In the last of the brutal 2010 road games (with all due respect and apology to the RalJohn Hoosiers), Penn State went in to Columbus and began playing like they could not only contend, but like they fully intended and expected to walk out with a W. The momentum that began with a 47-second end-of-half drive against Northwestern the week before (and which continued in that game's second half to the tune of four more consecutive touchdown drives) carried over to this week vs the hated Buckeyes. The Scranton Slinger walked into the Horsehoe to face the nation's # 3-ranked scoring defense and continued with the inspired and audacious play that has won so many Lion hearts these past few weeks.
And then the second half happened.
The final score was 38-14, an obliteration of the 17-point Vegas spread more than a few college football fans were skeptical of, and reasonable* Penn State fans were left to ponder the might-have beens, will-we-next-years the can-we-evers. Let's dive in and take a closer look at the Penn State offense after the jump.
In a trend started the previous week vs. Northwestern, Penn State's entire team played with a communal sense of rhythm. On offense, the coaches kept the playcalling and RB substitution balanced, McGloin made good decisions in finding open receivers for first downs, and the offensive line paved the right holes for the running game to earn positive yards and, most importantly, burn clock time. The importance of this cannot be overstated. This whole team is young and inexperienced, but with a defense hurting from a lack of Dline depth and sporting the least-cohesive linebacker rotation since Puz was a freshman, mounting long drives and dominating time of possession against a physical and athletic Ohio State running game would be critical. In the first half, this was successful (18:34 to 11:26). In the second half, not so much (10:42 to 19:18 )
The Penn State O started off with a three and out. Not so swaggerific. But they came out firing, and balanced. After a first-down incompletion, Evan Royster got 7 yards on 2nd down and only 2 of the 3 needed on 3rd down, before punting. Drive One Grade: F+ (3 and out = F; +, for setting the table for some nice first half eatin).
The real fun started on Drive Two, a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown scoring drive that ate 4:28 off the clock. McGloin was sensational. His reads were sharp, as were his passes. He found Brackett, Zug and Royster to move the chains to the OSU 46 and then it was the Justin Brown show. Last week we went spelunking in the speculation cave and wondered aloud how open we might expect the PSU receivers to get against Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence and reminded our readers that Justin Brown is a 'big guy and pretty physical.' On this drive, he got open against Chekwa for 11 yards, against Torrence for 12 and then found himself alone with McGloin's 23-yard pass amidst a heavy blitz, for Penn State's first ever touchdown pass in Columbus in the Joe Paterno era. Drive Two Grade: A (for decent balance, solid pass-protection, a composed QB, and a touchdown).
You know how JoePa always says 'you take what the defense gives you?' And you know how that always rubbed you the wrong way, cuz, well, why don't we just take what we want? On Drive Three Penn State took what they wanted. (The Penn State D got the ball back after a TP 1st down scamper and an OSU false start penalty helped force a punt). Showcasing more balance and good decision-making by both coaches and quarterback, PSU made four first downs (2 rushing, 2 passing) across an 11-play, 82-yard drive that ate 6:08 off the clock, and had this viewer feeling pretty good about our chances. McGloin capped the drive with a tight and timely touchdown pass to Moye on a slant into good coverage on a play that turned The Shoe into The Shush (well, except for the boos). This drive reminded me of the second half against Northwestern, but was ten times more satisfying because of the caliber of players it came against. Drive Three Grade: A+ (for Swagger, Balance, a TD, an increased lead, and inspiring the home crowd to boo their own team in a still-winnable game).
Drive Four was a little more of the same, but perhaps a smidge too much swagger. (In more everything's-going-right synergy, the PSU D tightened and forced a punt after Dan Herron ran over Chris Colasanti for two first downs). They got the ball back on the 20 after a touchback punt, and proceeded to go back to work like nothing was amiss. When Cam Heyward and Jermale Hines stuffed Royster for a 1-yard gain, McGloin found Derek Moye open for a 14-yard first down. When Dexter Larimore and John Simon stuffed Silas Redd for no gain and McGloin went incomplete to Mike Zordich, Galen Hall dialed up a perfectly-timed screen play that Stephfon Green turned into a 26-yard first down. They went right back to Green on a rush behind Wiz and Okoli for 8 yards on the next play, and after Royster was held to 1 yard on 3rd down, JoePa gave McGloin the go-ahead to sneak for Penn State's second fourth-down conversion of the day. With the clock at 2:55, they passed incomplete to Zug on first down and went back to the run on 2nd, another Heyward stuff of Royster for 1 yard. On 3rd and 9, tho, Royster broke free behind Stefen Wizniewski and Chima Okoli again and got 8 of the 9 needed yards, putting JoePa into another 4th down pickle. In what could accurately be described as a key momentum-turning play, JoePa: a. Went for it and b. Called a sweep against one of the most athletic defenses in the country. Silas Redd is a very, very fine athlete, and even got a nice stiff arm on Hines, but in the end he was out-physical'd and dragged to the ground by Hines, short of the first down, and Penn State got no points.
I can see how the coaches got there. Penn State was moving the chains consistently, even considering their D was stuffing them on a fair share of runs. A first down there, and a punch in for another touchdown puts PSU up by three scores and gives the good guys crazy momentum heading into the second half against a top ten team on the road. Thing is, that's a top-ten defense out there too, and fourth downs are risky and hard, and it was a long 1 yard. And, perhaps most importantly, the FG gives you 3 points and a two-touchdown lead as it is. Would it have sent a message of pucker to the lads who had been working so hard? Eh, perhaps, but Joe's got an old history of playing safe and smart and could still rationalize it to them with some gentle reminders: You're playing well. We're on the road. There's a lot of football to be played. We may need the points. Keep playing hard. Alas, Joe made the call and we had what we had. In the end, events of the second half rendered it largely moo, but momentum's a strange thing. Drive Four Grade: C- (moved the chains, converted a fourth down, went 60 yards on 13 plays and ate 5:44 of clock; got stuffed on 4th down, scored no points after being in FG range).
The Penn State defense continued its inspired play and forced a three and out, and gave the ball back to McGloin on the PSU 24 with :51 seconds left. But this wasn't the Northwestern game, and they weren't down 21-0, so Joe wisely holstered his Scranton Sidearm and headed into halftime up 14-3. Drive Five Grade: Incomplete.
Of Momentum, and Its Shiftiness
And that's where things got ugly: halftime. In all fairness, it most likely began in the OSU locker room, where Coach Jim Tressel rallied his talented troops with a spirited halftime talk (h/t Along the Olentangy for the link; PSA.for any Penn Staters interested in reading an Ohio State blog more than two weeks out of the year: this may be one to keep an eye on). I'm with Devon Torrence (first time ever, I promise) and wish somebody would've recorded it:
You could just see it in his eyes, and he was fired up. I've never seen it in the four years I've been here. I didn't know it was there. . . . I've seen him a little bit angry, but there was just something different about him that just caught the whole team.
Anybody wanna guess what choice words he had for his defense about McGloin? Whatever they were, they worked. Well, along with the adjustments he and Jim Heacock made. After watching McGloin pick apart the middle of the field with great timing and great reads, they began disguising their zone coverage as man and coached the DBs to watch McGloin's eyes, betting he wouldn't stay as composed in disguising his own intents. He didn't, and it worked. It took a drive to manifest, but after the final downs of Drive Six, this game was effectively over.
Now, if Joe was worried what kind of pucker message kicking a FG to wrap up a long drive in the first half might send, he didn't show it on the first drive of the second. They rushed Royster for 5 yards, then McGloin found Justin Brown again for another 12-yard first down, then Green got a first on a well-disguised draw play for 10 yards. Then they unleashed the dragon and sent Devon Smith streaking down the sideline, where McGloin hit him in the hands in stride for a, wait for it.......incompletion. That's right, what looked like a 25+ yard gain turned into 2nd and 10 and you could just feel the wind drop out of McGloin's sails. He got 6 yards on a completion on 3rd down, but 10 was needed, and Penn State had to punt to a very hungry Ohio State offense (who proceeded to march 96 yards for a touchdown in a dramatic announcement that things were indeed different). Drive Six Grade: D+ (two nice first downs, a general conveyance that they intended to continue to compete; a massive dropped pass and a punt).
Momentum's a very powerful thing in a sport played by 18-23 year-olds, and it has some nasty side effects. For Penn State, playing in Columbus, it's Pucker. The coaches lose faith, the whole team clams up, gaining a single first down seems nigh impossible and any swagger or success, even those experienced a short 25 minutes before, seem like distant memories. The Penn State defense, earlier a strong ally to the offense, fell to it too. Well, to it and to OSU's Tressel-inspired offensive line and to Dan Herron, who took advantage of a Mauti-less linebacking corps and bullied our tired and shallow lads for 190 yards on 21 carries on the day. With the defense now leaking like a sieve, with the zero- point-4th-down stuff, with the Devon Smith dropped pass, and with the Buckeyes O playing like they're fully capable of, all hell broke loose in Drives 7 through 10:
Drive 7: One first down before the first McSix. Grade: Z-
Drive 8: Three and out, punt. Grade: F
Drive 9: Three and out, punt. Grade: F
Drive 10: An incompletion, a two-yard rush, the second McSix: Grade: Z-
And just for good measure:
Drive 11: Robert Bolden came in to loosen up his arm with three incompletions and a punt. To be clear, Anthony Fera provided the punt; given the two pick-sixes on the ledger above, there will be no arm punting joke here. Grade: F
Eh, a few. Most of them obvious.
1. Ohio State remains good. Their offensive line could be real fun to watch, if you're into that (I am) and if you're not watching them maul your team's defense (I was). And their defense remains aggressive and well-coached. With all due respect to Coach Green, they are who we thought they were. Congrats to the Buckeyes on another fine win.
2. We're not good enough to win the tough games yet. Duh, right? We're young and not deep enough on the Dline and we've got some very un-LBU issues to figure out on that unit before next year, but mostly, the whole team (coaches included, but with an asterisk) hasn't yet learned how to play well enough for 60 minutes to beat a good team on the road.
3. We showed some real fight. Sure it's easy to go all macho man football man and declare bromides like 'there are no moral victories,' but with a little semantics on your side, you can crush that argument and effectively assert that we're getting better. Nobody who watched the first half, including the very un-cheery 100,000 Buckeye fans in the Shoe, would say we failed to compete.
4. Some of our receivers are pretty good. I'm not gonna pile on Dayvon, cuz I'm sure he feels bad enough, but Justin Brown and Derek Moye both come back next year. That's got to be exciting to whomever wins the QB battles.
5. The Oline remains a mystery headed into next year. They had some pretty good pass protection, especially in the first half when McGloin went, what, 13-16 for 141 and 2TDs? OSU's athletes are really good against the run, but we still managed 113 yards, albeit on a 3.5 ypc average. That has got to improve, and maybe it would have had we kept up a successful aerial attack and not given their DBs 14 points. We lose Wiz, who has really stepped up here these last few weeks, and Klopacz (whose replacement should probably be an upgrade), but Barham, Troutman and Okoli all come back. Troutman's certainly possible to end up in the doghouse again, but watching film on him playing to his potential (like vs. Mich, NW these past few weeks) can't get much more fun. And then there's the endless debate about the Oline coaches and can they coach up the young recruits, some of whom will have been on campus for 3 years next year.
6. Quarterback remains a position of strength. That sounds laughable after two pick sixes, right? Well, if you think the Neck-bearded One didn't get the Buckeyes' attention in the first half, we weren't watching the same game. It's ridiculously tough to keep a top-ten defense that off-balance for too long (/not an excuse for debilitating pick sixes). Bolden, for better or worse, is probably a little less delusional about his own abilities and brings heaps of talent and potential to the imminent off-season battle.
7. These next two games are definitely winnable. Let's get our tailgate on at Danny's House next week, and then get ready to welcome Sparty and D'antonio to Happy Valley over Thanksgiving weekend. We're far enough removed from the heart attack to be guilt-free in reminding everyone anew what a douche Sparty's coach is, right? Somebody get the Slow States guys on the phone to answer this one for us. We may have only been 32 minutes away from pulling for Michigan to keep our four-way tie hopes alive, but now that Brutus killed that one not so softly, let's at least trash Sparty's dream season, right? And apologies to my Michigan buddy, Mike F, who's given me totally classy Big Ten Football talks these past few weeks since I busted his balls after the big game in Happy Valley a few weeks ago, because now I'm in the position of rooting for Wiscy and Iowa to break Brutus' stranglehold on the shared Big Ten titles.
*Despite getting mauled 35-0 in the second half, PSU's first-half dominance was so plain to see that it seems to have kept some of the Penn State doomsayers from spitting too much anti-PSU vitriol.