With the easy part of the Nittany Lions schedule now behind us at mid-season, we enter crunch time. The East Division of the Big Ten race is heating up after Moo U beat Michigan. Here are some bye week observations for you. I’ll start with a look at the division championship picture, and follow with an assessment of the Penn State 2017 team at mid-term.
The Division Championship Picture
Of course, if any one of the undefeated teams in the conference (Penn State, Ohio State, or Moo U) should win out, the division is theirs. However, since they all must play each other, only one of the three can possibly go undefeated in the division. All of those games are yet to be played, complicating the picture and involving other one teams with one division loss (Michigan and Maryland). Who has the advantage?
Looking at the remaining schedules for each of the schools gives us an idea of how muddy the waters can become (zero- or one-loss division teams in bold, road games are italicized):
Penn State: Michigan, tOSU, Moo U, Rutgers, Nebraska, Maryland
Ohio State: Nebraska, PSU, Iowa, Moo U, Illinois, Michigan, (already beat Maryland)
Michigan State: Minnesota, Indiana, Northwestern, PSU, tOSU, Maryland, Rutgers, (already beat Michigan)
Michigan: Indiana, PSU, Rutgers, Minnesota, Maryland, Wisconsin, tOSU, (already lost to Moo U)
Maryland: Northwestern, Wisconsin, Indiana, Rutgers, Michigan, Moo U, PSU, (already lost to tOSU)
Clear As Mud
What is clear is that anything can happen from here on. No one has a decided scheduling advantage, although with tOSU having already dispatched Maryland and Moo U knocking off Michigan, those three teams each have only three remaining games with division contenders, while Penn State alone has four. Three of those four are road games for the Nittany Lions. Thus, I believe that PSU will have the roughest time navigating the second half of the season.
The combinatorial possibilities are too numerous to mention here, and I’m too mentally lazy to list them out. I’m also too lazy to calculate the odds of a one-loss team winning the division. Rampant speculation and tie-breakers hurt my head. All I know is this: The Big Ten scheduling gods sure as hell made the second half of the year interesting!
Anyone out there want to pose some interesting second-half scenarios?
Mid-Term Ass-essment of the 2017 Nittany Lions
Now that we know nothing more than when we started this article, let’s look at where the team is. I’m not going to give the ubiquitous and puerile “grades” — c’mon, Mommy, look at my report card! — but I will supply some subjective bullshit and some stats.
Penn State Defense Better Than Expected
The Nittany Lions have exceeded my expectations on defense, in spite of not having played anyone with any great offensive credentials. The turnover rate is particularly impressive. They rank first in the conference in that category (+12), as well as scoring defense and red zone defense. They are third in sacks.
Special Teams: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
Special teams have given me alternating euphoria and heartburn. Kickoff and punt returns and coverage have improved immeasurably, as is evident by the number one ranking in kickoff returns and second ranking in punt returns, and top rankings in punting and kickoff coverage. What an improvement! However, field goal production has gone straight down the toilet at 46.2%, putting Penn State dead last in the Big Ten and 99th in the FBS. It suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks!
At season’s outset, some were comparing the potential of this Nittany Lions offense to that of 1994, using terms like “juggernaut”. I never like those kinds of comparisons. Trace McSorley broke Kerry Collins‘ successive completions record, which is the only direct comparison I can point to. I think Saquon Barkley is an even more capable back than the great Ki-Jana Carter, too. On the other hand, the 1994 offense was talented throughout, including an offensive line that included a couple of All-America linemen in Jeff Hartings and Marco Rivera — throw in Kyle Brady, too. They all wound up with long, productive pro careers. This year’s offensive line is best considered a jugger-NOT!
What else can one say about this year’s offensive line? Typically, we say that the offense is productive in spite of those guys, who rank 11th in the conference in sacks allowed. That’s not exactly a sparkling recommendation, but on the strength of McSorley’s arm, some excellent receivers, and the talent and persistence of Saquon Barkley, the offense produces. In the Big Ten, it ranks third in scoring offense and total offense, and second in passing offense. Rushing offense, hampered by that offensive line, is sadly, seventh. Finally, with one guy (Barkley) accounting for 38 per cent of the offense, the obvious cracks are ripe for exploitation by some forthcoming opportunistic defenses.
Toughest Games Lie Ahead
One caveat here, though. As you saw above, the toughest defenses are yet to come. With those, a balanced offense is necessary to exploit any potential weaknesses. It will require sustained effort in all areas of the offense to be competitive — we cannot count on putting thirty or more points on the board against some of these guys. The Penn State offensive line continues to be its Achilles heel, so it remains to be seen whether the offense can compete against a competent defense.
With half a season in the bag, how does this Penn State team look to you?
I didn’t have anything else to write about during the bye week, so while procrastinating on things I should be doing, I decided to write this!
Big Al says
As you pointed out, State’s two biggest problems are (1) field goal kicking and (2) rushing offense. The problem with the field goal kicking seems to be Tyler Davis’ head and not the holder, snapper, or blocking. So, I don’t how you fix that unless you replace him with someone that’s better.
The running woes aren’t fixable either. IMO The offensive line is only part of the problem. With the exception of Nelson’s channeling of Paris Palmer during the Iowa game, the OL looks better this year. The real issue is that JoMo’s “genius offense” is a one dimensional passing offense – it’s sort of like version 2.0 of the Run and Shoot (or, as Buddy Ryan called it, – the Chuck and Duck). That damned RPO (which is 90% of JoMo’s running playbook) depends upon getting the defensive end to make the wrong read and take himself out the play instead of actually blocking him. Problem is, opposing defenses are going to do what NW did – ignore the fake, have the end tackle Barkley, and make Trace pass or run himself
Despite those problems, State probably has the best offense in the B1G. But that’s like owning the best house in Camden, NJ. Michigan’s offense looks like our offense during the Bolden years. tO$U can’t pass. And Moo U ‘s is a better overall version of Iowa’s but without a fast running back. Given our improved defense, the next 3 games will probably be low scoring games decided by turnovers and field position.
I/m not buying Maryland as a legitimate contender – their defense is undersized and Michigan, Moo U , and Wisconsin will be able to run against them and also shut down their offense. They’ll give State their best shot, but with a 4th string quarterback and no passing threat, it won’t be enough to win. So, State’s B1G championship chances will be decided in the next 3 games.
We could conceivably win all three games or we could lose all three games. Right now, I think State beats Michigan, loses to tO$U, and Moo U is a toss up. But my opinion about Moo U could change if they screw the pooch in their next 3 games.
The Nittany Turkey says
The Tyler Davis situation reminds me of Nick Anderson of the Orlando Magic in the 1995 NBA finals. Always a reliable free throw shooter, Nick was intentionally fouled while shooting a 3-pointer in a desperation move by the Houston Rockets with seconds remaining in Game One. Nick missed four consecutive free throws, any one of which would have have sealed the win for the Magic. On the final miss, the Rockets got the rebound and quickly advanced the ball to Kenny Smith who shot a 3-pointer and made it, sending the game into overtime, to an eventual Houston win. The Rockets swept the Magic in four straight and Nick Anderson’s career was swept away with them.
It got into his head, never to leave. The fans derided him, calling him “Nick the Brick”, and the team sent him to a sports psychologist, to no avail. His free throw percentage, which in his early days had been around 70%, fell to half of that. That might be tolerable if the guy throwing bricks is Shaquille O’Neal, but a shooting guard who can’t shoot is just a liability to the team. He’s got to be off the floor in the last few minutes or he is an easy target for intentional fouls. But I digress.
The point I wanted to make is that when things go sour mentally, they’re not likely to come back anytime soon. The pressure from the team and the fans mount. Even those teammates who are kind, considerate, and supportive begin to feel the strain, particularly if a wayward kick loses a game. It’s a downward spiral. Sports psychologists, hypnosis, etc. all take time, if they’re even effective.
According to his PSU bio, Blake Gillikin “Helped Westminster School to its first Class AAA Georgia State Championship since 1978 by kicking three field goals, including a 53-yard boot”, and he has the three longest field goals in Westminster history. So, I ask, “Why not?”
Now on to the rushing offense. I’ll defer to your wisdom regarding the playbook, but I see some of the problems you mentioned, which if they remain uncorrected will lead to the monodimensionality we all secretly fear. Yes, it will be the best house in East St. Louis, Illinois, but that metaphor speaks for itself. Good one! I have to add to your assessment of the next three games. Agreed that they’ll be low scoring, but they’ll be decided not only turnovers and field position, but also quite probably, ultimately, by place kicking. We’ve got punting and turnovers under control, and the offense is what it is, so we better see some drastic improvements in field goal kicking.
I don’t regard the Terps as a serious contender, either, as they’ll be losing at least three or four of their remaining games. I included them for consistency because of their single loss in the conference. In their loss to tOSU, they were down to their third-string QB, who was knocked out of the game in the third quarter. Now, their fourth-stringer might get the starting nod against NWU. Nah, not a serious contender.
The Nittany Turkey says
On an absolute, subjective scale, tOSU can’t throw the football, but in the B10 conference, they have an adequate passing game, which is leading the conference by a healthy margin, and they’ve been intercepted only twice this year. Barrett ranks 24th in the FBS in passing yards to McSorley’s 19th. However, in passing efficiency, JT is 10th to T-Mac’s 23rd.
The Buckeyes are second only to Wisconsin in B10 rushing offense. Nationally, they rank 18th to Penn State’s 65th.
Finally, in total offense, the Buckeyes rank #4 to Penn State’s #38. That number will improve after this weekend’s trip to Lincoln, after which Mike Riley might be on the 3:10 to Yuma.
Yet we blue-bloods brag about our wonderful offense. The train wreck is right down the road. Bubbles will burst accordingly. Consecutive losses to tOSU and Moo U. will relegate the Nits to a 10-2, Citrus Bowl worthy season performance, but it will produce the dubious side benefit of leaving the abominable Land Grant Trophy in East Lansing. (Wear gloves when you handle that thing — not to protect the trophy, but to protect yourself from contamination — but I digress.)
The good news is that field goal kicking won’t come into play for the tOSU game because the margin will be large, but it damn well will affect the outcome of the Michigan game. Fix it!
Playing in the Horseshoe, I can’t see any miracles happening against the Buckeyes this year. Last year’s win was a fluke, which provided lots of false hope to Sanguinarians in da Nile, a euphoric aura that has prompted some rather rapturous predictions for this year. tOSU doesn’t make many mistakes, they put up a lot of points, and they don’t rely on one guy to provide 38 percent of their offense. They’ll go to the playoffs as fourth seed with one loss and get their asses kicked by Alabama. Yeah, I haven’t seen tOSU as anything but a loss from season’s outset on forward.
That’s a shame because we’ll have Amina, Carlos, and the baby here for the game party. Being Gator fans, they’ve had to deal with losses to Michigan and LSU this year, and with A&M, Georgia, SC, and FSU on the remainings schedule, McElwain might be on the coaching bubble before long.
My scenario doesn’t include Lucas Oil Stadium. Of course, I, THE Nittany Turkey, am the consummate pessimist.
But first things first. Michigan won’t be an easy nut to crack, either, but the friendly, albeit hostile, confines of a whited-out St. Joe Memorial will be our friend.
Big Al says
Turkey, you ARE the consummate pessimist. Hopefully, somebody didn’t just kill your dog.
I agree that the Day of Reckoning is coming for our offense. And when it does, the “bluebloods” will have same reaction regarding JoMo’s scheme that the stoners who ran out of dope at a Grateful Dead concert did – i.e.. This music REALLY sucks.
However, I don’t think that day will come this year provided Barkley stays healthy and Trace doesn’t morph into Hack. I doubt that the offense will be able to generate more than 250 yards in ANY of the next 3 games. But that still might be enough to win the Michigan and Moo U games if the defense can generate some turnovers. Ohio State probably is a lost cause, but the true believers on the team will be able rationalize that loss and continue playing with confidence.
P.S.Is the game that Florida wears those new ‘swamp’ uniforms? If so, you probably shouldn’t allow the children to watch the game. They might have nightmares for a month.
The Nittany Turkey says
Nobody shot my dog. I’m just an antique Turkey curmudgeon with a fecal impaction of the optic nerve.
Tall order to keep Barkley healthy when he’s wearing the proverbial target on his back and will be significantly exposed to defensive abuse since everyone on those forthcoming defenses (as well as everyone in the stadium) know that he’ll be getting the ball on a hefty percentage of the plays. He’s already been banged hard a few times thus far, and defenses are getting tougher. Putting him on the suicide kickoff return squad to hype his Heisman hopes further increases the injury potential.
So will the “big play offense” be in hibernation for the next three games? I don’t know, but yards and points will sure as hell be tougher to come by.
With respect to the Gators new “swamp” uniforms, which they’ll wear against the Aggies, I believe Phil Knight needs to be euthanized. He and his company have some incurable disease that is surely terminal. Someone with nothing to lose designed that piece of crap and everything Oregon has worn in the past ten years. Nike suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks!
The schedule changes in late 2015 appear to help the team. Imagine if the originally scheduled iowa game was not swapped for the upcoming bye date. Finishing the regular season w/ 9 consecutive Big 10 games would be considerably harder…
The Nittany Turkey says
I remember that PSU nixed the Friday night game (or was it the Thursday night game) that the B10 wanted to stick them with. I either never knew about the rescheduled bye week or I read about it and forgot. Thanks for bringing this out.
Delany’s revenge? Give PSU a tougher schedule than the homeboys to grease the skids for tOSU and Michigan?
I don’t recall a Thursday/Friday night game. I bet Clemson would rather not have that Friday the 13th game… So, maybe we get another bump as a result of the bye. I expect that will be poster material for Michigan.
The Nittany Turkey says
Here’s a link to the Friday night article: http://www.centredaily.com/sports/college/penn-state-university/psu-football/article112130567.html
Given that Harbaugh is crazy and probably is either at or approaching the end of his honeymoon after the Moo U. loss and especially because of his 1-4 record against tOSU and Moo U., I think he’ll be at a crazy peak for the Penn State game. Maybe the PSU athletic brain trust could take a page out of Hayden Fry’s playbook, paint the visitor’s locker room day-glo orange for Michigan, thus driving Harbaugh over the brink into a psychotic frenzy before the Lions put the Wolverines out of their misery. They can hang a #2 target on the day-glo orange wall and play blindfolded, naked pin the tail on the Franklin. I hope someone does a Facebook live while it’s happening.
But seriously, Gillikan for Place Kicker!
The Nittany Turkey says
And another thing…
Michigan hasn’t allowed more than 17 points to anyone this year. They’ve got the top ranked defense in the conference. It will be interesting to see what Lagowless Indiana can do with them, but one thing is apparent to me about the Wolverines: Speight sucked, and O’Korn sucks even worse! Such a pitiful performance in the Moo U. game, already. If O’Maize keeps on throwing interceptions and other Michiganders keep on fumbling, the Penn State D could well outscore the O in the forthcoming game.
While field goal kicking might be a deciding factor, taking care of the ball will be up there among the most significant keys to the game. I’m somehow convinced that PSU will win, largely because of the home field advantage. Still, I think it will be close — field goal close — and it will be a low-scoring game. I’d set the over/under around 43. I’d bet the spread will be a touchdown, and that will be an overlay.
I’m just thinking out loud, writing shit down as I come to it mentally, as I start aggregating facts and bullshit for next Tuesday’s Turkey article.
This week, Michigan is favored by a touchdown over home team Indiana, Wisconsin is favored big over Purdue (I’d take Purdue and the 17), NWU is slightly favored over UMD, tOSU is favored by 3+ tds over Big Red (byebye Riley — will Mike’s big red ass be run out of town before PSU’s November 18 game at St. Joe?), Moo U is a slight favorite over Minnesota, and in the BIG DUD OF THE WEEK, the Gang Bangers of Illinois are favored by less than a field goal over the New Jersey State Penitentiary 11. Looks like a good week to do something other than watch football. (I’m cringing for the poor, underachieving Steelers, who face Kansas City on Sunday).
Looking over the broader college schedule, the only game of interest is the Red River Rivalry, but there, the Sooners are favored by 8 over the Longhorns. While there’s upset potential, it ain’t much.
Looks like our worst fear will be realized. We’ll watch those crappy new Gator uniforms play the Aggies, who I hope are better attired. You can make all the Aggie jokes you want, but those new Gator “swamp” uniforms are the biggest joke of all. Gators favored by less than a field goal. Go Gators!
The Nittany Turkey says
I’m too lazy to write an actual article, but did you listen to me about Purdue and the points? Sure, you did. Congratulations!
tOSU is on the way to dispatching Big Red mightily, as expected, while Indiana almost pulled one off against Michigan, tying the game at the last second to send it to an ultimate overtime loss, but hey, Michigan looks quite beatable now, even if tOSU doesn’t.
With no so-called marquis matchups, there was plenty of excitement to go around, as several unranked teams beat rankeroos. Of course, you know about Syracuse and Clemson, but also, Washington State, a Mike Leach pretender if there ever was one, was annihilated by Cal, LSU knocked off Auburn, Memphis beat Navy, WVU beat Texas Tech, and yadda-yadda-yadda.
Crazy, mixed-up weekend.
Glad our team was in street clothes this weekend!
The Nittany Turkey says
And one more thing…
The unthinkable happened. Clemson lost to Syracuse.
Come to think of it, it’s not so unthinkable. Clemson lost to Pitt last year and still became national champions. They are the kings of mid-season letdowns. Dabo needs to get a bill from the Regents of the State of New York for the hole he punched in the visitors’ locker room wall.
Now, Penn State has no choice except to be sucked up to #2 by the vacuum thus created. Wonder if they’ll get any #1 votes? There is a new #2 in town and Alabama better watch out!
Alas, #2 has been ephemeral, as if early season rankings mean anything in the first place. tOSU, Oklahoma, and Clemson have all occupied that slot and they’ve all perished, Clemson and Oklahoma most egregiously, and consequently tOSU, too, once-removed, by the Law of Football Transitivity. So, will PSU wind up on the scrap heap of former #2s?
Wait til October 28 and we’ll talk then.
The Nittany Turkey says
Oh, and I forgot to say…
…Gillikan for Place Kicker!