October 14, 2010

Mid-Season Review 2010: That Which Doesn't Kill You...

Penn State hasn't exactly impressed through the first half of its 2010 schedule. While many fans and pundits were predicting losses to both Iowa and Alabama, few--if any--foresaw the injury-riddled defense, disaster of an offensive line, and the loss to Illinois on Homecoming.

Mike Zordich celebrates a tough run
My personal favorite photo from the first six games,
and probably the most positive emotional moment of the season. (Photo: Mike/LBU)

It hasn't been much fun for the team and its fans. The student section hasn't filled up to capacity once this season, compounding the complete lack of enthusiasm from the crowd as a whole. Even the team, including the lack of aggressive coaching, has been hammered by some for not showing much emotion on gamedays.

But what should we really have expected? As mentioned, we all knew Iowa and Alabama would be losses. But I can even admit I never expected both to be so frustratingly bad losses. And that Illinois debacle? Well, that was the most shocking of everything we've witnessed this half-season.

Then there are the injuries.
Brandon Beachum takes a redshirt?

I can deal with that. He'll probably return in 2011 better than before the ACL tear.

Curtis Drake breaks his leg?

Man, he could have been fun to watch this season. But we've got some great wideouts, and some very good backups. It'll work out until he can come back.

Lou Eliades tears his ACL?

Crap! Did you just say our new right tackle played defensive line last season? This offensive line was bad enough. Now I'm getting pissed off.

Nick Sukay tears his pectoral, while half the defense is knocked out indefinitely?

[slams head against a bleacher] F*&!%$@(*&!@#$%^&!!!
Before the season, I like many of you was under the firm impression that 2010 wouldn't be a great year. Everything was falling into place for a Big Ten Title run--if not much more--in 2011. But now that much of what we had been expecting is actually coming to fruition, the Nittany Nation is digging bomb shelters in preparation for the end of the Penn State football world as we know it.

Inside 3-3

From 2005 thru 2009, Penn State did not allow opponents to rush for more than 94 yards per game in any season--the five-year average was 91.4 rush ypg. This season, however, the Nittany Lions have been run roughshod over for 145.5 rush yards per game, good for a rather mediocre 51st nationally through last Saturday's games.

Maybe even worse, deeper into the rush yards stats, is Penn State's average allowed yards per rush so far, 4.06. In context, Penn State hasn't allowed more than three yards per rush since 2004, and not more than four yards per rush since 2003.

Chris Colasanti tackles Mikel Leshoure
The run defense isn't living up to its reputation.
(Photo: Mike/LBU)

Compounding those ground game averages is the fact that Penn State has virtually no effective pass rush this season, with a pathetic eight total sacks through six games. In the same time period we're using for comparison, Penn State's defense recorded season sack totals of 37, 33, 46, 40, and 41, respectively from 2009 back thru 2005. In 2010, the Nittany Lions' D is on track to finish the season with 17! Only 16 if the Lions don't make a bowl game.

But defense has hardly been Penn State's only problem. The offense could be given a much larger portion of the blame for such a poor statistical (and on-field) performance in the 2010 campaign. Averaging only 335 yards per game--88th in the nation--Penn State hasn't been this inept on offense since 2004. You might remember that season by this one score: 6-4.

With a true freshman at the helm, the idea this season was to take pressure off Rob Bolden by leaning hard on one of the best stables of running backs in the conference, if not the nation. Sure, the offensive line wasn't very good, but guys like Evan Royster and Stephfon Green, plus promising youth like Silas Redd could definitely make big plays on their own talent.

That fell apart quickly, as Penn State enters its mid-season bye week with a 126-yards-per-game rushing average, which believe it or not, is actually much worse than it looks on paper.

The Nittany Lions' running backs have been consistently hit before they even reach the line of scrimmage, sometimes barely finishing the hand-off exchange before being taken down or forced to make a cut too early. The offensive line has been exponentially worse than any of us could have predicted. And that's saying something, considering we didn't have high hopes for that unit to begin with.

It all leads to one place: The Red Zone. That No Man's Land inside the opponents' 20 yard line has been nothing short of terrifying for Penn State fans, who have quickly grown to expect absolutely nothing more than a field goal from the Nittany Lions' offense once it travels inside the Bermuda Triangle for touchdowns. Even coming away from red zone trips with any kind of points has been a challenge for Penn State, highlighted by the Alabama and Iowa games, when the offense moved efficiently and methodically down the field, only to completely implode inside the 20.

This season is devolving into something we haven't seen in seven years: A Penn State team that can't produce on offense, while not stopping teams on defense.

Now, I highly, extremely doubt that this 2010 campaign will finish with 2003's record-setting nine losses. But the aura about this team is eerily similar, especially when looking at the rush defense, rush offense, and offensive turnovers. That 2003 squad was a very young, immature football team, but one that lacked enough talent to pull out two or three winnable games. I see much of that in this year's team. It's young, immature, but has the advantage of really great talent on both sides of the ball. It's just a matter of putting it all together on Saturdays.

That's probably why I'm not freaking out about this year's team as I was in my North Halls dorm room seven years ago. When Penn State was 2-4 at this same junction in that season, there was a feeling of emptiness. The bad players starting at key positions each week were all we had. Behind them, there was no one clearly better. But this year, I'd have to believe that many of the sane fans out there know Penn State does have great talented players three-deep on its depth chart. The problem is finding out which ones fit best, and how fast they can learn on the fly.

The Takeaway

The disappointment of the Illinois game is subsiding. It's not gone, but it's going. This bye week is probably the most necessary bye in the history of football. I don't think Penn State would have won otherwise, but it's looking more and more like Illinois beat up on a really worn out Penn State football team.

I'll take this opportunity to retract my statement from the game reactions posted Monday, in which I said that I didn't' like this team. I don't mind this team. I just don't like this season. It's not fun, and it doesn't look fun for anyone else involved.

It's entirely too early to predict with any kind of certainty if Penn State will actually earn bowl eligibility this season. Losing eight games is just as likely at this point as winning eight. With time to rest and regroup, I'm optimistic, as should be everyone else. But remember, being optimistic doesn't mean you can't be pragmatic. A .500 record is something we should all get ready for, but cheering and hoping for more isn't wrong, either.

Fans say they don't like the "direction" the program is headed. Really? Fifty-one wins the last five seasons, two Big Ten titles, wins over the SEC, and a slew of great recruiting classes; those are all things you don't like?

Programs have down seasons. This is one of them. You know what other programs have had seasons this bad in the last five seasons? Nebraska, Oklahoma, Georgia, USC, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Miami(Fla.), Virginia Tech... shall I keep going?

Teams lose. Sometimes teams lose more games in some seasons than in others. That's football... that's college football.

It might suck so far this year, but Penn State will be fine, and the sky isn't going anywhere.

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  1. Illinois was my first game in person-although I watch every game. It was an utter disaster. Frankly if the Nits don't beat Minnesota they may not win another game this year.

    The most disturbing thing was the absolute lack of enthusiasm exhibited by the players. I was not the only one in my area of the stands (Section NJ lower level) who noticed this.

    IMO it is time to change the entire offfensive coaching staff-but I do not see that happening until there is a change at the top-which porbably won't take place until after next season.

  2. Illinois was my first game in person

    Ohhhhhh, so it's your fault we lost that game. Thanks barrister.

  3. 1st game in person this year.