vs. Purdue, including an 85-yard return to the Purdue 11-yard line with less than three minutes remaining in the game that set up the game-winning field goal; the 166 kick return yards rank as the seventh-highest single-game total in school history. In conference games, Martin leads the Big Ten in kick return average (36.2). Martin also had a career-long 45-yard rush in the fourth quarter and finished with a career-high 70 yards rushing against the Boilermakers. Scared yet? You better hope that he doesn’t get his hands on any punts! With the Lions’ punt coverage unit being what it is, he’s liable to amass a couple hundred yards in punt returns alone.
Paterno’s flippant solution to the potential threat of Martin breaking punt returns for big gains: We don’t intend to punt.
Well, Joe, what about kickoffs? You have to do at least one of those and if you don’t do more than one, you ain’t scoring. Michigan State leads the conference in kickoff returns. Collin Wagner cannot kick the ball into the end zone. So, whattya gonna do, kick the ball out of bounds?
The Michigan State running game is suspect, in that it is a committee effort that has produced a 100-yard runner in only a single game this year, that being freshman Ashton Leggett. The Penn State front seven should be up to the task of containing the rush, assuming that they show up. It is a 3:30 start, so there is hope.
Moo U’s stats are similar to Penn State’s, with PSU being more oriented toward the run while Moo is more of a passing offense. What sticks out is in points allowed, in which the Moosters have allowed 23.5 as opposed to Penn State’s 11.6. However, this must be tempered by the strength of MSU’s schedule, ranked #20 in the FBS.
Meanwhile, on the Penn State side of the ball, Evan Royster is five yards away from a 1000-yard season, which he’ll get unless he falls off the bus and breaks his leg. Chaz Powell looks like he’s out for this game, as does Brandon Beachum. Stephfon Green isn’t 100% healed, so most of the running will fall on the back of Royster, who didn’t really seem to have his heart in it last week. The struggles with the offensive line continue, and Michigan State is no slouch with rushing defense, having allowed 105.9 rushing yards per game. So, I’m not expecting a great day for Royster.
In a shootout dominated by the passing game, Michigan State wins. If Paterno tightens up, the results will not be pretty. This Turkey expects a high scoring game.
For all you who are making New Year’s travel plans to Phoenix, Miami, or Orlando, this foul old fowl advises you to hold off. This game is not a sure thing by any means. If Penn State wins, they’re still in the running for a BCS bowl, which is only a possibility because of the popularity of Penn State and how much money its homies spend. The BCS is, after all, a contrived championship game and a bunch of other big money match-ups that don’t mean a hill of beans. It’s more about who generates the most TV revenue and who pumps up the local economy in BCS cities than it is about who plays the best football. If Penn State loses, Tampa is a more likely venue than any of the above mentioned cities. The Outback bowl might be the best place for this team to garner bragging rights with a properly matched opponent. The days when we can assume that Joe Paterno will magically transform an ugly duckling squad with as many weaknesses as this one into a major bowl-worthy swan are long gone, if in fact, they ever existed.
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what Paterno can do for you; ask what you can do for Paterno. The athletic department wants more money, even though it is putting an inferior product on the field. Raising ticket prices and cramming the students into the end zone, as I mentioned in a prior article, are interestingly arrogant moves, kind of like our elected officials turning a blind eye to the deficit, thinking that we’ll let them spend us into a third-world hole. But I digress.
The weather won’t be a factor. It’ll be good football weather in East Lansing: partly cloudy with the high in the 50s.
The time is right for the Official Turkey Poop Prediction, lest I ramble on even more cynically. Penn State is favored by 3, with many shops not taking over/under action for this always wild and wooly confrontation. We’ll use the opening over/under of 47.5 from Bodog as a guide here. That suggests about a 25-22 end result, with the Nittany Lions on top. In this game, this Turkey is taking the “over”. Furthermore, I think special teams will drop the ball (literally, perhaps) once again. If Penn State can pull off a win here, they’re going to restore some of my lost confidence, but I began this column by berating the special teams and I don’t see the situation there improving. Given that they can’t cover punts and kickoffs worth a crap, I’m going to assume that Moo U. will set up at least two scores because of PSU’s special teams’ incompetence. Michigan State will jump out to an early lead because the Spartans will get the kickoff no matter who wins the toss (because Paterno thinks deferring is the right thing to do because he can rely on defense to win games) and march down the field as many opponents have this season. Kirk Cousins will have an excellent passing day. Daryll Clark, who arguably had his best performance against Michigan State at home last year, will be overshadowed by Cousins. Plus, I don’t think this Penn State team has the right emotional bearing even this late in the year. They appeared flat for the Ohio State game, so what are they going to look like on foreign soil in the last game of the year, I ask ya? Michigan State 31, Penn State 27.