Penn State continued its rapid improvement Saturday night in Iowa City, and put the finishing touches on what might be the Lions' most impressive win in years. And they've still got plenty of room to get better.
You know what's simultaneously the best and worst thing about Penn State's blowout win over Iowa, at night, in Kinnick?
They really didn't play their best football.
I'm a guy who sometimes struggles to see the forest through the trees, and who singles out and obsesses over the worst of things. So while you guys--completely rightfully--celebrate a dominant road win that few of us saw coming, at least not this easily, I'm going to go to bed tonight irked by Penn State's poor execution.
While you all dream of Matt McGloin's pinpoint precision and Bill Belton's quickness, I'll be haunted by the countless dropped passes. While replays of Michael Mauti's interception dance through your mind, I'll be seeing Zach Zwinak's fumbles.
While you revel in a 38-14 win, I'll be annoyed it wasn't 52-7.
It's a curse. It really is.
Don't get me wrong: the fact that Penn State was able to absolutely curbstomp Iowa despite making these mistakes says a whole hell of a lot more about this Nittany Lion team than do the miscues, which were far and few between. It shows us just how talented this team really is, just how committed these players are, just how much fire and passion they play with, and just how high its ceiling really is.
And the best part is that Bill O'Brien gets to have his cake, and eat it too.
When he was interviewed coming out of the tunnel at halftime, O'Brien told the Big Ten Network sideline reporter that he considered it 0-0, that Penn State had left too many points on the board. He wasn't resting on the 24-0 lead his team had built up in the first half. He, like me, knew it should have been more.
Yes, his Nittany Lions came out looking sharp and stayed that way all game, at least until Iowa waved the white flag in the fourth quarter. Yes, his offense continued to make the plays it failed to early in the season, converting where they had not en route to the 0-2 hole this team has so ably dug its way out of. And yes, this defense continues to do things nobody ever thought a Ted Roof defense could do.
Yes, Matt McGloin looked nothing like the Matt McGloin we all hoped would be overtaken for the starting job by Paul Jones or Steven Bench or Shane McGregor this summer (seriously, Matt Barkley wishes he could've thrown that dart to Jesse James to start the scoring). Yes, Penn State controlled the line of scrimmage, on both sides, all game long. Yes, Penn State silenced one of the loudest crowds in college football.
But the words coming out of Bill O'Brien's mouth would've sounded more natural from a coach who was losing at the break. And they were like music to my ears.
It's always better to come away with a win, and one this impressive is especially sweet. But O'Brien knows that his job over the next 6 days is ironing out the kinks that a better team, like Ohio State, might be able to take advantage of. He's going to sit his players down and show them the film that emphasizes their failures, that pinpoints where they'll need to improve.
The fact of the matter is, Iowa's not a particularly good football team, or at least the Iowa team that showed up last night wasn't a particularly good one. It didn't help the Hawkeyes' cause that they lost a pair of starting offensive linemen early on, that their normally steady field goal kicker shanked a pair that could've kept the game from getting out of hand, that their revelation of a running back wasn't his usual self.
The other fact of the matter, of course, is that Penn State capitalized enough times that it's easy to forget those few when they didn't. The only fans who really mind are the neurotic ones, like me.
And you know what? Given how down on this team we all were six weeks ago, I'm totally okay with that. Given how high the expectations were heading into the bye week, I was worried I'd be let down.
And I was right. But for a guy like me, it's pretty great to be let down after a 24-point win that wasn't even that close.
On to the grades:
Quarterbacks: A+. For as magnificent as Matt McGloin's final statline looks--26 of 38, 289 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT--it really could've been a whole lot better. Maybe four or five of his passes weren't catchable, and there were only a couple that were ill-advised throws. Every other one was on time, on target, and perfectly thrown. And let's not overlook the impressive mobility and pocket presence. This was easily the best performance of McGloin's career, and a DVD of it ought be sent out to every blue-chip high school quarterback in the country for as long as Bill O'Brien's at Penn State. This is what BOB can do with a walk-on. Imagine what he can do with Hack.
Running Backs: B. Bill Belton returned from his ankle injury two weeks ago, in the Northwestern game, but he returned Saturday. He was slippery and strong, patient and quick, waiting for the hole to open up than hitting it hard and wiggling through tackles for an extra couple yards. With 103 yards and 3 TDs on just 16 carries, Belton re-established himself as the #1 RB on the depth chart. Zach Zwinak, for the first time, this season, struggled--not only getting stuffed en route to 3.3 YPC, but fumbling twice, once inside the one-yard line. It was uncharacteristic from Zwinak, and we have to expect he'll bounce back next week.
Receivers: B-. Nine different Penn State players caught passes, and the routes they all ran were crisp and precise. If McGloin didn't immediately have open receivers, all he'd have to do was re-set his feet, and someone would find open space. But we saw more drops today than we have in a long, long time, and a couple of them--like Matt Zanellato's, on 4th and short--really could've proved damaging. Allen Robinson was the worst culprit, but hardly the only one. On the plus side, Kyle Carter continues to look awesome, and Ohio State has struggled to cover tight ends so...that should be fun.
Offensive Line: A+. Matt McGloin was sacked 0 times. Penn State ran for over 200 yards. And this was with a deep rotation in full effect by the second quarter. I'm not sure what more you could possibly ask for from this unit. And boy, is it a different one since the return of Donovan Smith.
Defensive Line: A+. It's a truism to say that football games are won in the trenches, but, I mean, they are. And Larry Johnson's boys feasted on an injury-ridden Iowa offensive line, racking up 4 sacks, holding the Hawkeyes to 20 yards rushing (0.9 per carry!), and hounding James Vandenberg all night long. It was a thing of beauty. Oh, and welcome back, Pete Massaro. Dude practically lived in the backfield Saturday night.
Linebackers: A. The only reason I can't give the linebackers an A+ is because Iowa was too incompetent to let these guys really run wild, though it's not as though there were many (any?) flaws from this unit. Mike Mauti continues to be pure awesome incarnate, Mike Hull picked off a pass, and Gerald Hodges did Gerald Hodges things. Let this be your daily reminder that Mauti didn't make the list of Lombardi Award semifinalists. Pretty laughable.
Secondary: A-. Boosted significantly by a dominant pass rush, the defensive backs didn't really have to do all that much. But the coverage was solid, especially early, which forced Vandenberg to throw the ball away with regularity, en route to a 17-of-36 passing day. Considering how many of those completions were in garbage time--at one point, Vandenberg was 9-23--you really can't argue with the performance. Although, for the second straight week, Stephon Morris was called for a completely horseshit pass interference call. Not your fault, Stephon.
Special Teams: B-. Sam Ficken made a field goal, you guys! And all his extra points! Okay, fine, he had another field goal blocked, but...baby steps! And Jesse Della Valle had a great kick return that was a shoestring tackle away from six points. But on the flipside, Alex Butterworth's punting continued to be abjectly awful--he's uncorked some good ones in recent weeks, but his long today was 34 yards. Yikes. And for the second straight week, Penn State allowed a kick return for a touchdown. Can't have that next week.
Coaching: A+. You have got to love a coach who goes for it, on 4th and 1, from his own 36 yard line...while his team is up by 31 points. But BOB comes from the Bill Belichick school of coaching, always going for the jugular, and even if the results didn't work out, the process is a beautiful thing to behold. I'd again be remiss if I didn't point out the incredible turnaround of the defense, and since I wanted Ted Roof's head on a platter after the Virginia game, I'm glad to eat crow. I have seen the future and it is multiply aggressive.