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Monday, June 13, 2005

The Story
Late in the fourth quarter of the Iowa-Penn State game last year the Hawkeyes led 6-2. The Hawkeyes were pinned deep in their own end and facing fourth down. Kirk Ferentz considered the situation and voluntarily took a safety--cutting a four-point, field-goal-impervious lead to two for maybe twenty or thirty yards of field position.

This is what you need to know about Penn State's offense last year: it was so bad that Ferentz's decision was not obviously insane. mgoblog still disagrees with it, but a case could be made for Ferentz's decision because there aren't words for how bad Penn State's offense was last year. However, there are numbers, stark and cruel numbers: 81st nationwide in rushing offense, 90th in passing offense, 104th in total offense, 109th in scoring offense, 111th in passing efficiency.

Little wonder, then, that the Nittany Lions finished 4-7 and missed a bowl for the fourth time in five years despite having a defense that, at least statistically, was the polar opposite of its offense: 10th nationwide in total defense, 5th in scoring defense, 6th in pass defense, 4th in pass efficiency defense.

Penn State's hope this year rests heavily on that defense, which returns 10 starters, the shotgun arm (powerful but inaccurate) of quarterback Michael Robinson, and the fleet feet of freshman uberrecruit Derrick Williams. If the defense can again lock down its opponents and Robinson, Williams, and the rest of the offense can eke out juuuuust enough offense, Penn State will return to a once familiar fairyland: a bowl. Any bowl.

Unit By Unit
Rating: 1. Can I give this a zero? Joe Paterno, repeat after me: "Michael Robinson is a wide receiver. Michael Robinson is a wide receiver. Michael Robinson is a wide receiver." Last year he completed 36 percent of his passes and managed to throw five interceptions in just 39 attempts. That isn't a statistically valid sample, but over his career the numbers are little better--a completion percentage of 44, five touchdowns, and eleven interceptions. At times last year he looked like a point guard tossing bounce passes. Penn State has used Robinson on and off at QB for three years now and it hasn't helped the offense at all; unless he takes a huge leap forward Robinson will resemble a high school quarterback and Penn State will again have a high school offense.

What are the chances of the huge leap forward? Slim. It is possible that Robinson getting jerked around from WR to RB to QB stunted his development as a quarterback and caused many of the bad decisions that he made throwing the ball last year. But he's an inaccurate thrower, he can't read defenses, and he makes too many risky plays after four years of at least partial instruction at quarterback. He should be better by now. He isn't, and I don't believe Penn State has the coaching to fix that in the offseason. Jay Paterno took a promising freshman named Zack Mills and drove his career straight into the ground. Penn State's offensive coaching has a been a schizophrenic mess that acts like it's heard of offensive innovation but doesn't really understand it--they thought lining up Mills at WR and Robinson at QB and then running 90% draws was incredibly clever. There's no indication that they're prepared for a reclamation project of this magnitude.

Penn State does have a relatively new offensive coordinator, Galen Hall, but last year did not show a marked improvement in offensive philosophy. That could be because a huge dearth of talent handcuffed Hall, but the confusion and poor playcalling that were hallmarks of Penn State's offense last year cannot be blamed on the fact that everyone was slow. The forecast remains grim.

Running Back
Rating: 2. Tony Hunt is a decent back and an effective receiver who was the lonely bright spot on Penn State's offense last year. His raw rushing numbers (4.6 yards a carry) are wildly optimistic, however. 266 yards came on 24 carries against UCF and Akron, 85th and 88th nationally in rushing defense playing against primarily MAC opposition. Remove those games against weak teams and his yards-per-carry plummets to 3.5, a number more in line with his talent. He'll give you a good effort and some tough yards here and there but he'll never be confused with a gamebreaker.

Mercurial junior Austin Scott was supposed to be the next Larry Johnson but spent a large hunk of last season in Paterno's doghouse and compiled 41 of his 55 carries against UCF, Akron, Indiana(99th rush D), and MSU(73rd)--his impressive 5.7 yards-per-carry is essentially meaningless. Scott took a major step backwards last year and is teetering towards bust territory. Penn State really has to hope he puts it together this year because they need his burst out of the backfield. Penn State is going to be the type of team that is going to need a huge play or two to drive down the field, and Hunt isn't going to give them that.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Rating: 2. Penn State will be relying heavily on youth: the top five wideouts are three freshmen and two sophomores. They have 19 catches between them.

The top wide receiver is true freshman Derrick Williams, Rivals' #1 prospect last year. Williams made the most surprising commitment of last year when he picked Penn State over essentially every other program in the country. His reward will be instant starter status. Will he live up to the hype? mgoblog couldn't tell you. Williams is reputed to be Ted Ginn fast, but even Ginn only caught 25 passes last year. Williams is in a similar situation--a true freshman thrust into the spotlight out of necessity. He'll playing on a team without much of a running game and a quarterback whose accuracy leaves much to be desired. Williams will see more playing time than Ginn, who wasn't discovered until about midway through last season, but I wouldn't expect the same kind of production. Ginn was wildly successful by anyone's standards and had Santonio Holmes to take some of the heat off of him--Williams will not have that luxury. Teams will blanket Williams and force Penn State to use someone else. If I had to bet, mgoblog would say that Williams gets forty or so catches, makes one or two ridiculous plays, and wins a game for PSU. Anything more than that is unlikely.

Past Williams than him there's a set of guys who are slow and stone-handed. But if you can look past that, they're quality receivers. Last year's leading wide receiver other than tailback Hunt was Robinson, who is otherwise engaged this year. Sophomore Mark Rubin will probably start the year as the #2 wide receiver. Rubin emerged in the middle of last year as a midrange option. He's not particularly fast but if he gets open he'll come down with the ball.

Sophomore Terrel Golden, redshirt freshman Deon Butler, and true freshman cornerback Justin King are the unit's depth. Golden has three catches but spent a large portion of last year in Paterno's doghouse. The fact that King, the top CB recruit in the country last year, is being dragged away from what looks to be a lock on a starting spot in the secondary next year to dabble at WR means that the Nittany Lion coaching staff is very leery about Golden, Butler, and perhaps even Rubin.

Offensive Line
Rating: 2.
Five starters return from a line that Penn State fans can't figure out if they hate or not. Are the woes of the offense on the skill position players or the big uglies? mgoblog says both. There's no excuse for Penn State to turn in 97 rushing yards against Northwestern, 131 against Indiana (sounds ok but Indiana yielded 199 per game), 18(!) against Purdue, or 21(!) against Minnesota(!!). The running game was disastrous with a consistency that can only be pinned on the offensive line. There's no running back in the world who's bad enough to blame for the Purdue or Minnesota numbers.

The pass protection is harder to glean from statistics, but mgoblog remembers that when he flicked back and forth from Penn State games he saw a lot of Mills and Robinson running like hell, desperately looking for someone to throw to. In conference, Penn State gave up 17 sacks--middle of the road. The line was just as culpable as the rest of the offense for the lack of production.

The good news is that lines that stay together and build cohesion can improve dramatically year to year. Five starters should return, though Center EZ Smith is teetering on the edge of being kicked off the team after shooting a wall full of arrows (don't ask). He is expected to return for one final chance. If Smith can't go he'll be replaced by redshirt freshman AQ Shipley, who (obviously) has no experience and came to PSU as a defensive tackle. He may grow into an excellent center in time but chances are he would be fairly overwhelmed if pressed into duty this year. The rest of the line is full of highly touted recruits who have been somewhat disappointing thus far in their careers. They have the potential, and if they can cohere into a good unit, everyone around them will look much better--this is the key unit for Penn State this year. If it's good, Penn State will go toe-to-toe with Michigan, Purdue, Iowa, and Ohio State for the Big Ten title this year.

mgoblog doesn't think this will happen, but I'm saying there's a chance.

Defensive Line
Rating: 4.
This unit took a hit when DT Ed Johnson was expelled from school for what appears to be a sexual assault (PSU's press release was vague) but should still be very good. Returning defensive tackles Jay Alford and Scott Paxson both played extensively and well as sophomores and should improve further as the year progresses. Johnson was the most disruptive DT, however, and his loss hurts the depth significantly. Defensive tackle is one of the positions groups where depth matters the most--witness last year when Paxson, Alford, and Johnson all saw more than 400 snaps. Inexperienced Eli Robinson will be relied upon to provide the third piece of the DT puzzle, but behind him is a field of question marks.

Defensive ends Tamba Hali and Matt Rice both had good years. Hali was sort of a Lamarr Woodley-lite in that he had a lot of TFLs (twelve) without a correspondingly high number of sacks (just three). That was partially because of Penn State's reluctance to blitz last year, but the defensive ends need to get more than six sacks between them this year for PSU to repeat its performance from a year ago.

Rating: 5.The Big Ten has a ton of fantastic linebacker corps this year and Penn State is in the lead group with Ohio State and Iowa. Outside linebackers Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor are the headliners. In any other year, Posluszny would be the star linebacker of the league after making 104 tackles, twelve TFLs, and three sacks last year and spearheading the excellent PSU defense. Middle linebacker Tim Shaw, doesn't have the raw talent of either of the outside linebackers but is no slouch either.

Connor is the guy who could really explode this year, though. Last year he got a little lost in the wash of Mike Hart, Chad Henne, and Ted Ginn when it came to media attention to the Big Ten's outstanding freshmen but his debut was every bit as impressive as the aforementioned trio's. He finished second on the team in tackles to Posluszny with 85 and established himself as a rangy, solid-tackling weakside linebacker. If Connor can make his reads a little faster this year--a reasonable expectation for a player coming off his first offseason in a collegiate program--he will radically increase his big play numbers. His TFLs could go from 4.5 into the mid teens and he could rack up six or seven sacks if he is given the green light on blitzes with more frequency.

What Penn State needs from the linebacking corps this year is more big plays. The line is extremely solid but outside of Hali doesn't have the type of players that can knife into the backfield and set up second or third and long.

Defensive Backs
Rating: 5. Penn State led the league by a wide margin in pass efficiency defense, largely because the Nittany Lions yielded only two touchdown passes and intercepted thirteen passes last year. Teams averaged 5.9 yards per attempt, which is a very good number--it was essentially tied for third in conference with Purdue, behind Iowa and Wisconsin's fine defenses. Unlike Iowa and Wisconsin, however, Penn State did not have a hugely disruptive defensive line led by a double-digit sacker. The secondary is for real, especially when you consider that PSU's thirteen interceptions came on only 210 pass attempts defended, the fewest in the league.

Everyone returns except FS Andrew Guman, and he is replaced by senior Chris Harrell, who already has two years of starting experience. Cornerbacks Alan Zemaitis and Anwar Phillips are the best pair in the Big Ten without any serious challengers. Strong safety Calvin Lowry intercepted four passes and recovered four fumbles last year. All are seniors who have proven themselves to be excellent players.

Return Game
Rating: 2. Williams or pint-sized tailback Rodney Kinlaw will take over return duties. Penn State got almost no production from its returners last year. Kinlaw was dinged up and his replacements were extremely unproductive. Penn State finished last in the Big Ten on kickoff returns and third from last on punt returns. This is an area where Penn State has to improve to help prop up their offense.

Rating: N/A.
Penn State will be employing a freshman kicker this year--probably Matt Waldron, who was invited to the US Army All-American Bowl and pursued by Michigan. mgoblog policy is to not speculate on kickers before they see the field, as so many of them turn into helpless gibbering lunatics under pressure.

Penn State shouldn't be trouble by its nonconference schedule. They open with South Florida, Cincinnati, and Central Michigan. Only Cincinnati has a prayer of making it a game, and even the Bearcats will find it very difficult to move the ball against Penn State's defense.

In the Big Ten, PSU misses Iowa and Indiana this year but gets three of its toughest games--Ohio State, Purdue, and Minnesota--at home. Michigan looks very daunting on the road but the rest of the away games are manageable: Michigan State, Northwestern, and Illinois.

Keys to the Season
Bench Robinson. Or move him to wide receiver. Unless Jay Paterno works a miracle he's going to be the least accurate quarterback in the league by a country mile--coincidentally the same distance by which he'll miss his WRs. JayPa's track record developing quarterbacks is worse than dim; Zack Mills went in reverse after looking like the second coming as a freshman. Staking PSU's season to Robinson's arm is asking for a repeat of last year, except worse. Sophomore backup Anthony Morelli has a cannon for an arm and can't possibly be less accurate, plus playing him now would build for the future.

Find Offensive Speed. PSU's skill position players were plodding at best last year. Derrick Williams has to live up to the hype and it would help if Justin King turned into a decent second option, too. At running back, Tony Hunt is not a big play threat, and though Austin Scott may do some flagrantly dumb things at times he has the ability to bust a long one. The best PSU can hope for this year is an offense that sputters along but occasionally breaks a big play--they aren't going to sustain many 80-yard touchdown drives. Mercurial is the way to go.

Offense From Other Places. The special teams and defense are going to have to help the offense score either by long returns or getting turnovers. Williams should return kicks and punts immediately. When the defense has opponents backed up a bit they should let loose the dogs of war and try to get their offense a short field. And PSU cannot afford mediocre field-goal kicking again (7/12 last year)--every point will be a precious gift and squandered field-goal opportunities will mean squandered games.


Worst Case: Robinson turns out to be exactly what he appeared to be his first four years, and Morelli can't handle the job. The offense improves very little, though Williams gives them the occasional big play and the return game helps out some. The defense is still rock solid, but it's more of the same once the Nittany Lions get to the Big Ten and they finish just out of the bowl picture at 5-6.

Best Case: Robinson is good enough and turns into a dual-threat quarterback. He still can't throw very well, but hey, Derrick Williams will catch any wounded duck you hurl into the sky. Austin Scott emerges as one of the Big Ten's better runners and Penn State pieces together enough offense to beat some Big Ten teams not named Indiana, but still can't crack the Big Ten's tougher units. Robinson costs them a couple games and Ted Ginn steals one in Happy Valley, but they still have a bounce-back season at 8-3.

mgoblog says... Robinson has had three years at Penn State already and hasn't shown any ability to play quarterback. 44 percent is not going to cut it, and he'll seriously hamper Derrick Williams' impact because teams simply won't fear the deep ball. Penn State's offense will still be a little better than last year because of Williams and Rubin and King. The line should also improve incrementally, but I don't believe anyone will consider them one of the Big Ten's better unit's by the end of the year. Penn State's offense still won't be something you want to look at after a heavy meal.

The defense, on the other hand, will be very good again. If they can get a pass rush with regularity they will be murder. Penn State sweeps its nonconference schedule and beats Illinois, Wisconsin, and Northwestern. They take one from either Minnesota or Michigan State... and I could see them springing an upset on one of Purdue, Michigan, or Ohio State, but, no. Can't do it. 7-4, 4-4 Big Ten, 6th overall.