We’ll start with the basic facts of the day. The Nittany Lions stank up the place on Saturday, losing ugly to an opponent they had dominated for time immemorial. Penn State (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) was defeated on its home field by the formerly inconsequential Illini of Illinois (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) by the score of 33-13.
“So, while I’m not calling for Paterno to be fired, I am hoping that he, with the support of his family, comes to the conclusion that it is time to hang up those black football shoes once and for all.” —TNT
Were it not for a couple of fumbled punt returns by Illinois, the difference could have easily been 30 points instead of 20, a massacre of epic proportions. At season’s onset none of the pundits gave even a fleeting thought to anything but a Penn State win in this game. Most figured on a blowout going the Lions’ way. To be fair, they had no way of knowing that the PSU defense would be decimated by injuries and suspensions, but they were well aware that the offense would be shaky because of major changes in the offensive line plus a new quarterback. In any case, this contest was an afterthought in everybody’s season predictions. After all, it was at Beaver Stadium, and Penn State was 6-0 against Illinois at home.
That made it all the worse. The offense sucked. The defense sucked. The attitude sucked. The effort sucked. I don’t know what they were playing out there, but it wasn’t recognizable as football, which is supposed to be a hard-hitting, balls-to-the-wall at all times, rock ’em, sock ’em contact sport.
Seven first downs all day. That’s the second worst ever during the Paterno era. (The worst was in that classic of all classics, the 2004 loss to Iowa by the baseball score of 6-4. See my story entitled “No Offense, but…“.) Beatings like this might be acceptable coming from Ohio State occasionally, but now we’ve given Ron Zook a cause for hope where there is none. He’ll take his Illini to East Lansing next weekend where the Spartans will knock the crap out of them. Sorry, Ron, but beating Penn State this year is no cause for elation. Join the crowd.
In the Cave, we were incredulous over offensive ineptitude evidencing itself on so many plays. Defensive sequences provided no relief, as we observed missed tackle after missed tackle, out of position defenders with thumbs up their asses, and no feeling of fire or urgency in the body language. This turkey had had enough at 7-3. I knew the outcome would be bad, just from the way that played out. Another red zone failure for the Lions and an easy touchdown for the Illini. I saw that sampled sequence being rubber stamped over the rest of the scorecard. You don’t trade touchdowns for field goals and win. Clearly, Penn State was not moving the ball well, and was still stalling inside the 20, while the defense was allowing Illinois to control the ball.
Meanwhile, as I cleverly predicted, LeShoure was racking up 120 yards for Illinois, which was almost double the total rushing output for Penn State. The Illini racked up 200 more total yards than the Lions. The running game was once again not in evidence for the Lions, but it wasn’t employed very much in the second half as PSU was playing catch up. Still, in the first half, Royster managed only 3.2 yards per carry, and the other PSU backs were about the same. It only got worse as the game rolled along. The Nittany Lions converted only 2 of 14 third downs and 1 of three fourth downs. By and large, they took care of the ball, though, with the only turnover being an extremely ugly and ill conceived swing pass by Rob Bolden, which was tipped and intercepted at the Lions’ 16 by Nate Bussey, who ran it in for the TD. Ouch!
Bolden’s shining moment was an 80 yard touchdown pass to Derek Moye on the very next play from scrimmage. Nothing intricate about it. Bolden ran a naked bootleg right, which gave Moye time to get down field on a fly pattern. Bolden reared back and threw it as far as he could Although Moye had to hitch a step to wait for it, he had beaten his defender by a good ten yards and could cake walk it into the end zone. That made it 14-10 Illinois, which gave us fleeting hope, but that was as close as Penn State would get. Moye was the offensive player of the game, such as it was, with three receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown. Bolden’s throws were erratic, his greenness more in evidence than at any other time this year. He was 8-21 for 142 yards with one TD and one INT. Of the 142 yards, 80 were on the touchdown pass to Moye.
So, what the hell is wrong with this team? Well, first of all, it is not one of the more talented teams Penn State has put on a field. Worse, in the aggregate it seems distracted and unmotivated. I’ve been harping on the noticeable absence of leadership throughout the first half of the season. Now, that leadership vacuum has put the boys in dire straits. Even if talent is lacking, a modicum of motivation and desire would enable this group to play beyond its limitations. However, that motivation is not evident in the slightest. I see the signs of internal dissent—dissent among players about whether they’re being coached properly, for one. A players-only team meeting last week seemed to do little to ameliorate the apathetic morass.
I bore that team psyche in mind when I penned my pre-game comments. I posited, “My position is that if they lose this game to Illinois, their fragile, young, leaderless little egos will take a severe hit that will lead to a putrid end result.” It appears as if that is where we are headed now, sadly. Even I, the ever cynical Nittany Turkey, did not expect a drubbing as bad as that exacted upon the Lions by Illinois. Perhaps I was into wishful thinking when I forecast a PSU victory, albeit one that didn’t beat the spread. I did not know about all the injuries at the time, but still, I thought it was a winnable game even if the second team was on the field. Now that I know how bad Penn State really is—and in his post-game presser, Paterno stated that they were getting worse instead of better—I won’t be forecasting many wins.
At season’s outset, I thought I was being reasonable in predicting a 7-5 record. Most pundits were pulling 9-3 out of their asses. A few had four losses. There was but one, David Jones of the Patriot-News, who predicted 6-6. Now, it seems that Jones be da man. His prediction might even be generous. Is a losing record possible? Certainly.
Whither from here? As Joe said, they’re getting worse. This team has a “Dark Days” feel to it. I hope we’re not headed there, but now all of a sudden the preponderance of press the Lions are getting mention that the return to 2000-2004 doldrums as a strong possibility. What I know is this: there is no redemption for this season. As I’ve written, it might even end up worse than Jones’ prediction, which would be a losing record. Every game is in doubt from here on. A loss to Ohio State is assured. Michigan and Michigan State now appear to be potential losses. There you go with six losses. If the Nittany Lionettes should drop just one of the trio of Indiana, Minnesota, and Northwestern, it’ll be a losing season and no bowl game. Even lowly Indiana is putting lots of points on the scoreboard this year against teams with pitiful defenses like Penn State. I think if you’re conservative, you might want to change your holiday plans right now. Forget football in Florida or even Detroit.
I suppose you can look forward to more experimentation with players and positions, but that provides only minuscule relief from the miasma and stench of this season. The time for farting around with lineups has long passed. Experimentation is for practice; this “earn while you learn” program ain’t gonna cut it. These are not “adjustments”; they’re desperation stabs at putting a viable team together. Nevertheless, I don’t believe there is any salvation this year, no matter how the pieces are jockeyed around.
Must Joe Go?
So, we now have to address the delicate topic of “Joe Must Go!”, a discontented war whoop of those who expect better from the Penn State football team and blame head coach Joe Paterno for its failings. This segment of fandom generally hibernates when things are looking good, but they pop up very quickly when so much as a three-loss season occurs. The other side of the debate is that Paterno has given his life to Penn State and is responsible for a lot of its success on the field as well as the success in life of countless thousands of players who have passed through the system. But that is unimportant to Joe’s detractors. I expect a lot of “FireJoePaterno.com” type websites to be popping up very soon.
Six years ago, the Dark Years’ withering effect on me put me in the “Joe Must Go” camp. (See “Joe Must Go!“) Now, I’m not so sure I want him given the bum’s rush. Perhaps the six years have mellowed out this turkey. I dunno. I’m now thinking that Joe should go on his own terms. However, I also feel that if he does not choose to exit after this season, things could get very ugly and he would be doing himself a disservice. You all know what happened to Bobby Bowden. When public sentiment turns against a head football coach, it doesn’t seem to matter how much of himself he has given the team and the university, just what he has accomplished in the past couple of seasons. Fans and boosters have short memories. They want success every year and their definition of success is very stringent.
There is nothing left for Joe to prove. Two national championships, several unbeaten seasons, and close to 400 wins, a record that will probably never be broken. A lifetime of devotion to Penn State and what it stands for, and a philosophy that has improved college football as a whole have created a legend that will not go away. He has won the battle for most wins (unless someone hires octogenarian Bobby Bowden out of retirement). Should he stay around to get his 400th win? Why? It’s just a number.
So, while I’m not calling for Paterno to be fired, I am hoping that he, with the support of his family, comes to the conclusion that it is time to hang up those black football shoes once and for all. It is clear that many of the coaching concepts employed by the Nittany Lions are antiquated and inbred; it is equally clear that a breath of new life is needed at the top to clean house and fix whatever is broken. As an elder statesman representing the university, Joe can still keep himself busy and serve the university very well by doing fund raising. His legendary status will not fade during his lifetime. I do not want to see his legacy tarnished as was Bowden’s when he was forced out.
Paterno’s slouching body language at yesterday’s post-game press conference spoke of weariness and exasperation. He looked defeated. Perhaps he even realized that rebuilding a team with as little to work with at this group of players is a job for a much younger man.
Next week, a bye week, and then Minnesota. Perhaps we’ll find out what is happening with Stanley and Thomas in the interim. I’ll be back with my opinions and predictions as we move along.