September 19, 2010

Review: Penn State 24, Kent State 0

Penn State notched its 41st shutout in the Joe Paterno era, blanking Kent State 24-0 on a sun-splashed Saturday in Happy Valley.

Devon Smith into the end zone

Pretty good lede, huh? I've done better, but it wasn't bad. And how about that photo? Nifty. I guess that's what a degree in journalism gets you.

Anyway, the Nittany Lions were incredibly impressive for the first 15 minutes of play this week, as the defense forced its first turnover of the season, while the offense wasted no time taking advantage of Kent State's mistakes, leading to a 14-0 first period deficit for the visitors.

Although many of the problems Penn State dealt with in the first two contests have been seemingly fixed (or, at least are making visible progress), there are a few smoldering embers of doubt about this team.

Here's the breakdown of Penn State's 500th win since Joe Paterno joined the staff in 1950.

(Note the new titles for these sections. They fit so perfectly. I can't believe I didn't think to use them sooner.)

Tip of the Hat

Devon Smith -- Smith ended his career day as Penn State's second-leading receiver, grabbing three balls for 61 yards and a touchdown. He also ran back a punt for 16 yards, Penn State's longest punt return of the season. For good measure, Smith even added a seven yard run in the red zone. His only negative play was a bobbled reverse pitch that resulted in 10 yards lost. I can't remember a Nittany Lion football player with the kind of straight-line speed that Smith brings to the offense.

Derrick Thomas -- After getting caught out of position on Youngstown State's 80-yard touchdown play, Thomas has rebounded beautifully. He only finished with two tackles, but Thomas played extraordinary in man-to-man coverage in Penn State's nickel package. The redshirt freshman had two of the Lions' three pass breakups, and one of the team's only two interceptions for the season. With the emergence of Thomas, Penn State could end the season with three starting-worthy cornerbacks.

D'Anton Lynn -- Speaking of corners, I'm giving Lynn the nod here for no other real reason than he was the first defender this entire season to step up and make a big play. His first quarter interception led to a Penn State touchdown, and set the defense on track for a great day overall. Lynn doesn't get the ball thrown much in his direction, so it's very comforting to know this is what will happen if teams try to attack his side of the field.

Cornerbacks -- Stephon Morris, Lynn and Thomas are becoming the best group of three cornerbacks in the conference. I'm going to hold any proclamation that they've reached that level, at least until the actual Big Ten season starts. But Penn State's outside defenders forced turnovers, disrupted the Kent State passing game, and make all the tackles they should have.

Wide Receivers, except Zug -- Derek Moye, Brett Brackett, Justin Brown, and the speedster Smith have been doing an outstanding job the last three weeks, but I was particularly impressed this past week. Moye is bucking for first-team all-Big Ten honors this year, while Brackett is proving why he was elected captain. Throw in Smith's career day, and I came away impressed.

Wag of the Finger

Evan Royster -- I actually feel bad putting Royster here. The offensive line still has trouble consistently blowing people off the ball on run plays. And that fumble wasn't really Royster's fault, as Rob Bolden completely messed up the hand-off. I'm rooting for Royster. But this season is already three games old, and the one player that Penn State was counting on to lead has been nearly M.I.A.

Rob Bolden -- My, after spending so much time in the praise column, this week Bolden gets a wag of the finger. Bolden finally looked more like a freshman, throwing two interceptions--the first one being entirely his fault--and having some trouble with his reads in the final three quarters. I'm also going to peg the Royster fumble on Bolden, as I mentioned above.

Graham Zug -- If Zug continues at this pace, he will finish his senior season with 52 receiving yards. Similar to Royster, it may not be entirely Zug's fault, as you can only do as much as the offense allows. Zug hasn't been thrown to much, but his most noticeable play this season is probably the worst single play on the entire team--dropping a pass that hit his hands, with not a single Alabama defender within 10 yards, and a clear route to the end zone. Again, like Royster, I want Zug to get out of this funk. I like these seniors, but there comes a point at which we as fans start to lose patience.

Safeties -- Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino are still leaving too much to be desired. I counted at least two missed tackles in the first quarter by Sukay alone, while Astorino is one of the quietest players on the defense. Penn State has leaned on some truly fantastic safety play the last six seasons, but this current tandem is having trouble living up to the standard. I would normally give them some slack, but both Sukay and Astorino started all 13 games last season. They are both seasoned veterans who need to step up and help tow the line on a young defense.

Punt Returners -- The 7.8-per return average wasn't great, but the two big returns by Brown and Smith seemed like the most exciting thing we've seen in years. There was Smith's 16-yarder I already mentioned, but Brown had two very good returns, including a 15-yard scamper mostly of his own doing. It's about time there was something, anything from this unit.

Misc. Observations

-Penn State is bringing out new offensive looks each week. This week, it was more Devon Smith in the backfield, and a re-introduction of a trips-bunch formation with the fullback back and inside the tight end, and a flanker tight. Penn State used that formation often in 2006 when Tony Hunt was running the ball. We'll see how it's used this year, or if it's continued to be used at all.

-Johnnie Troutman has locked up the left guard position, displacing DeOn'tae Pannell. Pannell continued to run with the second team line when it was called in late in the game. Troutman and Pannell were still rotating occasionally, but not often enough to think Pannell would reclaim the job.

-Quinn Barham totally missed a blocking assignment on 3rd and 1, when Kent State brought the safety down into the box. Barham didn't pick him up--rather, blocking the end, who was already being blocked by the guard--allowing the safety to swing in and tackle Stephfon Green short of the first down. Those kinds of mistakes are killer on big downs like that one.

-Garry Gilliam did have a great block on Royster's touchdown run, completely taking the Kent defender out of the play on a nice cut block.

-Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley started at defensive end, replacing Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore. Joe Paterno said after the game that Crawford and Latimore were banged up, so don't read too deeply into this.

-Nate Stupar had an up-and-down day in pass coverage. He almost grabbed what could have been a pick-6, but ended up as a nice pass breakup. But then on 3rd and 15, he was caught way too shallow (more on this play in a sec), leaving the mid level receiver open for the conversion.

-On that 3rd and 15 conversion by Kent State, Stupar was too shallow, but Sukay wasn't much help either on the middle receiver. The play was a roll-out flood to the left side of the defense. Morris was on the deep receiver, while the flat receiver was covered already, too. Stupar and Sukay both went to double-cover the deep and flat receviers, but someone should have been closer to the middle receiver. It was a big conversion for Kent State. Imagine if that was Iowa.

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


Had Bolden not regressed a bit this week (not enough to start worrying, though), Penn State probably could have beaten Kent State by 40 points. Turnovers killed the Penn State offense, especially when mixed with continued inconsistency by the offensive line. If the offense can fix either or both of those areas, this team could win 10 games. If they're not fixed, it will come back to bite the Nittany Lions during the Big Ten season, probably meaning seven or eight wins could be the regular season plateau. Does that mean I'm predicting only that many wins for this team? No. I'm saying that if the turnovers aren't cut down, and the offensive line doesn't start knocking some people off the ball, this team will have to fight for every single win the rest of this season.

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