September 9, 2010

Preview: Penn State at Alabama

THIS WEEK PSU #18 AP / 1-0, 0-0 Big Ten @ Bama #1 AP / 1-0, 0-0 SEC
9/11, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN Wk 1 - W, 44-14 vs YSU Wk 1 - W, 48-3 vs SJSU

Welcome, Mr. Bolden... make yourself comfortable.
I'll ditch the formalities. Let's just start digging and see where it all ends up.

Optimistic as I am (to a fault, most of the time), the opportunities for the Nittany Lions to pull out a shocker in Tuscaloosa are so slight, even a team like Alabama would have trouble if faced with the same situation.

As the season goes on, I'll deal more with season stats and numbers. But with only one game in the books--most likely against a far inferior opponent--teams like Penn State and Alabama are still relatively shrouded in mystery. Alabama won't have two of its best four players (Marcell Dareus and Mark Ingram), while its entire defense is new. For Penn State, no one knows what Rob Bolden will do against a real defense, while the Nittany Lions defense will face a drastically different offense down in Tuscaloosa.

So, for all we don't know about these two teams, here are a few things we do know...

The Alabama Defense

I was going to start off with the defense vs. Bama. But since Rob Bolden is the hot topic going into this game (seriously, five minutes watching ESPN, you'll hear about it), the offense should be first out of the gate.

Bolden played better than many of us expected. Even the most optimistic expectations for the true freshman were thrown out the window. He completed about 70 percent of his passes, and the one interception wasn't really his fault. The problem he will face this week might not even come from the Alabama defense. Rather, Penn State's offensive line performance will pretty much determine the entire game. I have a much bigger problem with the run blocking last week, so we'll save most of the O-line bashing for the next section. Against YSU, Bolden actually had very good pass protection. The pocket was well-formed on almost every drop back, helped by Bolden's ability to release the ball quickly.

Alabama will try to rattle him early. Nick Saban likes to run a very complex 3-4 defense, a scheme Penn State isn't used to seeing in the Big Ten, where teams tend to run with four down linemen. The three projected starters--remember, Marcel Dareus is out--along the Alabama defensive line have combined for only four career starts, but do have 68 career games played under their belts. Going into the two-deep isn't any better, with only about a dozen games played among the second and third stringers. If Penn State can handle Alabama's down linemen, it will avoid the need for double-team blocks, which tend to open up holes in the blocking schemes for linebackers to shoot through to the quarterback.

The back seven for Alabama is a more more experienced place than up front, but that's a very relative description. Safety Mark Barron is a monster in the secondary, and could probably torment opposing quarterbacks without any help from the other three defensive backs or linebackers. But lucky for him, Alabama's D is stocked with talent. The linebackers return Dont'a Hightower, who sat out the final 10 games in 2009 with an ACL tear. Hightowner slides into the outside spot vacated by Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain. He joins Courtney Upshaw and Nico Johnson, who have combined for four starts in 41 career games played.

Robert Bolden [1]
Rob Bolden is at the mercy of his offensive line this week.
PSU Pass Offense vs. Alabama

Jay Paterno has to give Bolden plays early that will work. As talented as the Alabama defense is against the pass, they are still inexperienced. Penn State comes into this game with one of the best group of wide receivers the Tide will face all season long, including during the SEC schedule. Bolden was able to throw up and over the defense last week, and while Alabama's secondary averages around 6-foot-2 (very big for DBs), Penn State's receivers average about 6-foot-4. Those two inches will play a huge role in at least one or two plays this week. It's just a matter of when those plays happen.

We also didn't see any from the tight end last week. Garry Gilliam is a redshirt freshman called into action now that Andrew Szczerba will be out a few weeks. Penn State's main concern will be for Gilliam to block well, but we could see some passes his way, should the passing game need a wrinkle or two.

One other thing to keep in mind... Alabama only sacked the San Jose State quarterback once last week.

X-Factor: Bolden scrambling... We didn't see Bolden run the ball at all against Youngstown State; I'm not sure the coaches told him to, or that he even needed to. So I'm really not sure how well he can escape danger, should the Alabama blitz reach him in the pocket. If Bolden is forced to scramble, it might help Penn State's cause a bit, forcing Alabama to begin accounting for a mobile quarterback. If the Tide defense cheats up towards the line of scrimmage, Penn State might be able to take a shot or two down the field. Even a simple roll-out by Bolden could have a big effect, if there is the threat that he could take off.

PSU Rush Offense vs. Alabama
Evan Royster [5]
This could be Evan Royster's last chance
to remain in the Heisman conversation,
or any of the major offensive awards.

Last week was painful. The offensive line, for as well as they kept Bolden upright, couldn't blow anyone off the ball on running plays. And when the hole seemed to open up, a YSU linebacker would swoop in off a block and stuff Evan Royster. Royster took a lot of grief from the fans and media all this week for his 40-yard performance. Some of it was deserved, but the rest wasn't. Royster tends to run well on stretch and zone plays, out of a one-back formation. But the problem for Penn State against Alabama is that the PSU offensive line and tight end (Gilliam) won't be able provide the kind of blocking necessary for adequate running lanes to form. Alabama's defensive line is still good enough to shed a block or two, but it's the linebackers that could cause the most damage to the Penn State run game on Saturday.

X-Factor: Kevin Newsome... There is one way Penn State might be able to loosen up the Alabama run defense, and that's incorporate some of the zone-read spread offense we first saw used to great effect in the 2007 Alamo Bowl, when Daryll Clark came in an ran the ball out of the shotgun a few plays here and there. One look we didn't see last week (because it wasn't necessary to use it) was the use of Kevin Newsome running the spread-run attack. Newsome came in late against YSU, and the offense changed dramatically, as he looked more like Michael Robinson in 2005, and less like Bolden's resemblance to Clark in 2009.

The Alabama Offense

Here's where things get scary for Penn State. You thought Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram's knee injury (will miss this week) meant the Alabama offense would take a big hit, right? I won't beat around the bush here--it probably won't hurt Alabama much, if at all. In 2009, the Tide averaged 215 rushing yards and 32 points per game. Trent Richardson, the guy who will start this week instead of Ingram, rushed for almost 800 yards last season... as Ingram's backup. Behind him, redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy ran for more than 100 yards last week in his first game.

I know, you get it. But it gets worse. The offensive line returns three starters, with two other very highly touted recruits filling in the other two spots. They might be able to give quarterback Greg McElroy just enough time to send the ball down the field. Who's down there? Just All-American Julio Jones, and All-SEC candidate Marquis Maze.

Alabama runs a very different offense than the one Penn State faces last week against Youngstown State. The Penguins used a short, quick passing game, run out of mostly the shotgun formation. Very rarely did receivers catch the ball beyond the first down marker. The Crimson Tide uses more of a pro-set offense, with McElroy handing off to his backs, setting up the play-action pass for big chunks down the field. This could end up causing Penn State exponentially-bigger problems than it did last week, but we'll get to that in a moment.

Nate Stupar makes the sack [1]
It's time to go all "Linebacker U" on Alabama's ass...
PSU Pass Defense vs. Alabama

Don't re-watch the Youngstown State game thinking you'll be able to learn anything in preparation for Alabama. First of all, the 80-yard touchdown accounted for about half of YSU's total passing yards, even though the Penguins completed 21-of-25 with no interceptions. It's difficult to pick off a pass when it doesn't travel more than six or eight yards. So here's a scary thought: 2009 Rose Bowl. USC ran a pro-style offense, not completely dissimilar to Alabama's play-action offensive scheme. The Trojans sent their receivers on vertical routes, attacking Penn State's safeties all day. Mark Sanchez torched PSU for more than 400 yards.

Watch out for something similar this weekend. Penn State could hold Alabama to 10 yards rushing, but if McElroy, Jones & Co. are able to chew up safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, the ground game will mean nothing. The one hope here is for Penn State to get in quickly to McElroy, and force him to throw before he's ready. The defensive line didn't dominate YSU's offensive line last week, but YSU called pass plays that didn't require much, if any, drop back time in the pocket. Alabama could allow Penn State more time to get to McElroy, if Alabama does what is expected and runs play-action deep passes. Sixty-eight percent of McElroy's completions on passes beyond 15 yards have followed a play-action fake.

X-Factor: McElroy vs Ranked Opponents... McElroy completed 68 percent of his passes with a 13-0 ratio against unranked opponents in 2009, but his percentage dropped to 52.4 and a 4-4 ratio versus six ranked opponents.

PSU Rush Defense vs. Alabama

Penn State has a way of playing well against the run, even when all signs point towards the opposite. Alabama returns three of five starters from last year's offensive line. Good for Alabama, but not great. Penn State's defensive line is a year older than it was last season, when it allowed less than 100 yards per game on the ground. Many will point to the loss of Jared Odrick as a major weakness in the front line, but when has the defensive line been an issue at any point the last seven seasons?

Last week the biggest problem for the front seven was missing tackles. Now, none of them went for huge plays, but that's because Alabama's Trent Richardson wasn't running the ball. At least a dozen rushes by YSU were allowed to gain three or four yards after first contact. You know what that means? Yeah, 10-12 yards after contact against a team like Alabama. Penn State cannot, cannot, cannot afford to miss tackles.

X-Factor: Ollie Ogbu... The Nittany Lions' entire defensive cover-3 scheme starts with the defensive line getting pressure and stuffing the run. Ogbu has to make sure Alabama sends an extra blocker his way. Even if he doesn't log great stats, his ability to clog up running lanes will allow the rest of the front seven to swarm to the football.

Special Teams

Is Penn State finally ready to play serious special teams? Anthony Fera only punted once, while most of his kickoffs were assisted by a strong wind. The punt return game is still iffy, though no one fumbled the ball. Other than that, Penn State played its best game on special teams since probably sometime in 2008. There are now legitimate threats on kickoff returns (Chaz Powell's 100-yd TD). Collin Wagner is setting himself up nicely for a run at the Groza Award (3-for-3, all beyond 40 yds). And the coverage units didn't give anyone a heart attack.

Alabama is working in a new kicker, who did play well (2-for-2) last week. There were no fireworks in either return game against SJSU. The punts were good to average.

The most positive side of this matchup is that Penn State's special teams appear to be every bit as good as Alabama's. In 2009, both of Penn State's losses (Iowa & Ohio State) came as a direct result of horrible special teams play. PSU couldn't protect its punter against Iowa, while allowing long returns to Ohio State.

X-Factor: Field Position... Penn State needs short fields for its offense, and long fields for its defense. There is no realistic way for Penn State to win this game if either (or both) of those things happen.

Two things that could really piss you off...
or make you really, really happy.

Third Down Conversions. Penn State went three-and-out on its first drive last week. Penn State must convert third downs against Alabama. At the very least, don't go three-and-out more than once or twice, if at all. The field position battle will be one of the biggest single factors in this game for Penn State. Keeping the chains moving is the best way to keep the field position swayed to Penn State's advantage.

Penn State play-calling. Will Penn State come out aggressive and loose? Or are we in for another Michigan 2007? You've got to figure that if Joe Paterno is willing enough to take a true freshman starting quarterback down to face the No. 1 team, he's willing enough to keep the offense opened up.

Check out our LBU staff picks tomorrow for score predictions

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  1. Loved the onside kick, too bad bama didn't score again.

    PSU never plays well when they play a quality opponent, stick to YSU, Temple, Syracuse and the little sisters of the poor.

    If you were in the SEC you would be a middle of the pack team.

  2. Howard, I'm surprised that you have managed to so fulfill the SEC stereotype. You see, everything you just said (only to be an asshole, mind you) is completely ignorant, or just a plain lie.

    Do you know that there was a 2007 Outback Bowl, or a 2010 Capital One Bowl? Because Penn State beat your incredible SEC teams, both of which were in the top-3 of the SEC those seasons.

    Penn State's record against SEC opponents is now 17-17 all-time, 14-14 under Joe Paterno, and 8-4 (that's a winning record, pal) against SEC opponents in Bowl Games, including the last two against Tennessee (PSU W, 20-10) and LSU (PSU W, 19-17).