…so fire the coach(es)!
That’s how the common wisdom goes. As of about 2 p.m. yesterday afternoon, the remaining four Penn State fans who didn’t yet want to fire John Donovan caved in to the majority opinion, and this turkey can’t blame them one iota. What the hell happened? Read on.
You all know by now that the game that was supposed to be the easiest of the year turned out to be a nail-biter. The Penn State Nittany Lions (4-1) narrowly defeated the Army – West Point Black Knights (1-4) 20-14 on a sparsely attended, rainy Saturday nooner at Beaver Stadium. The Lions squandered a veritable plethora of opportunities — at times, it appeared as if the football gods were doing everything in their power to hand the game to Penn State, but they couldn’t capitalize on most of the chances. Army won the battle of the stat board; aside from some notably fine individual performances on defense, the Lions didn’t come to play. I’ll comment on this game, on the offense, and on what we can look forward to or cringe over in the remainder of the season.
You can blame just so much on the coaches, and no, you can’t fire the team, but the offense sure as hell sucked the big one out there! I guess they thought they could mail it in because they were favored by three touchdowns plus. This game was off the board in Las Vegas at the outset, but some houses were booking it toward the end of the week, establishing a 27-point spread. That’s a major, no-brainer overlay in a game where only 34 points wound up being scored, re-emphasizing that you will never go broke taking the opponent and the points against Penn State, but I digress. Coaches are responsible for getting the damn team ready, and this one wasn’t. It was bad, bad.
How bad was it? First, I’m obviously going to want to indict our offensive coaching geniuses for their part in the debacle. That would be James Franklin and John Donovan. This is the kind of game in which you want to jump out to a quick lead and make the run-oriented offense of the opponent sweat while you grind it out. Control the game and tire them out. Our coaches apparently didn’t like that idea, as was reflected by their ultra-conservative play calling for the entire first half. Sustained drives were nonexistent, as was the vertical passing game. The offense sputtered. although due to enemy turnovers, three of them, the Nittany Lions just couldn’t help but capitalize a couple of times, taking a 10-0 lead into the locker room at halftime. Yea, verily, you don’t want to pull out all the stops in the rain against a non-conference opponent, but you might want to see some offense. We didn’t.
Of course, PSU was hampered by the absence of Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch, and it showed, with the Lions managing to gain only 108 yards on 34 carries. Nick Scott was the leading rusher, with 12-54 and a touchdown. Penn State didn’t turn to the vertical passing game until late in the third quarter. Why? Hell, we thought we had finally discovered that the Lions actually had a passing game last week against San Diego State, so why wait if the running game ain’t working? I guess it makes for a great play-action fake if your opponent gives up on defending the deep pass completely because you show no signs of wanting to use it. Toward the end of the third quarter, Christian Hackenberg hit three passes in a row, a nine-yarder to Kyle Carter followed by a 49-yard bomb to Chris Godwin, and finally a 33-yard toss to Mike Gesicki for the touchdown. Three plays, 91 yards, starting at the PSU 9.
So then what does your brainy coaching staff do, leading the game 19-7 at that point? They opt to kick the extra point, which does them no good whatsoever, instead of going for two, which would mean Army would need two touchdowns and only two PATs just to tie. Nahhh, enamored of Joey “Big Toe” Julius’ bunion-free kicking foot, I suppose, they opted to go for one. That way, two TDs and two PATs would win it for Army. Duh!
After the touchdown gave us a false sense of security, the tired Penn State defense got back on the field following a respite of a mere 1:13 (plus about five minutes for TV commercials), whereupon they immediately yielded a touchdown. The defense’s fate all afternoon was getting back on the field too soon, because sustained drives by the Penn State offense were nonexistent. Once again, the Nittany Lion offense sucked on third down, converting only five of fifteen, producing a mere 12 first downs to Army’s 17. Army held onto the ball longer, 31:19 to Penn State’s 28:41. Hackenberg also sucked with those third-down safe sideline passes the coaches somehow thought were advisable, spraying them willy-nilly.
What’s Up With Hack?
Speaking of Christian Hackenberg, what the hell is going on with him? At some point during the game, I mentioned that Trent Dilfer had likened Hack to Hall of Famer Troy Aikman; in the course of that discussion, I brought up another quarterback whose name I cannot mention but it starts with an “M”. Yeah, were it not for those three passes that covered 91 yards at the close of the third quarter, Hack would have completely sucked. His line was 10-19 for 156 yards and one touchdown. Take away that one three-play drive and he would have been 7-16 for 65 yards the whole day. True, he stood behind the Nelsonless Five Traffic Cones and wound up getting sacked three times. True dat. There’s enough blame to go around here, so work with me, folks.
Back to “mailing it in” — didn’t it seem that way to you, too? We all know how Penn State sucks at noon starts — they get another one next week — but this was a particularly lackluster effort by the damn offense (or lack of same). Someone wrote that they should have come out wearing pajamas instead of uniforms. I don’t want to make any conjectures that will gain traction and go viral on the Internet, although there’s not much danger of that occurring when I have only six readers and four of them are too disgusted with the Army game to read this far, but let me ask this question: Do you think Hackenberg (Aikman) is so pissed off at his incompetent coaches that he is either deliberately or subconsciously slacking off? He obviously has some great deep passing capabilities, but he was not allowed to use them until late in the third quarter. He undoubtedly wanted to, but our offensive brain trust’s conservative play calling precluded it. So, if I’m an ultra-competitive guy like Hack, I’m seething inside as I’m asked to dink and dunk. With each throw I get more and more pissed off, until I’m seeing red each time I drop back in the pseudo-pocket. I tighten up and throw bounce passes, throw behind receivers, and sail passes over their heads. Then, they finally let me wing a couple. The red veil lifts and my ire is temporarily assuaged. I relax and make some good throws.
Don’t blame the weather for Hack’s woes in the first half. There’s more to it than that. I’m not saying that he’s incompetent as a quarterback and I’m not saying that his freshman year was a fluke. But something is going on there. Whether it is bad chemistry between him and Franklin and Donovan or attitude issues, I don’t know, but Hack is too good technically to be sucking so badly. I know I’m ignoring the issue of incompetent receivers and I’m not taking into account some shitty weather, but for the sake of this essay, I’m putting just Hack under the microscope. Dilfer said, “out of that situation– which is not a good situation at Penn State — scouts and FMs and coaches will drool over Christian Hackenberg.” James Franklin disagreed that Hackenberg is in a bad situation. What do you think?
To turn raw talent into a polished winner requires great coaching, whether we’re talking about individual players or entire teams. Hack responded well to Bill O’Brien’s coaching and his “system”, playing alongside other players who were likewise inspired. Who will ever forget that season-ending Wisconsin game? O’Brien knew how to get the guys going. Things are different now. No one doubts that there is some great talent on this year’s offense, but they’re underachieving. Why? One can only point to uninspired coaching and ineffective play calling by the Franklin-Donovan axis. I have no doubts that Hack can play better — much better — than he is playing now. Doesn’t that make Penn State “not a good situation” for him?
No Cupcakes on the Horizon
All I gotta say is that he better shape up soon, because NFL aspirations notwithstanding there are no more cupcakes on Penn State’s schedule. (Whether any of PSU’s opponents this year could be classified as cupcakes is debatable.) The whole damn team better realize that Indiana (4-1, 1-0) is for real, as they were a gnat’s eyelash away from beating tOSU this weekend. Illinois (4-1, 1-0) beat Nebraska (2-3, 0-1) this week. Maryland (2-3, 0-1) is probably the crappiest of the remaining opponents PSU will face, but the Terps are by no means an easy victory. The rest are ranked: #1 tOSU (5-0, 1-0), #4 Moo U. (5-0, 1-0), #13 Northwestern (5-0, 1-0), and #18 Michigan (4-1, 1-0). Nothing is easy now. This is an uphill fight for eligibility for the Toilet.com Bowl. Can you see two wins among those seven opponents at the moment?
Yeah, right. I know. St. Joe said that you’re never as bad as you think you are when you win ugly, or something like that. Paraphrasing St. Joe is my wont — I’m the Nittany Turkey.
Again, I implore you to tell me over which of the remaining seven opponents will the victories be achieved? Michigan, Northwestern, and tOSU rank 2, 5, and 14 in the FBS in total defense. How will Penn State’s 119th ranked offense fare against teams with real defenses. Hey, maybe Maryland with their 109th ranked defense is a possible win when all is said and done. By the way, Indiana, our next foe, ranks 19th in total offense with average yards per game just a tad under 500. Who among us regarded the Hoosiers as a “gimme” at the outset this season?
Any Rays of Hope?
Now, look, I spent the whole time writing this in a bitchy mood, so let me just take the opportunity now to look at some positive aspects of the Penn State performance.
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Seriously, though, the defense had its moments, driven by the consistently solid performance of Jason Cabinda, the Nittany Turkey Defensive Stud of the Game, with six solo tackles, eight assists, and two sacks. Jordan Lucas wound up with five solos and three assists, although this was an indication that Army runners were getting deep into the Penn State secondary. After all, Army passed only once. On the “although” front, Lucas and the PSU secondary were seen missing tackles, too, so this is another thing that must improve. Some of those teams I listed above actually have offenses. The defense in general performed “pretty well”, but they were on the field an awful lot and appeared to tire in the second half. Army was able to bust runs up the middle from time to time, something we don’t expect to see from this defensive front seven.
Special teamswise, punter Chris Gulla regressed to the mean and then finally sustained an injury, leading to the insertion of previously benched Dan Pasquariello to replace him. Gulla had five punts for 32 yards, including a stinkeroo of an 11-yard shank. Oy vey. But Joey “Big Toe” Julius compensated by having a perfect day kicking field goals.
Wrap This One Up and Toss It in the Trash
So, in summation, yeah, the coaching sucks, from James “Keep a Positive Attitude” Franklin to John “One Foot out the Door – We Hope” Donovan, but also we saw a piss-poor effort by the offense ONCE AGAIN! Let’s see how they did with the Nittany Turkey’s five keys to the game from my preview and prediction:
- Show up. One team showed up to play at noon, but it wasn’t Penn State — par for the course, methinks.
- Don’t get sloppy. Penn State was careful with the ball, I’ll give them that. No turnovers at all by the Nittany Lions, while they forced three by Army. A +3 turnover rate with 10 points scored off turnovers ain’t too shabby.
- Watch the outside. Everybody knew that the triple-option offense run by Army would stress the defense, and it did — not only on the outside, but in the vaunted interior as well. Army ran for 261 yards on 55 carries.
- Use the vertical passing game. I talked enough about this already. The vertical passing game was nonexistent until late in the third quarter.
- Convert third downs. I said it would be a complete embarrassment if the Lions didn’t convert more than 50% of third-down situations. It wound up 33% — against one of the worst defenses in the FBS. Color me red, damnit! I’m embarrassed, and the team sure as hell should be, too!
By my count, they blew four and accomplished one. Bleccchh!
Among our predictors, Artificially Sweetened gets the nod for keeping her anti-sanguinarian feet on the ground with a prediction of 27-14. This turkey completely sucked with his prediction, hoping that the Lions would pay attention to the Turkey’s five keys to the game. They didn’t, hence my prediction of 42-14 suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked, but at least I got the 14 right.
And so, the Big Ten schedule is in full swing as the Hoosiers come to Beaver Stadium next Saturday for another nooner. I’ll be back with a preview and prediction.