The reaction following Penn State's 33-13 loss to Illinois yesterday is coming in anywhere from brutal to alarmist and it's hard to argue against much of it at all. To put in perspective just how shockingly terrible the defeat was, consider the last time Penn State lost a noon kick at home...can you even remember it? Probably not, and that's because noon games are reserved for sacrificial lambs.
Give Illinois credit. It looks to be a better football team than many people expected following the blowout of Penn State and last week's narrow loss to Ohio State, but this wasn't the Ron Zook team of Juice Williams, Rashard Mendenhall and Rejus Benn that was running all over Penn State yesterday, it was Nathan Scheelhaase and Mikel Leshoure. It's a team the Penn State program we've grown used to over the last five years or so should have been able to handle.
Unlike the above columns by Neil Rudel and especially David Jones, though, it's hard to look at this team and feel the need to abandon all hope. Freshman quarterback Robert Bolden has looked mature beyond his years, and never has that been more apparent than in juxtaposition with sophomore Kevin Newsome, who appeared late in the fourth quarter on Saturday and had the pocket presence of a teenage girl's cellphone.
The wide receivers, when given time to get open, have made most of Penn State's big plays, including an 80-yard touchdown from Bolden to Derek Moye against Illinois. Sure, they've dropped some balls, but figurtively, who hasn't on this team?
The defense, riddled by injuries Saturday, was ranked fairly high in the nation heading into Saturday's game, and had previously given plenty of hope from shutting out Kent State to holding pretty good offenses in Alabama and Iowa to 24 points each. The unit still has a long way to go, but with close to a full allotment of starters, it's one a team could win with.
Even the running backs, who looked pretty bad through the first three games, seem to have improved. Evan Royster is tripping over himself a lot less, and instead of zero and one yard gains, they're falling forward and getting 2-3 now. How is that much of an improvement you ask?
Considering the ghastly awfulness that is the offensive line in front of them.
A lot of Jones' commentary seems a little over the top, but he's dead on about at least one thing.
Still, it's as if no one in the crazy quilt that is the PSU offensive braintrust can yet accept that their offensive line can blow nobody off the ball – not even Illinois.
Play calling is one of the more overblown shortcomings of a coaching staff in this video game, "I can make that play on Madden!" era. That said, it really appears as if Penn State is running as a formality of this point. Power formations and three-yards-and-a-cloud-of dust runs have been staples of Joe Paterno football teams. Regardless of how successful they are, those types of plays will never be popular with fans, but right now, the coaches are calling them with seemingly no variance in regularity from when they worked (2008) and when they aren't at all (2010) in an absurdest, "Waiting For Godot"-like manner. That's not going to get it done.
Even the pass blocking, which many defended through four games by pointing to it's low sack allowed total, has gone down hill. Penn State has now yielded two sacks each against Iowa and Illinois in addition to allowing Bolden to get punished constantly when he stays in the pocket.
You could call me an optimist in that I don't think the rest of this team is far off from being pretty good. There weren't a whole lot of positives yesterday, from dropped passes, routes run short of the sticks, to balls thrown at receivers' feet, to flat footed linebackers, to a slow pass rush, but as has been talked about at length, this is a young team and days like Saturday happen.
However, it's hard for me to have much hope, not only in the short term, but two and three years down the road, when we're seeing offensive line play like this. There has been a lot of talk about Penn State being a championship level team in 2011 with lots of returning experience on defense and at the offensive skill positions. I remain unconvinced that the ceiling for all that talent is anything more than the Morellian years behind this offensive line. They're just not getting it done and have shown little indication that they will, and that's the scariest part of Penn State's first half.