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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Penn State

General Tenor: What the hell was that? That can't happen again, right?
It's reasonable to declare Penn State's repeat hope dead (Jim), but there's life in '05's corpse yet with Derrick Williams, Levi Brown, and the three-headed Cerberus at linebacker. If Anthony Morelli has a Flowers-for-Algernon leap forward, if the offensive line is stunningly competent, and if any sort of pass rush materializes Penn State could do it again.
You will note none of these things happened even a little bit aside from the pass rush, which happened in spades (Penn State finished 8th in the country in sacks).

Morelli. If memory serves, the thing I got bashed most heavily for across nine previews was my outlook on Anthony Morelli:
Taken together, Facts About Anthony Morelli bode unwell for Penn State's chances for a repeat. He's a raw recruit with no experience coached by the most widely reviled son this side of Jeff Bowden being handed the starting job in an offense that has to change drastically to accommodate his talents.

Er... good luck with that.
In short:


This he did, completing under 54% of his passes and compiling a 10-8 TD-INT ratio en route to finishing 85th in passer rating. The defining image of Morelli (other than being buried by Alan Branch) was a ball floated into triple coverage against OSU that turned into the easiest pick-six Brandon Mitchell's ever going to see.

Alas. I did a few players wrong before the season, but none more so than poor Tony Hunt:
Starter Tony Hunt is a trier who can run over the unprepared linebacker but is a long way from a gamebreaker. He's thoroughly average; even PSU's official site says he possesses a "hard-running, straight-ahead" style, though they claim a "big play burst" that has never materialized in front of my eyes unless you'd like to count a terrible angle by freshman Brandon Harrison a year ago. Penn State partisans will no doubt point to his 6.0 yards per carry as evidence of his explosiveness, but let's review: Cincinnati's, Central Michigan, Northwestern, &c. This is a case in which the stats are being very naughty and fibbing with elan. Hunt is okay and no more.
Not true. Hunt's still not a star, but he carried the Penn State offense on his shoulders, often accompanied by two bewildered linebackers. Saddled with an erratic quarterback, no deep threat at wide receiver, and a vaporware offensive line, Hunt could have been excused if he muddled his way to an 800-yard season. Instead, he ended up averaging over 100 yards per game and driving Penn State to victories over Minnesota, Purdue, and Michigan State. The Nittany Lions are playing on New Year's Day mostly because of him.

NSFMF at wide receiver.
[Derrick] Williams is on a stardom vector that only more unfortunate injuries can derail.
...not so much. It's hard to tell whether Williams' uninspiring numbers -- 37 catches for 413 yards and one touchdown, worse than perpetually maligned Steve Breaston's 51-555-1 -- were more his fault or that of Morelli and the line. Survey says "both". While no receiver would have had a banner year when any pattern longer than six yards was a probable sack, the bloom has fallen off the Williams rose as he struggles to transition from Guy Who Was Faster Than Everyone Guy to an actual receiver. At this point in his career, Breaston is an apt and frightening comparison for Penn State fans.

Yadda Yadda: general line abdication, though I gave them a generous 3 on the strength of Levi Brown and a couple promising newbies. That was closer to a 1. Slam-dunk on the linebackers as a 5, said the secondary would be okay, King would struggle transitioning from WR but end up a star eventually -- he got there about a half-season earlier than I thought.

Cobbled together. Penn State's aforementioned sack parade was an anomalous one: they got almost no help from every defense's designated sack demon, the defensive end -- unless you want to count erstwhile linebacker Tim Shaw, who was moved to an odd standup DE position midway through the year. They got most of their pressure from blitzing linebackers and defensive tackles. This was forecast:
The PSU defense will still be good, but great (again) is asking too much. When you can choke out the opponent's run game consistently you are going to be one of the better defenses in the country, but I would be surprised if Penn State got much of anything from their defensive ends this year. Penn State will have to generate much of their pass rush via the blitz, which will leave them open to exploitation and drive that pass efficiency defense down, especially with a raw secondary that will spend the first half of the season finding its legs.
This poses considerable concern going into next year if Dan Connor leaves for the NFL. All the players PSU returns are either named Sean Lee or have been bad to date.

Final Verdict on the Final Verdict:
Hope exists in the form of Morelli's recruiting rankings, Levi Brown, and Derrick Williams, but recent evidence indicates that the only time in the last five or so years Penn State has been able to cobble together a semblance of offense has been with veterans everywhere and a pounding ground game. This offense figures to have neither.

A step back is coming, though it won't be as disastrous as the '03-'04 seasons. A large portion of the blame for those years falls squarely on the shoulders of noodle-armed Zach Mills and Robinson, who were so inept that passing was not an option for two solid years. I do think Morelli will disappoint, but he would have to implode to send the PSU offense all the way back to the bad old days.
Adding it up yields 8-4.
The most accurate prediction proferred in this space, and something I beg you keep in mind when we get to -- gulp -- Iowa.


General Tenor: Won't be good or anything, but it probably won't matter.
If Purdue is to return to the hallowed ground of the Music City or Sun or whatever their equally anonymous replacements are after the offseason bowl shuffle it'll be on the backs of their offensive line, which returns four starters from a good '05 unit, and the wide receivers, deeper than at any point in Tiller's tenure. Add in Kory Sheets and new quarterback Curtis Painter has a lot of ammunition at his disposal. He'll need it, as the defense is in chaos.

And how! I do my previews heuristically, based on a set of assumptions:
  • Ignore anything a coach says unless it's negative.
  • Turnovers are close to random.
  • Recruiting rankings mean something, but not everything.
  • Seniors who have never played are likely to be bad unless they have an excellent excuse.
  • When a guy switches positions and is immediately a starter at his new position, project that group of players to be a disaster.
  • Etc.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Aaron Lane, the one-man case for the common-sense college football preview:
We do know that junior Aaron Lane is penciled in as the starter opposite King. Relevant facts on Lane:
  • He's 5'8".
  • He transferred from the University of Saint Francis to walk-on at Purdue.
  • USF is an NAIA school.
  • Lane was a little-used running back at USF.
O RLY? If Lane isn't completely overwhelmed they should make a movie about him starring a hobbit. And someone has to be the nickel and dime backs.
Anyone who didn't see Purdue's defensive implosion coming wasn't trying very hard. Purdue's one bright spot, DE Anthony Spencer...
Edwards and Rob Ninkovich are gone and unlike Void were good enough to draw NFL attention (both were mid-round picks). Gone with them is underrated defensive tackle Brandon Villarreal -- third on the team in tackles -- and running mate Brent Grover, leaving almost nothing in the way of proven talent. Senior defensive end Anthony Spencer is it. He was the a nominal starter going into last year, but Ninkovich wrested the job away from him. He managed 3 sacks and 7.5 TFL in limited time. In '04 he was the full time starter and a good one. He'll be fine.
...was more than "fine," leading the nation in TFL despite being the only half-decent player the Boilers had.

Offensively, I was not on the Curtis Painter bandwagon:
What does '06 hold for the now-sophomore Painter? Probably additional pain. Painter's iffy stats were gained against a who's-who of D-I's worst pass defenses (MSU, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois) and Penn State, who killed Painter to the tune of 6-17 for 60 yards. His last statistical reference point, high school, doesn't imply he'll make a great leap forward: as a senior he only completed 51% of his passes. The implication is that Painter's probably unsuited to Purdue's dink-and-dunk passing game, as he either failed at in in high school or was asked to bomb it deep instead. Either way it bodes unwell. Purdue should be happy if he makes gradual progress this year with an eye towards proficiency in '07.
This he did. Painter was a mediocre 43rd in passer efficiency, completing a meh 59% of his passes and throwing a whopping 18 interceptions despite missing the Michigan and Ohio State defenses. With Purdue's schedule difficulty taking a sharp uptick and much of Painter's offensive line gone, he'll have to run to stand still in 2007.

I did get the date of Painter's benching wrong:
Since the only things Joe Tiller likes more than yanking his starter are Quaker Oats and life insurance, you should get familiar with Boiler backup Joey Elliot so you can impress friends and relatives by detailing strengths (isn't the starting quarterback), and weaknesses (when inserted into the game he becomes the starting quarterback) during his inevitable relief appearance and two midseason starts before he finds his butt stapled to the bench again.
Miraculously, Painter made it through the entire season.

Oops. Total references to Dustin Keller:
There is a tight end: Dustin Keller had 13 catches a year ago.
With Kyle Ingraham suffering through an academic suspension, Keller was Purdue's second leading receiver with 55 catches and 751 yards. Even with Dorien Bryant graduating, Purdue's receiving corps is in very good hands with Ingraham, Keller, Selwyn Lymon, and Greg Orton. If Painter can get better and Purdue can find some dudes to block, yow.

Final Verdict on the Final Verdict. Again, please remember this later:
Predicting Purdue's season is, in essence, predicting Painter's. The defense might improve a bit over last year but the secondary looks amazingly bleak and this year there's no Edwards/Ninkovich duo on the edges. The offense, which was quietly all right a year ago despite the whole business with the quarterbacks, will have to score to keep up. With a veteran offensive line and a surplus of talent at the skill positions, it'll come down to Painter's ability to run the offense. Survey says "meh." Purdue figures to return to a bowl, but not a good one.


Predicting 8-5 can't be too far off, can it?
This was also much, much more accurate than 2005's Purdue preview, which was the most humiliating thing I've ever written except for, yes, the Iowa preview. Which is... next!