September 26, 2010

Review: Penn State 22, Temple 13

Temple put quite a scare into the Nittany Lions yesterday, leading the hosts for most of the game. But Penn State dug down deep, played sensational defense in the second half, and put together one of the most impressive clutch drives we've seen in years.

Mike Zordich celebrates a tough run
Mike Zordich would not be denied his first career touchdown run, plowing in for the game-clinching fourth quarter score against the visiting Owls.

Don't say Penn State looked bad against a MAC team. That's all I heard from BTN play-by-play announcer Eric Collins the entire game. Why can't anyone just give Temple credit for being a good football team? The Owls won nine games last season, and came into this game having beaten the FCS national champions (Villanova), a decent conference team (CMU), and crushed a UConn team 30-16, nearly the same margin (30-10) the Huskies lost by at Michigan three weeks ago.

Also, Bernard Pierce is a legit running back who--if his ankle injury isn't too serious--is destined for big things at this level and beyond. The Temple defense was not only sound, but aggressive in its play, pretty much out-Penn-Stating Penn State's defense in the first half.

The Nittany Lions needed this game. That I can tell you with certainty. A good, tough comeback win like this, against a team with a pulse like Temple, might have some fans running to hide under their bedsheets. But I'm not concerned by the stalls in the red zone or the slow start on defense. Those are technical, tangible facets of the game that can be easily fixed during the week. This week allowed this team to gain the intangible experience of winning a hard-fought football game, having to step up as individuals, and as a team.

Here are some things I liked from Saturday, and some things I wasn't crazy about...

Tip of the Hat

Evan Royster -- Hey! There's the running back we know. Royster not only silenced pretty much every doubter by rushing for 100 yards in the first half, he wasn't nearly finished, tacking on another 87 yards after the break. It was the perfect way for the redshirt senior to announce himself as arrived this 2010 season. Royster only needed 26 carries to gain all 187 yards, including some really powerful, balanced runs in every quarter of the game and the game-clinching 96-yard touchdown drive. Yes, he had a fumble that set up a Temple touchdown, but there are 187 other reasons to like what he did overall on Saturday. Let's hope Royster can build on this performance during practice, and next Saturday night at Iowa. It's not to say he'll do better statistically (that'd be pushing it against the Hawkeyes' defense), but if Royster can play with the same fire we saw against Temple, he'll pass Curt Warner's record by homecoming.

Collin Wagner -- I'll have much more on Wagner later this week in the non-conference schedule review. But this week Wagner once again earned every cent of his scholarship, nailing five field goals to give Penn State its first 15 points of the game. Wagner was somewhat spotty during the 2009 regular season, but since his national spotlight performance in the Capital One Bowl, he is really starting to push for some major accolades at the end of this season.

Nate Stupar -- The redshirt junior finished the game with seven tackles, a sack and tackle for loss, and an interception. While a few other players stepped up big this Saturday (we'll mention them in a moment), none was as purely destructive to the Temple offense as Stupar. He may have lost his starting job to Michael Mauti, but Stupar doesn't seem at all phased by it. He shouldn't be, especially if the two can each play at such a high level each week. It shows a great deal of maturity and leadership to handle the current situation at Fritz LB as well as Stupar has so far.

The entire defense after the first quarter -- Mauti tied with Stupar for the team lead in tackles (7) and was a huge part of the defensive turnaround in the second half. Mauti's presence on the field was so dominant after halftime, I was having flashbacks to Paul Posluszy--I kid you not. But it wasn't just Mauti and Stupar. Nick Sukay was the most impressive defensive back in the game, with his two interceptions helping to complete the swing in momentum in the second half. I want to mention every defensive player here, but will leave it at one guy that's come from almost nowhere (in fans' eyes, at least): Pete Massaro. Does anyone else think Massaro is the best defensive end Penn State has right now? I sure do. Massaro was blowing up plays in the backfield most of the time he was in the game, while adding a sack-fumble-crush-the-QB combo on the final play of the game.

The offense when it mattered most -- That 96-yard drive in the fourth quarter was probably one of the most important touchdown drives we will see all season--I'm dead serious about that. Penn State's offense was sputtering all day, and why wouldn't we expect it to stall once again pinned deep in its own territory? Well, players like Rob Bolden, Justin Brown, and Mike Zordich were not about to leave any doubt about whether or not this offense can rise in the face of adversity. Not only was Bolden's third-down passing a thing to behold, more very young players stepped up in pressure situations, namely Brown's catch on third down falling backward, and Zordich's old school power running inside the red zone. Sure, the offense shouldn't have been that position to begin with, needing a touchdown drive late to put the game away. But that's what the offense had to do... and did it in a way many of us who experienced it live will remember for a long time.

Wag of the Finger

Stephfon Green -- The last three weeks, I really thought Green was performing better on the field than Royster. But this week, though Green got fewer than half (11) the carries Royster did (26), I felt he didn't have a good day at all. Royster was able to do what Green has done so far this season--make the most of every carry. Green was held to only 1.4 yards per rush against Temple, while Royster averaged a whopping 7.8 yards every time he carried the ball. Honestly, I can't say if it's a play-calling issue with Green (Is he sent up the middle too much?) or what, but it was an extremely disappointing outing for No. 21.

The entire defense in the first quarter -- The tackling wasn't as bad as at Alabama, but the defense was continually out of position on Bernard Pierce's run plays bouncing to the outside. I've said that Pierce is one heck of a running back, but keep in mind that Temple didn't just gain yards with him in the first quarter. Matt Brown had a lightening fast 18-yarder on the Owls' second touchdown drive, right up the middle of the defense, and James Nixon took an end around for 51 yards. This wasn't a noon kickoff, or an 11 a.m. start in the central timezone. Penn State's defense looked like it was still asleep when the ball was kicked off at 3:30 in the afternoon. Will an 8 p.m. start give this defense enough time to show up before the second quarter? I though there was real progress on defense last week against Kent State, but when a much better team came rolling in this week, this unit regressed a good deal to start the game.

Offensive playcalling in the red zone -- Joe Paterno even alluded to it after the game, saying he didn't know (read: it could have been) if playcalling was to blame for some of the red zone struggles by the offense. I thought Penn State played it way too safe when inside the 20, getting away from what usually got the offense there in the first place. It's completely understandable that sometimes plays just don't turn out the way you hope, whether its a broken route or just good defense. But something just didn't feel right about how Penn State's offense performed when in good scoring position. This is exactly the kind of offensive style that doomed Penn State at Iowa in 2008, and will doom it again in Iowa City in 2010, if it's not addressed this week.

Misc. Observations

-Yeah, Lou Eliades' injury... crap, crap, crap! Eliades was replaced by Chima Okoli, a former defensive lineman. Okoli did okay, but nothing to write home about. Sucks to be him, with Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns licking their chops out in Iowa City.

-Mike Farrell was in for Quinn Barham on some plays.

-Andrew Dailey started at HERO in place of Drew Astorino.

-Pete Massaro started in place of Eric Lattimore.

-Michael Mauti started at Fritz OLB, which leads me to believe that he's now the entrenched starter. But I really don't think it matters, as Stupar will still play just as much as Mauti. We'll see how this goes.

-Garry Gilliam grabbed his first career reception, for 21 yards and almost getting a huge first down before the half. Gilliam also started.

-Penn State came out in a traditional I-Formation with Joe Suhey and Evan Royster. It seemed to work well, as Royster broke off that 50-yarder on the opening play.

-The holding call on Devon Smith's long punt return was total crap. It wasn't holding, as Stephen Obeng-Agyapong did nothing beyond a very nice pancake block.

-Penn State needs to work on its screen game. Usually, this is a team that always executes screens well, but hasn't at all this season. Going up against teams like Iowa and Ohio State, you'd think this is an area that will get some work.

-Does Penn State have the best special teams in the Big Ten this season? I think so.

-Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments.


Was it an ugly win? Probably. But Temple is still an underrated team by many, and I could care less if you think I'm nuts. Penn State had to have a game just like this one in order to really be forced to grow up. I said this in the intro, but it really hits the nail on the head: Penn State's entire season may have been settled on that 96-yard drive. It wasn't "The Drive" to stay undefeated at Illinois in 1994. It wasn't the program-saving drive against Northwestern in 2005. It wasn't the Big Ten championship touchdown drive at Ohio State in 2008. No, the drive yesterday against Temple was the opportunity for this team to prove it can deliver in the clutch, when it matters most. And for this team, this year, there's nothing more important than finding leadership and passion in such dramatic fashion.

With Iowa readying their home turf for Penn State, I'm not about to get delusional and proclaim the Nittany Lions will roll through the rest of their schedule to a Big Ten title. But against teams like the Hawkeyes, Buckeyes, or even Wildcats and Spartans, there will come a drive or two when guys like Rob Bolden, Evan Royster, or even the defense will have to ask themselves if they have what it takes. This drive may have given us a hint as to what answer lies within this team.

Update: If you don't believe me that the 96-yard drive was a big deal, maybe Mike Poorman can convince you...

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  1. It wasn't the program-saving drive against Northwestern in 2005. You got that right!
    Good in the MAC or good in the Big Ten? If I put them in the Big Ten who could they beat? Maybe Minn. but nobody else. So you think we are about Minn. level? With all due respect to Temple if we consider ourselves top of the middle or better in the Big Ten we should have done much much better. Let's hope I'm a pessimist and you are a realist. Fingers crossed.

  2. aluf, I have to disagree I think think Temple is better than a lot of people think but when you have a history such as Temple's people aren't going to give you the benefit of the doubt. You put this Temple team in the Big Ten and they would be in the middle of the pack. We'll see how it turns out by season's end but I just think people don't give Temple enough credit.

  3. "But I'm not concerned by the stalls in the red zone or the slow start on defense. Those are technical, tangible facets of the game that can be easily fixed during the week."

    At some point what you see is what you get. Every week I have been hearing we can fix this, we can fix that. I have see too many PSU teams limp through the non-con and then look the same when conference play starts. If you are not worried about these things, then you have much lower expectations than I do. Under no circumstances is it ok to struggle against Temple. I'm not buying the "Temple is a legit team" BS, it is simply a cop out. A good PSU team is always materially better than any MAC team, always.

    The reality is that this team isn't very good. The biggest win of the year will be against MSU, but we'll already have 4 or maybe 5 losses by then. Reality check boys.

  4. @Don - I won't disagree that this team isn't "very" good... but it is still a "good" team. It seems to me that I'm not so much the one who needs a reality check, rather the fans who are bashing this team are the ones in need of that visit into reality. This is a ridiculously young football team, compared to other teams that have done well in recent seasons. Last year, Daryll Clark was able to mask many of the problems on the team, even though it still lost two games in bad fashion.

    Yes, at some point, what you see is what you get. But only in very rare occasions does a team not improve between week four and week 12. For fans to overlook how the defense played after the first quarter, or how sharp Rob Bolden was under the literal pressure by the Temple D, and the emotional pressure of a critical drive, is just shortsighted.

    So, were you one of the fans that gave up in 2005 after the Northwestern game? Or calling for Morelli? There hasn't been a game yet this season that has showed anything definitive about this team.

  5. No, I've never give up on this team. I've seen this team win national championships, so my frame of reference isn't what PSU has done in the past 10 years. I've been sitting in the family season tickets since the early 80's, so I've seen a lot of different PSU team and this is not a good one. Will I still cheer my heart out and feel crushed with each loss? Absolutely, been doing that for a really long time. My comment was specifically targeted as a reaction to the comment of "not concerned...easily fixed...". My contention is that being realistic...we need to be concerned because this team's problems are not "easily fixed".