Justin K. Aller
Penn State started slow, but picked up steam quickly, and rebounded from last week's loss by laying a beatdown on the hapless Boilermakers.
Well, that's more like it.
Seven days after a loss that could have proved catastrophic, Bill O'Brien's squad bounced back and put together what's become the archetypical Penn State performance of the 2012 season: a blowout victory spurred by stout defense and dynamic, if inconsistent, bouts of of offense dominance.
That offensive inconsistency was the theme early on, and pervaded through most of a sluggish first half. After Purdue capped off its opening drive with a field goal--in the process, becoming the first team to score on Penn State in the first quarter this season--the Lions marched down the field, but struggled in the red zone, a formula that would repeat itself later in the second quarter. In between, though, was a 2-play touchdown drive--a bomb and a Zordich blast--following a Purdue fumble at midfield and a whole bunch of three-and-outs.
Penn State was just 1-6 on third downs at one point, and much of that was due to Bill O'Brien's inflexibility. For the second straight week, the pass protection struggled--this time, due to Purdue blitzing as a matter of routine--and the offense failed to adjust by shifting to shorter routes. And time after time, on third- and fourth-and-short, O'Brien drew up a passing play, rather than a run, despite Purdue's inability to stop Penn State from running it down their throats.
Meanwhile, the Penn State defense had continued to do what it does--almost without fail making the open field tackles that have to be made against the quick-passing spread offense of Purdue, shutting down all but the rarest of runs, and getting so much pressure on Robert Marve that Purdue could hardly try and test the Nittany Lion defense down the field. True, Purdue's receivers helped the cause with a whole bunch of well-timed drops, but it's tough to take anything away the toughness, speed, and pursuit, from the defensive line to the secondary.
Not only that, but the team averted disaster when word came down that Jordan Hill's injury, which looked a whole hell of a lot like an ACL tear, was just a knee sprain. He didn't return, and might not even be ready in the next week or two, but it's fantastic--and the success of Penn State's defense is the least of reasons--that a team leader didn't see his college career end on the field today.
By the end of the first half, and continuing into the beginning of the second half, the offense started to match the defense's pace. Maybe Penn State made the adjustments, or maybe Purdue's defense had been worn out, or maybe, already down big and with little hope of coming back--a view certainly shared by the small and dwindling audience-- whatever motivation fueling the Boilermakers just gave out. But as Penn State scored touchdowns on three straight possessions--the final drive of the first half, and the first two of the second--they moved the ball effortlessly, like, as the cliche goes, a knife through hot butter. McGloin had protection and open receivers, Purdue still couldn't stop the downhill running game, and an offense that typically takes 10 or 15 plays to go 80 yards did it in 5, 7, and 7.
After last week's loss, many, myself included, openly wondered whether this team could find the enthusiasm to keep playing at the high level they'd accustomed themselves to. This game was certainly an answer in the affirmative. Purdue certainly didn't prove a challenging test--they drop to 0-5 in the conference, and Danny Hope's job prospects slip more and more with each passing week--but Penn State did to them what good teams do to bad ones. Next week's trip to Lincoln beckons, and Penn State's got the momentum headed back in the right direction.
On to the grades:
Quarterbacks: B+. Early on, McGloin struggled to get the ball out quickly enough, and the offense stalled as a result. I'm a little surprised to go back and read that he was only sacked once, but regardless, he wasn't comfortable in the pocket. He also missed a couple receivers, most notably an open Brandon Moseby-Felder on 4th and short from midfield. As the game went on, though, he found his rhythm as the downfield passing game opened up, and it's sure hard to argue with a final statline of 22/36, 316 yards, and 2 TD, as he became the first Penn State passer with five 300-yard games. And hey, Steven Bench sighting!
Running Backs: B+. The only thing holding back Penn State's run game was Bill O'Brien--Zach Zwinak ran for a career-high 144 yards on just 23 carries, and Mike Zordich added some nice tough running, including Penn State's first two touchdowns. For Zwinak, especially, it was nice to see him back running over and through people, after having been so well bottled up a week ago. Oddly, though, Bill Belton was nowhere to be seen. Not that Penn State really needed him today, but you have to wonder why Belton didn't get any time.
Recievers: A-. No Kyle Carter? No problem! Brandon Moseby-Felder had his coming out party, topping all Nittany Lions with 6 catches and 129 yards, and was able to get open down the field with relative ease. Allen Robinson was well covered for most of the afternoon--he finished with just 4 catches for 48 yards--but also drew a pair of pass interference penalties. Nobody else really stood out, though Jesse James contributed with 3 catches for 49 yards and a touchdown.
Offensive Line: B+. After reverting to its pre-MacWhorter levels last week, the offensive line rebounded against a Purdue defense that features one of the best defensive tackles in the nation in Kawann Short. Penn State controlled the line of scrimmage, opened up big holes in the run game, and gave Matt McGloin all the time he needed. And when he was pressured, it was almost unfailingly a result of Purdue bringing extra rushers against a Penn State offense that didn't keep in any blockers.
Defensive Line: B+. Purdue's quick-strike spread offense is meant to neutralize a good pass rush, but Penn State's front four still made an impact, even after Hill left with the knee injury. Deion Barnes forced the fumble which turned into Penn State's first touchdown and generally wreaked havoc on an overmatched Purdue offensive tackle, and Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley brought some good pressure throughout.
Linebackers: A. As a screen- and misdirection-based offense, Purdue loves throwing back to the weak side of the field. Unfortunately for Purdue, Gerald Hodges also loves it when you throw the ball to the weak side of the field. With six solo tackles and three TFL in the first half alone, Hodges shut down plays before they could even get going. As Purdue was forced to abandon its gameplan in the second half, the linebackers didn't have to do much, but Hodges--as well as the underrated Glenn Carson--were a big reason why the Boilemaker offense was stuck on "3" all day long.
Defensive Backs: A. I want to distinguish between the first half and the second half, because by the time Purdue was able to find any success in the passing game, the game was already well out of hand, and Penn State had gone to a very vanilla defensive package. This grade is based on what the DBs did while it was still a game--and not only was the coverage down the field good enough to force a number of throwaways, but Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, especially, were fantastic in defending the short passing game, making a couple of big hits. Amos also got a huge pop on Robert Marve early which, despite the flag, was in no way deserving of a roughing the passer.
Special Teams: B. Sam Ficken hit two field goals! And all four of his extra points! Alex Butterworth put a punt inside the three! And Evan Lewis had a nice punt return! Okay, fine, Ficken's two kicks went a combined 51 yards, Butterworth continued to be erratic (and his long was 40 yards), and Purdue opened the game with a kick return to midfield. So, you know. Things to work on.
Coaching: B-. Penn State was 0-4 on fourth down, and two of those attempts were just stupid decisions, up big in the second half. O'Brien's failure to stick to what was working--namely, the run game--helped stall Penn State drives before they got rolling. And Steven Bench didn't get in until far too late. But Penn State had an excellent game plan defensively, against the Purdue spread offense--Ted Roof continues to prove his early detractors (read: me) wrong, and Craig Fitzgerald is just the awesomest of madmen.