The Morning After

[Reportedly, Mike has wandered off to a remote cabin to contemplate life and grow an Al Gore beard.  For today, it's up to Kevin and myself to sift through the rubble.]

The Internets are always a funny place the day after a Penn State loss.  It's not even 11 a.m., and I've read all sort of discussions about how awful Penn State's recruiting is, why we'll never win another national championship, how unbelievably screwed the team will be in 2009, and so on.  It would also seem that every one of our coaches is a certified Window Licker, and we're probably not going to win more than seven games next year.

These feelings should have subsided by approximately 10 p.m. last night.  This being The Internets, the sentiments will probably last until late August.

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It's a meltdown!

Penn State didn't have to face any sophisticated pass offenses or elite quarterbacks this season -- until the Rose Bowl.  Think about it, who was the best passing quarterback Penn State faced?  Lyle Moevao?  Ricky Stanzi?  All year long, the Penn State defense had the luxury of sitting back and waiting for a game-changing sack or poorly thrown ball for an interception.  Against USC, that philosophy results in a lopsided 7-on-7 drill.

Like it or not, the Nittany Lion defense is built on solid assignment football in the secondary, complimented by a disruptive pass rush from the front four.  It's not rocket science -- when Penn State runs up against an offensive line that can give its quarterback time to throw, we tend to get toasted.  We've seen this against Michigan and Ohio State countless times over the years.  This passive defensive scheme becomes especially lethal when the middle of the Nittany Lion defense is vulnerable, and results in giving up 413 yards and four touchdowns through the air.  The Bend But Don't Suck defense is often fine from a philosophical standpoint, but it doesn't work without a constant pass rush or safeties that can close quickly when the ball is in the air.  USC only ran the ball for 61 yards (1.7 ypc! or not!), but they figured out the PSU defense in the second quarter.  They found the soft spots and repeatedly exploited them.

The turning point was Stephfon Green's fumble after a 30-yard completion on Penn State's final first half drive.  With his team down 24-7 and desperately trying to answer USC's second quarter offensive explosion, Green was stripped of the ball after crossing midfield.  Five plays and a 15-yard personal foul penalty later, the game was effectively ended when C.J. Gable caught a 20-yard touchdown pass.  If the game is 24-10 or 24-14 at halftime, there's still much to play for.  At 31-7, it was basically over.

And while we're on the issue of penalties, seriously, WTF?  The first half penalties were mindblowing and occurred at the most unfortunate times, wiping out USC turnovers or giving the Trojan offense free 15-yard chunks of yardage that they really didn't need to be given.  We all knew Penn State would have to catch a few breaks last night, whether it was through turnovers or penalties.  As it turned out, Penn State lost both the turnover and penalty battles.

It's been a great season by any semi-reasonable measure.  Nobody will effectively argue that the Big Ten was a great (or good) conference this season.  Ohio State was solid but not close to its usual dominance.  Michigan and Wisconsin were hopelessly down.  Michigan State and Minnesota won a bunch of games, but didn't really scare anybody.  Illinois took about six steps backwards.  Iowa was held back by a number of close, early losses.  Penn State seized the opportunity and won the conference -- but that's what championship teams do, right?

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Kevin HD:  What makes this hurt a little more than usual are the high stakes; there was so much to gain.  After one of the best regular seasons Penn State had ever played, they were slighted from the BCS Championship Game because of strength of schedule, and rewarded with a matchup against what was probably the "best" team in the nation.  Not the "best" as in "deserving of a top two ranking," because their body of work isn't any better (and is probably worse) than the teams playing in Miami, but it's hard to argue against USC's talent.
 
That's not just tall talk after a loss.  Sagarin almost agrees with me, putting USC just .4 points behind Florida in his power rankings (titled "PREDICTOR") prior to their win last night.  During the game, the announcers commented on the number of first and second rounders on the team and were probably actually speaking a bit of truth.
 
To top it off, Sanchez had, quite literally, the best game of his life.  His receivers were getting open all afternoon and he was getting them the ball an insane 80% of the time.  Four TDs and zero picks put his QB rating at 216.83, which I didn't even know was possible.  Say what you will about the Penn State secondary, even if they were in better position there was probably little they were going to be able to do about it.
 
What I'm getting at is this: there is nothing to be upset about here besides the fact that Penn State did not win the Rose Bowl. 
 
Clark looked excellent considering the circumstances and almost put Penn State in a position to make it a game in the 4th quarter.  Losing Royster in the first half and Green in the second were both devastating blows, but the team pushed on anyway to the tune of 410 total yards.  The turnovers hurt and the penalties were brutal but those things happen -- a lot more randomly than people realize.
 
The team looked good, they just weren't able to get themselves in a situation where they could catch a break.
 
It was a helluva fun season to watch and definitely a promising one.  It's better to have loved and lost, and anyone who sat through the Dark Years knows it.  Next season started today and I like our chances.

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