September Review: A New Era Indeed

Mike Pettigano

The first month of Bill O'Brien's tenure as Penn State coach has come to an end and the Nittany Lions head into October with a 3-2 record. Yet, improvements have been seen across the board and the rest of the season looks bright.

Five games are in the book of the 2012 season after having the pages of the past 14 years erased by the NCAA, and Penn State has three wins and two losses to show for a September effort where it can be said the Nittany Lions did nothing but improve week in and week out. Bill O'Brien got his first victory as head coach with a win over Navy in Week 3 and was welcomed with the first Gatorade bath I've seen on the Penn State sidelines since Joe Paterno's 322nd win back in 2001. Matt McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing after one month and Michael Mauti has won two conference player of the week awards. What else happened in September? Let's take a look.

Storylines

1. The Gunslinger Plays It Cool -- It's truly amazing to compare how 2010 and 2011 Matt McGloin played quarterback to how he plays it in 2012. For the past two years, you closed your eyes every time the former walk-on would cock his arm back and let one go deep, but this year, he has played with a new sense of responsibility and field awareness. He has said many times in interviews that he came into this season with a better grasp of the offense than in any other year and he has proven it with his performance.

On the year, McGloin has completed nearly 60% of his passes and leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game with 243.4. He has greatly improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio, throwing ten touchdowns to only two interceptions through his first five games. He has also used that moxie to call his own number four times near the goal line to pound the ball into the end zone on his own.

While he still can be fiery and childish at times (i.e. the patented chin-strap rip), there is no doubt about the immense improvement in his play this year. He is climbing the ranks of Penn State quarterbacks in terms of 200- and 300-yard passing games as well as total yardage. He may go down as one of the best Penn State quarterbacks to ever play, statistically. Whatever Bill O'Brien and Charlie Fisher have done, it's working.

2. Receivers EVERYWHERE! -- When we start this bulletpoint, it would be shameful if Allen Robinson was not the first name mentioned. The true sophomore has grown from a guy who caught three passes last season to catching three touchdowns in one game against Navy and becoming one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten and maybe the nation during the first month of the season. His early performance has earned him a spot on the Biletnikoff Award watch list and thoughts of what he may be able to accomplish during the two-and-a-half years he still has in Happy Valley have excited all those who follow Penn State football.

Right behind Robinson on the receptions list is redshirt sophomore tight end Kyle Carter, who has done everything most people thought Garry Gilliam and Jesse James were going to do this year. Carter has been McGloin's favorite target on what have becomed patented TE-flat routes, which Carter has turned into 10-15 yard gains consistently all year.

Also playing big roles in the receiving game this year have been State College High product Alex Kenney and former walk-on Matt Lehman, as well as the big man, the Zordstache, Michael Zordich--which leads me to...

3. The Other Guys -- Even before the departure of Silas Redd to USC, we saw O'Brien's thoughts on the running back situation play a part in the Blue-White Game with Bill Belton seeing time in the backfield. He was named opening-day starter after Redd left, but was hurt early on and subsequently giving the reins to presumed back-up Derek Day. Day was hurt in the Virginia game and fans started to wonder how the Penn State offense would remain two-dimensional.

Enter "The Killer ZZ's".

Michael Zordich has made a name for himself in Happy Valley over the past five years with his blocking skills, amazing facial hair and recipient of the fullback dive. Against Navy, however, he lined up at tailback and provided 75 yards of total offense from the position, showing he had some wheels as well the strength to just knock people over.

Fast forward a week and the moniker above was born. Zordich and Zach Zwinak combined for 169 yards on the ground while destroying every Temple defender in their path. Last week against Illinois, Zwinak got his first 100-yard rushing game as a Nittany Lion, not bad for a guy that started out the season ranked fourth/fifth on the depth chart (depending if you included touted recruit Akeel Lynch).

While people were expecting the lighter, shiftier backs like Belton and Day to play the roles of Danny Woodhead in the Bill O'Brien offense, it has been Zordich and Zwinak taking on tacklers and turning 3-yard rushes into 6-yard rushes that has made this running game more potent that what was expected in this up-tempo offense.

Curtis Dukes has even gotten in on the action, rushing for 101 yards on the season. Zwinak, Zordich, Belton and Dukes are all above 100 yards rushing on the season and Day sits at 99, meaning you can throw anyone in the backfield and expect production, something very important over the coming years as the NCAA limit on scholarship players will begin to take its toll.

4. The Love-Hate Relationship With Ted Roof -- Of all the coaching hires made this past offseason, the one that was criticized the most was the hiring of defensive coordinator Ted Roof. Sure, he won a national championship at Auburn, but it was Cam Newton and not his "muliply-aggressive" defense that led that team to the crystal football back in 2010. When talking about the defense, I asked bscaff for his insight:

The Penn State / Ted Roof defense in a series of one-game seasons, as viewed thru BSD open threads:

vs. Ohio - 11 of 12 on 3rd down in the second half? Perhaps those Auburn fans were right. Did the players run out of gas? Too much emotion? I thought the truck tires, big dog toy, and sandy beach thing were supposed to take care of that? Should we bring back HIT?

vs. Virginia - MOTHER F***ER!!! Opponents are 299 of 302 on 3rd down in the second half against us!! If I see Ted Roof I'm a stab him in the throat. So what that we allowed 32 rushing yards. WE ARE RANKED 94th IN PASSING YARDS ALLOWED!!!! AND IT'S ALL BECAUSE OF ROOF'S STUPID BLITZ CALLS!! TOM BRADLEY WENT 6 YEARS WITHOUT A SINGLE CB ON THE ROSTER, AND NEVER ALLOWED MORE THAN 12 YARDS PASSING - ON THE SEASON! LOOK IT UP!

vs. Navy - so triple option teams can be tricky, and we only allowed 7 points late by the second team defense. And the third down conversion was only 3 of 11. BUT Navy went 5 for 8 on 4th down. CAN WE EVER GET OFF THE FIELD?!?! Also, all of Navy's other offense stats - first downs, yards rushing, yards passing - were all better than they had against NOTRE DAME!!! AND THOSE A**HOLES HAVEN'T PLAYED DEFENSE IN A DECADE!!! So if you think the defense is playing better, then you can go F*** YOURSELF.

vs. Temple - ok, I grant you that the defense played pretty well. They got off the field, and they've been creating turnovers, and they've been getting sacks, and they've been especially good in the red zone. Granted, okay? HOWEVER, if Temple receivers could catch a ball Roof's defense would have allowed AT LEAST 2 more scores. But yes, things are starting to look better, and I am starting to like the turnovers and sacks.

vs. Illinois - Well, that was a pretty good ass kicking there. I like Amos at safety, Hull at MLB, and Davis at corner in the nickle. And these sacks and turnovers are really starting to grow on me. Also, I want to marry Mike Mauti and bear his children.

Roof's aggressive scheme on defense did bite Penn State in the behind against Tyler Tettleton and Ohio, but it would be unfair to say that things haven't improved since. Defensive third-down conversion percentage has dropped from 61% against Ohio and Virginia to 29% over the past three games. The defense is only giving up 12 points a game, which isn't far off from the Bend But Don't Suck scheme that Tom Bradley employed during his tenure as DC. And Roof has found ways to use special defensive players such as Mike Hull and Adrian Amos to the fullest of their abilities.

Couple those things with Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges continuing the tradition of Linebacker U and Deion Barnes and Jordan Hill dominating the front line, it's hard not to temper the vitriol that most of us had for Roof at the start of the season. Tomorrow's matchup against Kain Colter and the Northwestern offense will speak volumes to his ability to plan and adjust accordingly, though.

5. #collegekickers -- You have to feel for Sam Ficken. After Anthony Fera left for Texas to be closer to his family after the NCAA sanctions were announced, Ficken was thrust into the placekicking role and missed four of five kicks in the 17-16 loss to Virginia. Things haven't been much better since. Ficken is 2-for-8 on the season and O'Brien has hesitated to let him kick, even late in blowouts, deciding to go for it on fourth down more often than not. It's already hurt Penn State in one game this season, it could cost them again down the road.

September Verdict

I think it would not be at all crazy to say that if sanctions had not been placed upon Penn State and the campus didn't become a free-agent market, you'd be looking at an undefeated, top-15 ranked team has the calendar turned to October. But those things happened and the loss of a consistent back at the start of the season and an all-conference later on cost Penn State their first two games of the season. Ohio has a great shot to go through MAC without a blemish and end with a 12-0 season. Virginia still should have been a victory, but the offense could punch the ball in four times after starting possession in UVA territory.

So overall, I'll give this team a B for the month of September. The secondary still needs some work and for as great as McGloin has been, Illinois was definitely his worst game, taking a few bad sacks and throwing some hoppers to receivers, and he'll need to pick himself back up for the remaining seven games of the season. But, the defense has made strides every game and an offense that comes from this century has utilized the talents of all the players that make it up and has been exciting to watch.

Penn State footall, in and of itself, has been exciting, great and even cathartic to watch.

Outlook For October

Penn State's three October games all present challenges of their own to a team that still has a great shot to win the Leaders Division of the Big Ten.

Things start tomorrow with the Homecoming game against Northwestern which will be another test for Ted Roof's defense as explained above. As in past years, expect a offensive shootout with one team getting a big stop or two to pull out a victory.

After the bye week, Penn State travels to Kinnick to take on Iowa. Bad things tend to happen when Penn State goes there (hate you, Daniel Murray), but the Hawkeyes are a down a bit this year, so the Lions will have a chance to exercise some of those demons that have haunted them in the past in Iowa City.

Finally, on the 27th, the Lions return to take on Ohio State at home for the first time since 2009. Urban Meyer was once thought to be the next Penn State head coach, but he has the Buckeyes at 5-0 so far this year. They have not looked sharp for an entire game yet this year, but with the playmaking abilities of Braxton Miller, they haven't had to be. Miller or Colter will be the best offensive player Penn State will face all year.


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