The mood among the Penn State fan base is optimistic following the Nittany Lions’ dismantling of Wisconsin, and for good reason. The offensive game seems to be coming together; Anthony Morelli appears confident; our offensive line is jelling, to use a trite, oft-abused sportswriter word (jell this!); our offensive brain trust has shown (or perhaps they have been shown) that an aggressive offensive plan actually works to their advantage; and, finally, the offensive squad made no major mistakes. This all equates to a good, warm, fuzzy feeling.
That feeling is fragile. Everybody I’ve talked to, every blogster I’ve read, and every legitimate sports pundit I’ve encountered tells me that Penn State will beat Indiana. The bookies are reflecting that the betting public thinks that the Nittany Lions are better than the Hoosiers by 7.5 points as I write this. I’m hearing canaries sing and a basket with a cute little fuzzy kitten was just delivered to my door. Life is wonnnnnnnnderful!
But just as surely as that cute little fuzzy kitten will grow into a single-mindedly bloodthirsty, sharp clawed killer cat that will surely eat the damn canary if given half a chance, our sweet sunshine dreams can rapidly turn into ugly, troubling nightmares if the offense fails to live up to the promise provided by the wonderful Wisconsin win come high noon on Saturday. Our euphoria is fragile indeed, as it has been throughout the past decade. We’ve seen too much go wrong not to harbor nagging doubts, which never manage to stay buried under unbridled optimism for very long after a win. We subconsciously wait for the inevitable screw-up. When will the bubble burst?
Much as even the most unbridled optimists among us unwittingly have been trained to expect the worst, having been subjected to the preponderance of underachieving performances of the past decade, it will take several repetitions of the Wisconsin experience to train us to expect the best. We are riding an emotional yo-yo. Consistency has not been a great quality of the 2007 Nittany Lions, except that for the first six games the offense got off to a consistently slow start. Negative consistency ain’t what we need. Given our current fan psyche, if we lose a game, no matter how hard we fight and no matter how wonderfully our opponent performs, we’ll quickly label the Wisconsin win a fluke and declare that we have sucked all along. We’ll say that this loss was merely regression to the mean and it will be that much harder to climb out of the hole we dig for ourselves.
I’m not saying we’re kidding ourselves thinking that with the Wisconsin win the storm has passed and the skies ahead are blue. I’m merely saying that many of us would like to see proof in the form of a repeat performance against a team with a winning record in a game played somewhere other than Beaver Stadium. Otherwise, the warm fuzzies will be evanescent once again and we’ll repeat the cycle ad nauseam. If the Nittany Lions either lose to the Hoosiers or win ugly, not only will the fans’ confidence be shattered, but also the team’s confidence in itself will evaporate—just in time for the slug-fest with #1 Ohio State a week from Saturday.
So, yes, it’s one week at a time, and to look past this important game to Ohio State would be to court disaster. On to this week’s game.
About the Hoosiers
The Indiana Hoosiers (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) have a record identical to ours at this point. Thus, they are one win away from bowl eligibility, which is quite a happy thing for the folks in Bloomington, who are quite used to biding their time by watching losing efforts—or not watching them—on the football field while they wait for basketball season to begin. However, this year is a special year for the football Hoosiers. Their coach through last season, Terry Hoeppner, died of complications due to a brain tumor, so it is an emotional time for the team. The new coach, Bill Lynch, has done a surprisingly good job to date continuing the team-building effort started by Hoeppner in his two years at IU.
This will not be a walkover—no “bye week”—as we used to consider Indiana.
Let’s look at the Indiana offense. In sophomore Kellen Lewis, the Hoosiers have an option quarterback who is bound to give us fits, as did Illinois’ Juice Williams. However, unlike Illinois, Lewis doesn’t have an established stud running back to pitch to. Lewis is averaging 67 yards per game rushing, while junior running back Marcus Thigpen is averaging only 38 yards per game on the ground. Look for our front seven to shut down the Hoosier running game, which is ranked 42nd in the Division Formerly Known as I-A. Indiana’s offense is balanced but Lewis’ receivers are relatively inexperienced: a junior and two sophomores. They rank #53 nationally in passing offense. As the Penn State defense won’t allow the run and will dare Lewis to throw, our secondary had better be on its game, but this Turkey believes that they will keep the Hoosier wide receivers under control.
Defensively, the Hoosiers had been surprisingly good until last weekend’s defensive melt-down in East Lansing, in which Michigan State scored 52 points, which dropped the total defense ranking down to #63 nationally. However, you might still be surprised to learn that the Indiana defense is leading the nation in quarterback sacks, averaging over 4.5 per game. (Penn State is tied for second with 4.14.) If our offensive brain-trust chews on some peyote, we might see a wide-open game with the potential to score prolifically. On the other hand, if they watch the Indiana vs. Michigan State tape, see that Moo U’s rushing yardage practically doubled their passing output, note that one IU safety had 22 tackles, and conclude that we have to run all day, we’re in the latrine again. It would be great to be wrong about that and to see the ball thrown down-field. Establish the pass to set up the run, guys! To fulfill our dreams, the newly respectable offensive line will have to provide enough protection for Morelli to get the ball away, and Morelli’s reactions will have to be sharp and his throws on the money. We now know that he can do it. We’re actually on the verge of expecting it. A lot depends on the game plan. We also know that Rodney Kinlaw and Evan Royster can do the job just in case the coaches choose the Woody Hayes Memorial Game Plan.
On special teams, Indiana is an interesting mesh for our Nittany Lions, who are ranked #3 in net punting. The Hoosiers rank #7 in punt returns. So, the return coverage better be there.
Looking through Indiana’s 5-2 start, we must note that the five wins have been over the likes of Indiana State, Western Michigan, Akron, Iowa, and Minnesota, while the losses were at home to Illinois and on the road at Michigan State. As Iowa and Minnesota are awful this year, both of the Hoosiers’ real Big Ten tests, the Illini and the Spartans, were abject failures, with 79 points scored against IU in those two games.
What happens now?
We’re all sitting on pins and needles waiting for the first Nittany Lion possession on Saturday, wanting to see if Morelli comes out throwing. Will our offensive geniuses tighten up and go into road mode, playing not to lose, as in the Michigan game? Or will they see some value in opening it up, as in the Wisconsin masterpiece? Will Morelli be loose as a goose or tight as a drum? Will the offensive line be effective against the sack-happy Hoosiers? Now that the demon represented by Austin Scott has been exorcised, will the whole team continue to act as if an onerous weight has been lifted off its collective shoulders? Will the banged-up defensive line be as effective as it was before the injuries to Hayes and Odrick? And will the Nittany Lions actually look like they want to play to win? Will they display fire on the sidelines and in the game, especially while playing on the road with a noon start? They will have to do all those things to preserve the momentum established by the Wisconsin win. We now know that this team can perform well; we just need to see them do it a few more times before we completely believe in the beleaguered 2007 Nittany Lions.
So that brings us to the Nittany Turkey’s Official Turkey Poop Prediction. Before I put some numbers on this thing, I have to say that I’m tired of swaying in the breeze about this bunch of kids. I want to believe in them. I want the rest of the season to go by without another nefarious incident. I want the Nittany Lions to win the rest of their games. However, the Rolling Stones told me that I can’t always get what I want. So, the Turkey must throttle down his expectations to take this one game at a time. I’ve got a positive feeling about this game, folks, and I feel the groundswell of fan support champing at the bit to get loose. Another convincing win will put Big Mr. Mo right on track for the head-on collision with the pack-leading Buckeyes. I like that idea. Please Mista Jay and Mista Galen, let ’em play! On Homecoming Day for Indiana, I’m going for the peyote option: it will be Penn State 45, Indiana 17.