The Penn State blogosphere answers the most pressing questions about the Leaders Division Championship, Michael Mauti's historical comparisons, and this weekend's matchup against the Northwestern Wildcats.
Blog mob . . . ASSEMBLE!
You are looking LIVE! the Blue/White Roundtable. It's Homecoming 2012 - The Glory Echoes On. This weekend, the Nittany Lions square off against the Wildcats of the Northwestern!
You know the drill by now - every week, yours truly will pose a variety of questions to Penn State bloggers from every corner of the Nittany Lion internet. We'll post the greatest hits here each week, but make sure to check out our blogging brethren for their full responses every week!
Say hello to this week's panelists - our own Cari Greene, Ali Soheilian, Carole Kirkpatrick, Zach Fegley, Matthew Pencek, Timothy Johnson and LB from PennLive's 50-Yard Lion Blog, Kevin McGuire from The Nittany Lions Den, and all of the D-O-double-G's from JoePa's Doghouse!
Some pundits are calling the Nittany Lions the hottest team in the Big Ten after the last three weeks. Do you agree? Can this team win the Leaders Division title? Is this team we saw against Illinois a finished product?
Tim: Excuse me while I bathe in the glory of some positive press for a change. We might be the de facto hottest team in the B1G since everyone else has looked rather meddling at some point over the last few weeks. I think Nebraska and Ohio State are both better teams today, but I think we're yet to play our best football. I wouldn't call us the favorite to win the division at the moment, but if we beat tOSU, who's going to challenge us? Purdue?
Cari: Hottest? With Mauti on the team? Hell to the yeah.
(ed. note - Damn, Cari . . .)
Listen, we've improved every week, on both sides of the ball (with the small exception of QB play; I really think McGloin didn't look as good on Saturday as he had in previous weeks, but no one can be perfect week in and out-not even Tom Brady). MSU has a great defense, but ours just might be better-and what other team in the conference has a decent defense? I think we'll be (at least) competitive in every game left on our schedule, which means we CAN win the Leaders Division; that being said, by no means is this team a "finished product"-I'll expect improvement, no matter how small, every week this year.
Rowlff Dogg: Right now, being the hottest team in the Big Ten is like being the skinniest at fat camp. It might not mean much in the context of a lousy conference, but you have to like what you're seeing from this Penn State team. Every week they are improving and the playbook is expanding accordingly. Naturally, there have been some shoot-yourself-in-the-foot growing pains, but that is expected. Once they put it all together, this squad offense is going to be dangerous. Illinois was just the tip of the iceberg.
Kevin: I don't know if I would necessarily agree that Penn State is the hottest team in the Big Ten, but I will say they may be the only team that has shown week-to-week improvement in the Big Ten. The question I have is just how much more improvement is there to be made? When does this team hit their ceiling? More importantly, have they hit their ceiling?
This team, right now, can absolutely win the Leaders Division because the schedule plays in to their favor. Penn State has a couple of interesting road games at Nebraska and Purdue but they get Ohio State and Wisconsin at home, and that could be huge. Right now Ohio State appears to be the team to beat in the Leaders Division but if Penn State continues to play defense the way they are now then playing at home could give them an edge against a sophomore (a very good sophomore) quarterback in Braxton Miller. And we'll see what Wisconsin looks like at the end of the season.
J Schnauzer: Hottest might be a bit strong. "Least flat" may be a more honest assessment of this team in the context of a struggling conference. Penn State does have the tools to win a divisional title, but with so many awkward sanction outliers I put Purdue and Ohio State's chances ahead of the Nittany Lions. Illinois is a terrible team--that game only proved that PSU has rid its frustrating habit of playing to the level of its opposition.
Ali: I'm fully on board with those calling the Nittany Lions the hottest team in the Big Ten right NOW. After week 1, most were already calling the season a lost cause and saying we'd be lucky to win three games all year. Well, we've already won three games, and this team looks like its getting better with every play. The team can win the Leaders division, but they are far from a finished product. I love the flexibility of this team, the grit they play with, and their ability to continually grow. They'll definitely be a factor in deciding who wins the Leaders division and have a good shot at pulling off the feat themselves.
Matthew: For now as much as it pains to me to say, I am going with Ohio State as the hottest team in the Big Ten due in part to their undefeated record and the wins over Cal and Michigan State. I think Penn State can win the Leaders Division. Every game on the schedule will be a toss-up (with the exception of Indiana). Based on what we have seen from the defense and an improving offense, Bill O'Brien and company should feel confident going forward. I do not believe the offense is a finished product. As O'Brien gains more comfort with what Matt McGloin can and cannot do, more plays tailored to #11's strengths will be added as the season progresses. I also expect changes in the placekicking department that are not exclusive to Sam Ficken. The blocked field goal attempts also needs to be addressed.
Over the last decade, Penn State has produced All-American linebackers in Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor, Sean Lee, and Navorro Bowman. It has turned Tim Shaw and Josh Hull into pros, and gotten solid contributions from Tyrell Sales and Bani Gbadyu. Where does Michael Mauti fall on the spectrum?
The Underdogs: Are we grading them as college players or pro players? It will be difficult to match the amount of big momentum swinging plays that Poz made. But he might, just might, have the most tools of all of those guys for the next level. And we're talking about the two leading tacklers in the NFL in Lee/Bowman. Mauti has a knack for the big play at the right time like Poz, the awareness of Lee, and the explosiveness of Bowman and Lee. He also seems to have the most flexibility/agility in his hips, as a more fluid sideline to sideline guy than all of them. Mauti and Hodges, the next Lee/Bowman? Is Miami still trading on Ray Lewis as their claim to LBU?
Cari: Poz versus Mauti? Why would you ever compare the two?
(ed. note - sensing a trend here, Cari . . .)
In all seriousness, Mauti brings on that extra something that some of the players you listed haven't (the last four in particular, and I'd say Bowman, and to a lesser degree Lee). The team has rallied around him and his leadership, and that's something else to compare him and Poz in-their role as leaders on this team. Even if we had an LB as talented as Posluszny, would we have had such a spectacular turnaround in 2005 were it not for his off-the-field role (and that, of course, of MRob)? I'd argue not. The same can be said of Mauti-would we even be at 3-2 now, let alone having only a dozen transfers, were it not for his off-field role? And, also, I still remember seeing his speech at Joe's memorial in person-and that can't have been easy. What can I say? The kid's awesome, and he's got my respect for life.
Carole: Put Mr. Mauti right up there with the best of them. He has that 'motor' inside that I feel good linebackers have to have. He has the maturity that comes with age and playing time. Who can't be happy for him considering that he sat out football nursing those bionic knees. His fellow linebackers, Carson, Hull, and Hodges are nothing to sneeze at either. We still are Linebacker U.
Zack: I have to put Mauti near the top of that list. The single game domination he had against Illinois was something out of a movie. His attitude, character, and devotion to Penn State and to this team combined with his immense talent and ability make him one of the best LB's that Linebacker U has ever seen. The NFL scouts always talk about "intangibles" that players have that separate them from other players with a similar skill set and I don't think there is any comparison to anyone as far as what Mauti brings ability and intensity wise.
Northwestern is 5-0 and Kain Colter looks like an unstoppable "slash" player. Is this the best offense Penn State has seen this year? How do the Nittany Lions contain it?
The Underdogs: Easily the most unique player PSU will play all year and probably the best of the season to this point. In the past we had a secret weapon in slowing down NW's zone read scheme, Jack Crawford. Each year, NW was Crawford's one standout game because he was athletic enough to play both players when they tried to option off him. Yet NW never seemed to changeup their blocking patterns to option off different players, the way RichRod is generally pretty adept at doing. NW will put a lot of pressure on the DE's and LBs in the flat to make plays. I'm confident in Hodges and Mauti. Can the young DEs step up?
Kevin: They are the best offense Penn State has faced so far this season, but let's pump the brakes on 5-0 Northwestern for a moment. They have not exactly played a touch schedule and we have seen before Penn State can find ways to clamp down on threatening Northwestern quarterbacks. Will Colter make some big plays? Absolutely, but what Penn State needs to do is plug any openings Colter can find to wiggle through. Northwestern may be the best offense Penn State has faced so far this season, but Penn State clearly has the best defense Northwestern has seen so far as well.
LB: This will be the best offense Penn State's seen all year, but the Lions shouldn't have a problem handling Colter. Before Navy came to Beaver Stadium, there was talk about how the Midshipmen's triple option attack could be a threat, but Navy never got going and only managed one touchdown. Colter is unquestionably an athletic and multifaceted player, but the way Penn State's defense has looked recently, I don't think he'll be able to power past them, either.
J Schnauzer: Northwestern has had an inexplicably good quarterback every year for the past 17 years. What makes this Northwestern team different from recent years is their quality rushing offense. Venric Mark keeps opposing defenses from being able to focus entirely on the QB. I don't think this Wildcats offense can be contained, so Penn State will have to be advantageous with key stops in the red zone and with turnovers. The Nittany Lions will have to win this one on the offensive side of the ball.
Tim: In a roundtable question about ex-NW QB Dan Persa last year, I said "concern should be given to Kain Colter." You can multiply that by about 100 this year, because this dude can flat-out ball. He approached 300 all-purpose yards last week alone-only 2 of them were passing--and he doesn't even play in the Big 12. Someone needs to keep an eye on him at all times. I wonder if Cain's playing with a chip on his shoulder because of the slight he received from EA sports this year.
Cari: I've been predicting higher scores for our opposition than they've achieved the past few weeks, and let's hope this week is no exception. I think our offense will be able to gash their D, and our defense will contain their O enough for the win. 35-24, Penn State.
Kevin: I really don't think Penn State has too much of a problem with Northwestern this week. I expect that the first half will be tight, as they have been each of the last few seasons, but Penn State still has the edge when it comes to physicality and athleticism and they should be able slow down the Wildcats and hold them off in the second half.
Penn State 31, Northwestern 17
The Underdogs: This seems to be right around the time, like Minnesota in 95 where PSU is slowly generating momentum, returning home, and playing an undefeated, probably overrated team, which reaches a crescendo as PSU finally puts together a complete game. The crowd feeds into the momentum and the game is over by halftime. NW gets a few scores late. 30-16...as we make a field goal but miss an XP.
Rowlff Dogg: Penn State 30, Northwestern 23. A back-and-forth game that proves these players can make clutch plays in tight games.
J Schnauzer: I'll go with Penn State 41, Northwestern 35 in overtime. This one can go either way.
Matthew: I think this will be similar to the 2010 and 2011 Penn State / Northwestern games. A track meet for the first half, followed by those defensive adjustments in the second. Penn State's offense is better than the 2010 and 2011 versions while the defense as at least the same if not better. Northwestern 27, Penn State 38
Tim: So, Northwestern is 5-0 and ranked for the first time since 2008. They seem excited about this, but let's look closer. Their five opponents thus far-most of which they've struggled with-have beaten a grand total of six teams: Stony Brook, Presbyterian, Colgate, Maine, UMass, and Indiana State. Northwestern has a talented and creative team offensively, and I really respect Pat Fitzgerald. However, as in years past, they still aren't as good as they need to be on the defensive side of the ball. They also haven't faced a real defense-or a real crowd-thus far. Get yourself a ticket; this is going to be a fun homecoming Saturday. PSU 42, NW 31.
LB: Penn State wins, 28-24 -- and doesn't attempt a field goal.
Carole: Penn State has dominated this series 12-3. They led at home 6-1. The last time Northwestern was 6-0 was in 1962 and they were #1 in the country. Concerns: they've not allowed the opponent to score in the first half in the last two games. Penn State MUST score first and lay it on in the first half. Indiana hung 44 points on them last week. The bright side is Penn State has developed so many players on offense and defense this year that the Lions are not one-dimensional. Northwestern is run dependent and has scored in the red zone 23 out of 25 visits there. Keep them out of the red zone and score early.
A repeat of last year's score: Penn State 34, Northwestern 24.
Ali: Even though Northwestern has one of the "best" offenses in the conference, they still have one of the worst defenses in the country. I think the Nittany Lions physical style on both sides of the ball will wear down this Northwestern team yet again. Look for the Lions to get on a nasty streak and to continue to impose their will in the trenches. Penn State 45, Northwestern 21 (call me insane but I had us blowing out Illinois last week 38-17 in predictions)
Zach: After seeing Indiana put up 29 against NW, think they are going to have their hands full with this explosive Penn State offense. I think Penn State keeps the streak going and knocks Northwestern out of the top 25, 42-28.
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