I’ve observed several debates in other blogs and the so-called legitimate press centering on the notion of whether Penn State now runs a mediocre football program. Two weeks ago, I made my case that Penn State was mediocre. Since then, many others, some eagerly, some reluctantly, have jumped on the mediocrity bandwagon, to the withering objections of a rapidly dwindling number of fans. I can see the loyal Nittany Lion fan base eroding before my eyes, as well it should, in the wake of the most shocking loss of the year.
It’s not that Michigan State is such a bad team that losing to them was an embarrassment. Far from it. That’s the point here. The Nittany Lions are on the same level with Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, and Michigan State, not with Michigan and Ohio State. Hell, I predicted that Penn State would lose, but they couldn’t even lose with class. They chose to lose ugly, blowing a 24-7 third quarter lead to go down 35-31. A late comeback attempt fizzled due to an inexplicably weird coaching decision. In the end, there were but two problems with Penn State’s performance Saturday: play calling and execution. (OK, so what else is there? The weather? It sucked, too.) They found ways to screw up aspects of their game that are usually good, such as punting and the run defense. They magnified their fallibility in problem areas such as the defensive secondary and special teams. Last but certainly not least, coaching ineptitude was on display throughout the game.
Can Tom Bradley—aka Scrap—please explain why he still plays that soft, Sandusky zone pass coverage that hasn’t worked to Penn State’s advantage for over a decade? “Scrap” ought to scrap that garbage and start covering receivers. Furthermore, while some of the defense’s failures might be blamed on injuries and disciplinary action, the plays that didn’t get made outnumbered those that did, and that’s not supposed to happen with what had been described as an elite defensive unit. The front seven let us down and the secondary let us down.
Oh, and what of the offensive brain trust, whose brains must be held in trust for them? The final, failed drive is an indication of the failure of a screwed-up offensive play calling troika: Paterno, Paterno, and Hall. Nobody ever erected a statue to a committee. For this particular committee, hanging them in effigy is a more appropriate tribute. In that last, desperate drive that could have won the Michigan State game and retained the ugly Land Grant Trophy, these three geniuses somehow decided to abandon a running game that had driven the Nittany Lions down to the Michigan State 24 and put the ball in Anthony “Mediocrity Personified” Morelli’s hands for four straight passing plays. They all failed. Four and out. What possessed them to come up with this scheme? Jay Paterno must have slipped some rufies into Galen Hall’s Diet Coke so he could have his way with the play calling. So he took the ball and blew it. Does JayPa have hallucinations about Morelli suddenly turning into John Elway staging a last-second comeback or something? Predictably, Morelli did not complete a single one of those passes. When has he come through in the clutch thus far? Was putting the game in his hands a going away present from the Family Paterno? In the seemingly obligatory gratuitously profane lingua franca of the consummate hack sports bloggist, WTF???
(Hey, I play to my audience—both of you. Hi, Mom!)
I wish Morelli well in his future career—which sure as hell won’t be in football. Well, perhaps coaching Pop Warner or something will keep him in football, but I hope for the kids’ sake that Anthony doesn’t let the PSU play calling rub off on him. Morelli should now concentrate on his classes so he can get good grades in his chosen major: Recreation, Parks, & Tourism (seriously!—I think that major is the functional equivalent of “White Studies”). But I digress.
How many of those backward swing passes worked? Seemed like Moo U. had most of the Lions’ plays diagnosed before each snap. What about the couple of times Clark came in and Morelli lined up at wide receiver? Did we suddenly wind the clock back to 2004 and see visions of Zack Mills and Michael Robinson? What was that all about? More peyote chewing, with some magic mushrooms thrown in for garnish? Notice how well those plays worked. If these guys would spend their spare time working with the special teams on kickoff coverage instead of dreaming up useless crap like the M-Rob Memorial Dis Shit Don’t Work play, maybe they wouldn’t suck so bad.
So, back to the main dead horse we’re beating here: this is a mediocre team. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that the players are mediocre. There are individual players who are extremely talented. Alas, they’re not the complete package if they do not assert their leadership. The best leaders work with both their peers and their coaches to create a harmonious and efficient team devoid of extraneous distractions. Coaches have confidence in them and delegate more responsibility to them instead of reining them in. It is that trust that is lacking in the current coach/player relationship for this Penn State team, and it shows both on the field and off. Paterno has come right out and said before the public that some players on this team can’t play football. Helluva thing to say, isn’t it? The coaching staff has been feeding the players pabulum all year because they don’t think they’re grown up enough to handle real football. (I’m assuming that the coaching staff knows what real football is in 2007, and that might be a stretch.) It would have been a breath of fresh air to have had a players-only meeting in which someone took the helm as Kerry Collins did in 1993 with the intent of presenting to the coaches a manifesto of what the team could and would do. No such meeting could ever take place with this ragtag band of misfits. No leader ever emerged except as noted below. If the players don’t have that sort of passion and the coaches don’t trust the players to play, how can the results be anything but mediocre?
I no longer see fire on the sidelines. These guys come out flat and play flat. Passionless mediocrity.
Not unlike many of the other bloggists out there, I must eat some crow about my early assertions regarding the offensive line. Despite low expectations, injuries, drop outs, and strange position moves that none of us pseudo-experts could understand, the offensive line matured into a cohesive and effective unit by mid-season. Too bad the coaching schemes and the quarterback failed to take advantage of the o-line’s burgeoning efficacy. This is one unit that actually did have good leadership. A.Q. Shipley set an example that should have rubbed off on the titular captains of the team but, alas, didn’t. By the same token, I wish the coaching in other areas was as good as was that of Bill Kenney and Dick Anderson, the latter of whom is so old that he was my phys ed coach as a graduate assistant. As I prepare to bash the rest of the coaches, these guys deserve some great big kudos.
Joe says, “Ridiculous!”
Asked after the Michigan State game whether he thought the program might be in trouble, Paterno responded, “Ridiculous!” He can pooh-pooh the notion and marginalize the press all he wants; the facts speak for themselves. No detailed statistical analysis is necessary to notice that the success rate of the past ten or twelve years is significantly deficient compared to prior periods of the same duration under Paterno—by just about any measure. Today’s fans long for performances reminiscent of those days of yore but they perennially are disappointed. In anomalous years 2002 and 2005, the program was carried not on its internal strength but on the strength of a handful of standout players. In those years the Nittany Lions were reasonably competitive, but not at the very top level of the division. Paterno’s curmudgeonly denial in the face of this obvious discrepancy is what is ridiculous. The program is crying for help and he’s turning his back on it.
I won’t whine and demand Joe’s ouster. Wiser men than I will decide when and how Paterno retires. What I will say is if and when he does, Spanier and the Board of Trustees must clean house. As much as we’ve prided ourselves on the longevity of the coaching staff, that longevity has brought with it the ills of inbreeding, nepotism, and antiquation of methods and techniques. It is Joe’s staff, through and through. Player development has suffered under it. Play calling is transparent. The offense is impotent. The vaunted defense is no longer exempt from criticism. They’re soft against the pass and merely better than average against the run. Why should Tom Bradley be considered the wise selection as head coach when Paterno leaves? I’ll kill my oft-abused metaphor right here by suggesting one final time that we’re chewing the peyote if we think Tom Bradley is a panacea for our coaching ills. No way, no how. A new staff from top to bottom is the only acceptable solution, and it might take several iterations to get it right. Penn State could be down for a long, long time.
So, now, we get to go to a nondescript bowl. While not the Toilet Bowl in Kohler Wisconsin, as I facetiously suggested, it will certainly be a non-New Year’s Day bowl with little associated prestige: either the Valero Alamo Bowl or the Champ’s Sports Bowl. The Nittany Lions will face a suitably mediocre opponent before a suitably mediocre crowd. Those of us who chose to watch the 2007 Lions play one last time will have the distinct pleasure of watching the sun set on the Morelli Era. If things keep heading south the way they’ve been going, they also might be witnessing the sunset of the Penn State football program we’ve known and loved.