September Review: Not Quite Stumbling Out of the Gate

The ticket system known as STEP hasn't exactly done any favors for Beaver Stadium attendance this season. Here, a few dedicated fans brave the blistering heat during Penn State's victory over Indiana State. Sept. 3, 2011. (MIke Pettigano/BSD)

Is it really the end of September? Indeed it is, yet nothing (NOTHING) about Penn State football seems resolved. The running game continues to struggle (relatively) behind a so-so offensive line. The quarterbacks are still at the mercy of Joe Paterno's sudden influx of charity toward fairness. The defense just lost arguably its best player for this season and possibly even next season, and another for at least a week or two. Meanwhile, the clusterf@ck that is Penn State's offensive play calling system remains alive and well, even though JoePa was able to walk the sidelines for the first half against EMU.

But it wasn't all that bad. The defense has emerged and grown into its talent. The offense, for all its faults, continues to do enough to win the games Penn State should win. But the most under-appreciated factor looking back at Penn State football this September has to be the underestimated quality of the Nittany Lions' non-conference opponents.

Think of this post today in a few different ways.

  1. First-Third of the Season Review, Final Two-Thirds of the Season Preview
  2. Non-Conference Review; Conference Preview
  3. September Review, October & November Preview

This season actually works out perfectly for the "September" theme, since each month of the season hosts exactly four of Penn State's 12 regular season contests--October has five Saturdays, but one bye week in there all eight conference games come in the second two months of the season.

Top Storylines for September

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1. The OMGQUARTERBACKS (and the drooling media) -- It's been one week up, one week down. One week McGloin; One week Bolden. And it's been nothing but excruciating for the fans and the offense. The common thought among the base is that while one might be better or worse than the other (we're not going to touch that right now), the one thing that is fixable right now isn't being addressed--in fact, it's being avoided like The Plague by JoePa and the staff. Just pick one, dammit! If there is one simple idea that everyone could agree on during this entire September of offensive (pun totally intended) football, it's that playing two quarterbacks has not worked, and likely has harmed the development of both the individual passers as well as the offense's cohesion as a unit.

The media hasn't been quiet during this debate, not by a long shot, sometimes stoking the flames with a little splash of kerosene now and then. Of course, local "untrained eyes" have been making it a bit of their own personal crusade to see one name emerge at the top; though, it's kind of funny how I couldn't find any such sweeping declarations of certainty following either of the two games against not-pathetic opponents this year. If there is one sport contending with football in Happy Valley this fall, it's the constant race by the media to pick winners and losers after each pass thrown. There is only one man capable of putting this frustrating episode to rest, but it doesn't look like that will happen any time soon. 

2. Calling the Shots -- We all know how Penn State's play-calling process works. But that doesn't mean it makes anyone any more comfortable with the prospect of it staying so incredibly convoluted and needlessly bureaucratic. So here's what I've gathered:

  • Galen Hall calls run or pass.
  • If it's a run, Hall calls the play.
  • If it's a pass, Jay Paterno calls the play.
  • Joe Paterno (when in the box) listens to the calls, and gets approval/veto power. If he wants the coordinators to know something, he "passes a note" via Western Union.
  • When on the sideline, Joe Paterno still gets the same powers, but is in fact less involved in the play-by-play calls, since he's not listening in on the headset.
  • The calls are relayed down to Mike McQueary on the sideline, who sends in the plays from the sideline.

The gigantic problem here is when a play, defense, or timeout has to be called and sent into the huddle within about 3-5 seconds. This was the problem at Iowa last season and in later games, too. But it was a huge issue for Penn State during the first drive against Alabama, when the Nittany Lions wasted two timeouts within the first few plays. Say what you want about the pitfalls of Fran Ganter's offense years ago, but when he had the kind of control true offensive coordinators should have (i.e. before sharing with JayPa in 1999), the offense ran quite smoothly.

3. Not So Cupcakey After All -- Did you know Penn State's non-conference opponents are now a combined 12-1 against teams not nicknamed the Nittany Lions? The only loss is by Eastern Michigan (2-2) against the Michigan Wolverines. Indiana State (3-1) is off to its best start since dinosaurs roamed the earth, including a blowout (!) win over I-A/FBS team Western Kentucky, and a then-No. 24 Youngstown State. Alabama (4-0) just trounced 12th-ranked Arkansas by a larger margin than the Tide beat Penn State. But the biggest surprise has been not just that Temple is a good team this year, but that its near-upset over Penn State might have been nearer than we thought. The Owls just returned to Philadelphia from a trip to Maryland, where the Owls took the Terps behind the woodshed for a 38-7 road win. Bernard Pierce scored five touchdowns, as Temple ran for 285 net yards (305 total).

Does this mean all these teams are going to finish 10-2 or better? Of course not. Eastern Michigan will likely miss a bowl game this year, and Indiana State is still an FCS program. Temple has tricky games ahead. Alabama plays one of the toughest schedules in college football. But you can't diminish that four non-conference opponents Penn State faced so far have not been disappointing in the least.

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4. Two Steps Forward... -- Michael Mauti blew up another ACL on Saturday, while D'Anton Lynn got a nasty stinger that will put him on the sidelines for at least this week. But overall the Penn State defense has been playing really, really well this season. It's only improved, also, particularly in "making plays" like forcing turnovers and pressuring the opposing quarterbacks. Devon Still is playing for a first-round NFL draft selection. The linebackers are deep and strong enough to absorb even a crushing blow like losing Mauti. And the secondary has done what it has to do. If only the offense could have stayed on the field for a few more minutes against Alabama, and not shat itself against Temple, this season might be looking very different, in terms of team perception.

5. Play That Sh!tty Music -- As if the on-field issues weren't enough, the Beaver Stadium music selections have come under heavy fire this season, particularly after the Alabama game. We've covered it here at BSD, but it's gained serious traction as an issue among fans following a scathing editorial and follow up article at Onward State. The Blue Band doesn't play as often as it did before Penn State began running a greater amount of "canned tunes" over the public address system, such as horrible 1980s pop tunes or hair band crap. Even worse are the "sounds" played, like the thumping heart beat. Some don't mind the NFL-like atmosphere Beaver Stadium has become since about 2006. But many do mind it, and are finally starting to speak out.

6. The Sorta-White Out -- First, we saw less than 97,000 fans in the stands for Penn State's season opener against Indiana State. That was the worst home-opener attendance since before the 2001 stadium expansion. It was also the first time since 2005 (99,235) that the announced attendance for a home opener fell below 100,000. And this year it wasn't even close to that number, as the announced attendance for Indiana State was 96,461. Three weeks later, against Eastern Michigan, Penn State announced a crowd of 95,363. But more glaring than those anemic numbers was the embarrassing amount of Crimson within the Beaver Stadium Whiteout game against Alabama. Some estimates put the number of Alabama fans in attendance at 20,000. That wouldn't surprise me, having seen the crowd from both on the field and in the press box. It's not unusual to see lots of opposing fans in the stands at Penn State games, as Beaver Stadium does allow a good number of opposing tickets to be sold. But the with about 4,000 season tickets not being sold this year due to STEP, it's not difficult to find at least one big reason why no one is showing up to games; or when they do show up, they're wearing the other team's colors.

Quick September Recaps

Penn State 41, Indiana State 7 -- The running game leads Penn State to win No. 1 for 2011, amassing 245 yards between Silas Redd, Brandon Beachum and Curtis Dukes. The quarterbacks not give much chance to prove themselves. The defense looks good, but not great against an FCS opponent. Attendance is the lowest for a home-opener in more than a decade.

Alabama 27, Penn State 11 -- Alabama converts an early 4th down on a controversial spot, but Penn State's lack of time management ability dooms the Lions from the start. The Tide marches slowly but deliberately toward victory, as Penn State struggles to hold onto the ball. Bolden plays well without much help, including carrying the offense on a late touchdown drive. McGloin completes 1 of 10 passes for zero yards. The defense plays surprisingly well.

Penn State 14, Temple 10 -- The Owls get great pressure on the pocket, while striking early for a lead it wouldn't relinquish until late in the fourth quarter. Penn State is hampered by another sluggish offensive performance, including poor outings by both quarterbacks. Mauti emerges with a monster day on defense. Temple's offense slows to a grinding halt after its first score, as both teams stumble over one another in a race to the bottom.

Penn State 34, Eastern Michigan 6 -- Penn State goes to the air, bombing away with Matt McGloin, while Rob Bolden puts up good but not great numbers on his own. The run game doesn't do much, but isn't asked to do much. The defense continues its journey toward being great, but loses Mauti and Lynn to injury. There were about 12,000 empty seats in Beaver Stadium.

September Verdict

The jury is still out on Penn State. It's widely assumed that this team has the talent to be very good, even great. But between execution and coaching problems, the Nittany Lions simply aren't getting the job done as it should each Saturday. Much of the focus has been on the quarterback battle--even if it's a somewhat manufactured battle due to JoePa's determination to be "fair" to both quarterbacks. When has JoePa ever been concerned about fairness, especially when a quarterback position remains so wildly uncertain? If he wants to go with the older guy, fine. But just do it already.

The Alabama game was a dud in the most blatant sense. Penn State had the big national stage and flopped. The Temple game, despite the Owls looking greater in retrospect, was one of the worst performances by the offense since 2004. And even in blowout wins over ISU and EMU, the Nittany Lions haven't been able to look like a team that can dominate bad teams, handle good teams, and beat a great team or two this year. The defense is close; but that doesn't matter if the offense can't stay on the field when it needs to.

Looking Ahead to October and November

It's less than three days until the Big Ten conference opener at Indiana. The Hoosiers don't look like anything special, but that's not a reason to be cocky about the road trip to Bloomington. If Penn State looks bad once again, against an opponent arguably just as bad as ISU and EMU, then it could be a very unhappy Halloween in Happy Valley. Later today, we're going to gather together all our BSD staff predictions for Penn State the rest of the season, since the Big Ten schedule kicks off this weekend. So I won't run down picking each of the 8 remaining games.

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But I will say this. It doesn't get any easier. If Penn State doesn't improve at all, there are only about three likely wins the rest of the season: Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern. The rest would be either up in the air, or likely losses. However, we're looking at a different season if Penn State can settle down into a quarterback it can work around, produce more in the run game, tighten up its offensive efficiency on both the sideline and in the box, while not completely exhausting the defense every week. Those three likely wins before are near certain locks, while games against Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio State look suddenly very winnable. Then the final two against Nebraska and Wisconsin don't look like the likely losses they once were.

It's early. We're not even really into the meat of this season. Big Ten play offers a great opportunity for teams to come together and win something. Penn State remains an enigma right now. The conference looks absolutely terrible this year, meaning anything or any team can jump up and surprise. Can Penn State be one of those teams to rise to the occasion and take advantage of what's in front of it? We shall see. That journey begins this Saturday in Memorial Stadium.

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