Yes, friends, we’re at that point in the season at which the Nittany Lions (2-1, 0-0 Big Ten) are playing the Temple Owls (3-0, 0-0 MAC) and the big question on everybody’s lips is: Why?
NOTE: Seems that the current vogue in sports writing is to give grades for various aspects of team performance. This expedient, designed for the short attention spans of today’s sports fans, is something you’ll never see in The Nittany Turkey, who asks the rhetorical question, “Why use a sentence when a paragraph will do?” So instead of grading the teams, I’m going to submit this article to my PSU English 10 prof, Dr. Eamon X. McGillicuddy (now 94 years young), who will grade it for me.
So, where are we? I have a headache, so no telling what you’ll get from me tonight. Nevertheless, the show must go on! I hope the Nittany Lions harbor that same attitude toward Saturday’s game.
What we have here is a potential trap for Penn State. Play uninspired football, let Temple stay in the game, lose a few turnovers, and the Lions could lose. In fact, at the beginning of the season, our old friend David Jones of the Patriot-News picked Temple to win this one. He is now waffling, saying that when he made that pronouncement, Kevin Newsome was projected to be PSU’s starting quarterback; with Rob Bolden now in the cockpit, the offense is more aerodynamically sound. Still, there are a few out there who think Temple might just do it, in spite of the history of this quasi-rivalry.
Historically, Temple is 3-35-1 against Penn State. The last time a game was close, it was a 7-7 tie in 1950. Penn State has convincingly won every game thereafter. Sixty years have transpired since that tie, which occurred in Rip Engle’s first year as head coach and Joe Paterno’s first year as an assistant coach. When Temple last actually beat Penn State, Paterno was 14 years old. Yeah, yeah. That’s all history. That was then and this is now. There just might have been a few changes in the team since those olden days. So why are all these hack writers yapping about Penn State dominating Temple? This isn’t 1994, you know. Temple has improved and Penn State, well, this isn’t one of the Lions’ better years talentwise, motivationwise, or schedulewise. (I guess that makes this hack writer a wiseguy.) I suppose thems guys write what they write because, in Paterno’s words, “I guess you guys need something to write about!”
So, to hell with the historical record. Let’s just look at what is happening here and now.
First of all, the intangibles. Penn State’s play has been lackluster this year thus far, and lacklusterness begets lacklusterhood. (It also leads to lackanookie when the PSU women catch on, but I digress.) In other words, guys are getting lazy out there, not tackling, not blocking, not executing, or not playing unsloppy football. (Sorry—couldn’t resist preserving parallel structure at the expense of a double negative, just for you, Prof. McGillicuddy.) This sort of attitude is pernicious, especially when there exists a notable leadership void on the team. It would be nice if a go-getter like Stephfon Green would stephf forward and lead, no matter whom the team had elected as captains heretofore, but who knows if something like that can happen at this point. The attitude problem is exacerbated by Paterno’s ultimatums to those he sees dogging it—play hard or lose your starting position (or even, play hard or you’re off the team). Are they listening? Will it help? Or will it create morale problems in the absence of real team leadership? (Remember that in 1993, as loaded with talent as that PSU team was, they didn’t really get going until a few guys, including Kerry Collins, started holding team-only meetings and getting people’s asses in gear. Team leadership is essential for success.)
Another intangible is the Iowa game looming a week from Saturday. It sure must be tempting to save up the old bod for a pounding at Kinnick Stadium. As the hack sports wonks say, that game is huuuuuge! Yeah, so let’s just dispatch these Temple Owls by mailing in a barely adequate performance. Hell, they’re pushovers, right? Yeah, right. If the Lions start thinking that way, they might dig themselves a hole from which it would require the full expertise of the College of Mining and Mineral Science to extricate them. They’ve got to forget past successes. Two completely changed teams will be squaring off on Saturday. Tabula rasa, mah man. The Nittany Lions better go into the game with the attitude that they’re going to play four quarters. None of this delayed start crap! At least the 3:30 PM kickoff time is favorable for the lads to actually want to play football the first quarter.
Temple, as you all know, has improved under the adept tutelage of Al Golden, former Nittany Lion tight end and assistant coach. Yeah, yeah, he’s been mentioned as one possible heir apparent to the Paterno throne, but what the hell does that mean in the context of an evaluation of his team? Nuttin’. (Distant Brooklyn accented echo: “You guys just need something to write about.”) The Owls had a 9-4 record last year, including a trip to the Eagle Bank Bowl (which they lost). This year, they’ve started 3-0 for the first time since 1979, beating Villanova, Central Michigan, and UConn. They’ve got a decent running back in Bernard Pierce, and a reliable field general in junior quarterback Chester Stewart. Their defense is credible. Of Penn State’s so-called cupcakes this year, Temple is the first that could put up a fight. At least this Turkey hopes so.
The keys to a good outcome for Penn State are pretty simple. First, they must establish the running game, which has been absent for the past three weeks. Next, they must shut down Temple’s running game, forcing them into third-and-long situations. Finally, no cheap turnovers that will make Temple look better than they actually are, ranking 92nd and 70th for passing and running yards, respectively. PSU is no great shakes, ranking 73rd and 74th, but if the much maligned rushing offense gets their asses in gear, they’ll snatch victory from the Owls wit de feet.
Temple will have to play a damn near perfect game to have a chance of winning. Their defense ain’t bad, but the pass rush is no great shakes. Bolden will have time to throw the ball (say what you will about the PSU offensive line, but they haven’t yet allowed a sack this year), and they will not be able to stop the Nittany Lions’ running game—if it shows up. Chances are good that it will show up late, when Paterno decides that he’s seen enough of Royster, but we could be pleasantly surprised here. Temple’s passing game protects the ball well and it completes a lot of passes, but the Owl’s careful approach to the aerial game doesn’t move the ball very far downfield, as that 92nd place ranking attests. Perhaps the Penn State defensive line will be able to record some sacks and some hurries for a change. That’s another aspect of the Nittany Lions’ game that has been lacking, in spite of high expectations for Jack Crawford, who was pulled last week, as was Eric Latimore, in favor of Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley.
I want Penn State to look sharp against Temple. This is the fourth game of the regular season—a third of the season will have elapsed when all is said and done. If coaches are still looking for guys who can play at this point, and if the players on the field are still by and large lacking motivation to get the job done, the forthcoming Big Ten schedule is not looking very hopeful. This is the last so-called tune-up. Here’s hoping that the Lions strike no sour notes with their on-field performance on Saturday. The offense has been a work in progress and the defense is adequate but not great (and again, still not settled as to who is playing what and when). When was the last time Larry Johnson, Sr. didn’t have a standout lineman? When was the last time Vanderlinden didn’t have a potential All-America linebacker? And who ever would have thought we would be missing the days of Rubin and Scirrotto because we have safeties who can’t hit hard or don’t want to? Ranking 9th in the nation in scoring defense, they seem better than they really are.
With that rant behind us, we now come to what the three remaining readers who have waded completely through all that diatribe have been waiting for: the infallible, omniscient, hypoallergenic Official Turkey Poop Prognostication. But first, did you know that Temple has an up and coming wide receiver named Deon Miller who enrolled at Temple after two seasons at Fork Union Military Academy? I’m serious, friends. After two years at Fork U., Miller is now handling balls at Temple. He’s a 6’5″/210 lb freshman, so you’ll know what happened if this Turkey doesn’t report for duty next week. But I digest—wait, I’m still working on Jenny’s banana bread—I mean I digress. As I write this, the gambling spread has narrowed to 13.5, with an over/under of 43, suggesting a final score of something like 28-15. This waffling, waddling, banana bread eating Turkey ambivalently thinks that the game will either be a blowout or Penn State won’t beat the spread, and I’m leaning toward the latter. As we used to exclaim at Good Old Fork U when we raised our middle finger in salute, “Take the under!” Penn State 24, Temple 13.