The plot thickens for the Nittany Lions and their 2014 campaign, as the NCAA lifted the post-season ban during the week, giving the now eligible-to-be-bowl-eligible Lions a raison d’être. Now, they’re playing for something other than pride, and now, each game takes on new-found significance, especially for the seniors.
This week, the undefeated Nittany Lions (2-0, 0-0 Big Ten) kick off their 2014 Big Ten conference schedule with an away game versus the undefeated Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2-0, 0-0 Big Ten) in a battle of Big Ten leaders. Will scarlet billows start to spread? (Cheap pun, I know, but that’s my three pennies’ worth.)
Highs and Lows
Penn State is entering the game on an emotional high due to the lifting of sanctions, whereas Rutgers is feeling the sting of having one of their all-time stars, Ray Rice, expelled from the NFL for fiance-beating. Both teams had lackluster wins over semi-competent opponents last Saturday. However, the game is being played in High Point Solutions (LOL) Stadium in Piscataway, which represents an emotional edge for the red horsemen.
There’s been lots of trash talking of a sort, inspired by James Franklin’s arrogant assertions about recruiting in the area. Offensive Coordinator Ralph Friedgen was Franklin’s boss when he took over as head coach of Maryland after Ron Vanderlinden went to Penn State. Friedgen was later fired by Maryland. Furthermore, Rutgers players from Pennsylvania who were snubbed by Penn State are somewhat vocally pissed off over it. This is the sort of stuff that fuels rivalries. Dare I say that this could eventually turn into a border war if Franklin can’t put his money where his mouth is?
The Nitty Gritty
How long has it been since anyone said “nitty-gritty”?
Looking at the Penn State offense thus far, I’m thinking that a few obviously glaring problem areas need to be addressed going into this game. It doesn’t take a football genius to opine that the running game needs to get in gear. Additionally, we all want to see Christian Hackenberg excel, which he has the potential to do if he can stop throwing bone-headed interceptions. Penn State is once again sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten with a -5 turnover margin, which suuuuuuucks. Turnovers’ll kill ya. And the penalties — settle down, guys! Penalties’ll kill ya.
In recent years, the Nittany Lions have been sputtering in the red zone. I think this team can improve upon the dismal performance in the red zone, especially in view of the Hackenberg to Jesse James hookups in evidence last week. In fact, that crap must end if this season is to meet the high expectations of the Sanguinarians. Presently, the Nits are sitting at next to worst scoring offense in the conference, with only hapless Northwestern beneath them. The fact that the Lions rank fourth in total offense tells you the story of their red zone woes. Turnovers, man! Gotta stop committing them. With rain in the forecast, getting sloppy with the ball is not a viable option.
This might not be the week in which we see a quantum leap in rushing production, given that the Scarlet Knights have a reasonably competent front seven, especially linebacker Steve Longa, who is averaging 7.5 tackles per game. Rutgers’ rushing defense ranks eights in the Big Ten, having allowed an average of 132.5 yards per game. Of course, that number is misleading because in the Washington State game, Rutgers allowed only 6 yards rushing on a mere 14 attempts, of which 5 belonged to the QB, Connor Halliday, who threw the damn ball 56 times. PSU’s still inexperienced and somewhat inept offensive line will have to improve quite a bit before the Penn State running game can start to be a factor. Until then, they’ll rise or fall on Hack’s broad shoulders. The good news is that the Lions’ offensive line outweighs Rutgers’ DL by about 50 pounds per man. The bad news is that they haven’t used that weight to their advantage yet this year. What we can say for certain here is that Rutgers’ DL will be pretty tired in the second half.
Yeah, although the weather forecast calls for rain, this one will probably be another productive day for the Penn State passing game, as Rutgers’ pass defense is pretty awful and Penn State’s receivers, thrown to by a pretty good quarterback, are pretty damn good themselves. The Billows are going to have to put pressure on Hack in order to shut down the pass. They’ll have to gamble on some fancy blitzes to rush Hackenberg into some bad throws, especially knowing that he likes to throw interceptions when the pressure is on. If the offensive line cannot contain the rush, watch out for red-shirt freshman DE Kemoko Turay, who has 3.5 sacks thus far.
On offense, Rutgers has a couple of weapons at running backs Paul James and Desmon Peoples behind an offensive line that returned five starters from last year. James currently leads the Big Ten in scoring, with 36 points to his credit thus far in 2014 and he sports an average of 108 yards per game. Will the mighty Penn State front seven be up to the task of containing these quality runners? James had 173 yards against Washington State, and Peoples added 36.
If Penn State shuts down the Rutgers running game, senior QB Gary Nova will need to step up. Last year, I would have said “fat chance!” but Nova has been shining thus far this season, notching six TDs with but a single INT, and sporting the leading pass efficiency rating in the conference. A key component of the defensive game plan will be putting pressure on Nova in passing situations. He has some decent receivers with interesting names, among them Leonte Carroo, Janarion Grant, and John Tsimis, whose last name is a Jewish carrot casserole dish.
Will the Penn State defense ever be able to defend against the slant? Don’t answer that! Go have some carrot tsimis.
This game might well come down to a field goal, and if so, Sam Ficken is still perfect. Penn State has also found a punter, Big Ten leader freshman Chris Gulla, so the next thing to work on is kickoff coverage, which is second worst in the conference.
The weather for this one looks to be not too bad. Our fearless forecasters call for periods of rain with a high of 70ºF. Of course, the kickoff time is 8 PM, so by that time, the temperature will have fallen way down into the 60s. The field might be a little wet.
This week, we revive an oft requested feature of the weekly pre-game preview, the distinguished alumnus. This turkey will choose a representative graduate of each Penn State opponent, presenting a brief bio. This week, I could have chosen Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman, who received his A.B. from Rutgers in 1932. On the infamy side of the ledger I could have gone with more recent alumnus Ray Rice, but that would be too easy given his notoriety of late. What to do?
Upon doing a quick search, I found my man — Mr. Magoo.
Quincy Magoo was a movies and television cartoon character who graduated from Rutgers in 1928, proud to be one of her “Loyal Sons.” A fraternity man, Magoo would often shout out, “Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Rho — Rutgers, Rutgers, Go Go Go!”
The Magoo character was originally conceived as a mean-spirited McCarthy-like reactionary whose mumbling would include as much outrageous misanthropic ranting as the animators could get away with. Later, the meanness was scrubbed; however, he remained a curmudgeonly, senile old coot, much like The Nittany Turkey. Magoo’s voice on television was provided by Jim Backus, who was also the rich guy, Thurston P. Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. At Magoo’s peak in popularity in the 1960s, he became a spokesman for the General Electric Company, pushing light bulbs and other products.
I could find no date of death for Magoo, but Jim Backus died in 1989. I guess Magoo went with him.
Official Turkey Poop Prediction
And now, it’s that time again, folks. The gamblers at this point are favoring Penn State on enemy turf by a slim three points, with an over/under of 52. That equates to a Penn State victory with a score of something like 28-24. Lots of factors at play in this one, including the fact that Penn State has dominated the all-time series. Nothing like reviving an old rivalry, which will also happen with Maryland later in the season.
Of course, right now we PSU fans are bristling with unbridled optimism due to being 2-0 and bowl eligible. Yeah, the Rose Bowl is definitely a strong possibility this year. What? You say that the Lions will have to skip the Rose Bowl because they’ll be in the Final Four? Oh, hell yeah! Reel yourselves in, okay? Remember what St. Joe used to tell the boys: “You’re never as good as you think you are when you win; you’re never as bad as you think you are when you lose.” Amen, St. Joe.
Of our distinguished Panel of Experts, only Big Al chose Rutgers to win this one in his pre-season picks. Not that I usually go along with the will of the majority or anything, but I’m going to go with another PSU win here, but by the slimmest of margins. Penn State 28, Rutgers 27. Take the over and PSU doesn’t cover the spread.
I’ll be back after the game with comments and some off-of-the-face-egg-wiping, no doubt, for this first night game of the season. Breaking news as it happens. Go State!