Paul Revere rides again as the mighty Nittany Lions (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten) take on the UMass Minutemen (0-3, 0-0 MAC) in Beaver Stadium on Saturday. Will the Lions use this game to retool and refine their nonexistent ground attack as “everyone” thinks they will, or will they rely on the arm of Christian Hackenberg once again?
One thing I’ll tell you is that the Minutemen outrank the Lions in rushing yards, averaging 82.3 yards per game as opposed to the Nittany Lions 75.7. Before you demean the quality of their opposition for the first three games, they played BC, Colorado, and Vandy, probably a better test than UCF, Akron, and Rutgers.
But we all know that the Penn State rushing game suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks.
In their opener against BC, the Redmen (now deprecated former team moniker) were thoroughly dominated by the Eaglets. Time of possession was an unholy margin of 42:11 to 17:49 in favor of BC. who outgained the armed colonials 511 to 202 and whipped them 30-7.
Last week’s Vandy loss was less lopsided, as the final score of 34-31 indicates. UMass actually outgained the Commodores 346-310 but they had limited success on the ground, managing only 88 yards rushing for 39 attempts.
Still, they’ve gained more on the ground than Penn State, ranking 115th on the NCAA rushing putridity scale to Penn State’s 117th, and they’ve earned twice as many rushing touchdowns.
If PSU doesn’t show us some essence of a running game in this outing, we’re probably screwed for the season. What’s that you say? Franklin is holding back, not letting our Big Ten opponents see his mighty fine plans for outgaining them on the ground? Pshaw!
The UMass rushing defense has allowed an average of 4.42 yards per carry to the aforementioned opponents. They rank 106th of 125 FBS teams. If you can’t run on these guys, you can’t run. Period. End of report.
But will they? Or will the temptation to open the game up and put some easy points on the board through the air appeal more to our coaching brain trust?
Not so fast! The Minutemen rank 44th in passing yards allowed, but the good news for Hack is that they’ve only had three sacks thus far. So, yeah, Hackenberg can pick them apart, and that will prove what? None of us want one of these come-from-behind heart attack specials like the UCF and Rutgers games, so putting up a few scores early and sitting on that cushion while working the clock might be a good, albeit simplistic and naive, game plan. (But that’s the only kind of game plan this turkey ever generates. Besides, mine don’t count.)
Until that damn running game gets going, our star quarterback will be a punching bag for defenses that don’t have to respect the run. You know that, I know that, and James Franklin knows that. Most of all, the inept PSU offensive line knows that. Penn State has serviceable running backs — no great shakes — but without any blocking in front of them, they will continue to suck in a most unproductive way. Lenny Moore, John Cappelletti, Ki-Jana Carter, and Larry Johnson, Jr., be ashamed. Be very ashamed.
And another thing. What’s up with the red zone offense? PSU ranks 92nd among FBS schools.
I won’t dwell on other obviously glaring deficiencies, such as blocked kicks and a five-yard Hackenberg punt. The former were at the behest of a premier kick blocking defense, and the latter was an experiment of which I’m hoping we’ve seen the last.
But turnover margin — that’s worthy of note. The Lions helped themselves significantly last week — or I should say Gary Nova did — by picking off five passes, which improved them to a -.33 average per game. Take away those five gifts and they’re at the bottom of the barrel again, with only one conference game played.
Until these things are fixed, I don’t see how some pundits out there are looking for a 40+ point effort on Penn State’s part in this game. I could be wrong. I usually am.
On the PSU defensive side, bear in mind that the Redmen jumped out to a lead over both Colorado and Vandy early. Nevertheless, the Lions rank #11 in total defense, and it’s the strength of their game. Even the secondary is improving, with the defense ranking #14th in passing efficiency defense. You see the despised word “athleticism” used a lot in descriptions of the PSU front seven. Sports writers need a new word.
The Minutemen have seen moderate success with junior quarterback Blake Frohnapfel (which means “happy apple” in German). Happy Apple has completed about half of his passes for a total of 619 yards through three games, with five TDs and two INTs. He likes to throw to Tajae Sharpe (Tajae means “I ain’t Sterling and I ain’t Shannon” in Swahili), who has 15 catches for 246 yards, an average of 16.4 ypc. If Trevor Williams plays the game he played last week, that Sharpe guy’s production will be diminished.
This is a 4 PM game, and the weather will be good. No excuses there. Nationally, everyone will be watching the Florida-Alabama game, so this one will slip under the radar.
Our opponents have produced some pretty good basketball players, but none was better than our featured alumnus, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who played pro basketball for 16 years, including many selections to All-Star teams and several league championships. He’s the guy who brought the “slam dunk” into common basketball vernacular, and was famous for the “no look” pass. Prior to Erving, the dunk was mostly employed by big men, but Erving, 6’7″, transformed the game as a small forward by playing above the rim with his legendary smooth, almost balletic maneuvers. One such maneuver befuddled 7’2″ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 NBA finals as Dr. J laid one up from behind the backboard while circumventing the rangy center’s blocking attempt. Dr. J was special, and I feel privileged to have been able to watch him play in his prime.
It is indeed time for my official Turkey Poop Prediction, which is worth as much as turkey poop is worth. Our Panel of Experts were unanimous in their selection of Penn State to win this one, so there won’t be much suspense. But what’s the score, mate? I need your predictions.
The gambling line on this game opened with Penn State being a 30 point favorite, but since then it has fallen to 27. The over/under is 47.5. That suggests a final score of 38-10, in favor of Penn State. I don’t think our boys will score that many points, unless this is a breakout game for them. Careless ball handling, a crappy running game, dubious coaching, and shitty red zone performance conspire in my mind to predict a Penn State victory, but only 27-10, and take the under.
I’ll be back after the game with my inimitable comments about the lackluster performance of the Nittany Lions against a vastly inferior opponent.