Confusion on the sideline forces the staff to call a timeout, frustrating Rob Bolden against Alabama, Sept. 10, 2011. (MIke Pettigano/BSD)
Yes, it seems that a sixteen point loss against the eventual national champions shouldn't be high on a list of Most Crushing Losses. There's certainly a case to be made for each of Penn State's four losses in 2011, all for very, very different reasons. Why did I choose Alabama?
Well, there was a sense that Penn State had a puncher's chance, especially with the game being at home. The 2010 game in Tuscaloosa wasn't an outright disaster, especially considering that our true freshman quarterback performed adequately in that crimson cauldron. This time, Penn State had the experienced defense and belligerent home crowd going up against the inexperienced quarterback in his first big road start. This game, we hoped, was going to be different.
It wasn't, really. Penn State was frisky for a while, but Alabama (with help from a questionably-spotted fake punt resulting in a first down) seized control in the second quarter and was never threatened in the second half. A late Penn State touchdown and two-point conversion made the score appear more respectable than the Lions' actual performance otherwise indicated. More importantly, the events of that afternoon exposed the dysfunctional nature of the Penn State offense and coaching staff, laid bare for the college football world to rightfully ridicule.
The flaming, airborne school bus fire that was Penn State's timeout usage on the opening possession will not be lived down in these parts for ages. The truly amazing part? We actually scored points on that drive! Still, the utter chaos that permeated that offensive series continues to amaze. Let's go back in time to that fateful possession:
1st-10 at PSU 37 13:42 Q1. Penn State comes out with an unbalanced look -- Pannell, Okoli, and Barham all to the right side of the center, Troutman and Haplea on the left. Freshman Allen Robinson is lined up in the backfield as the right split end, and there's your mistake -- he needs to be on the line. Bolden knows that something is amiss, but doesn't forcefully tell Robinson to nudge forward. Way too timid. With Derek Moye in motion toward the formation on the left side, that's five men in the backfield, and Penn State has to burn a timeout. Robinson has to know better, yes, but his need to know better is also a coaching issue.
3rd-6 at ALA 47 11:59 Q1. Total clusterfrick. Chima Okoli, clearly injured, is lying in bounds about three feet from the PSU sideline. John Urschel starts to come onto the field but he is waved off by a few PSU players as Adam Gress lumbers toward the huddle. Gress arrives with about 18 seconds on the play clock, Bolden is looking toward his forearm cheat sheet, and Okoli is STILL ON THE FIELD OF PLAY. Bolden starts reading the play with 13 seconds left, the other players are obviously getting antsy and telling him to hurry up. By the time Okoli is scraped off the field, time is almost out. Penn State never even broke the huddle. Utterly dysfunctional.
4th-1 at ALA 30 9:23 Q1. Forget the actual play clock for a moment -- there are 15 seconds between the time that the referees spot the ball following the third down play (clearly one yard short of the first down) and the point at which 25 seconds were remaining on the fourth-down play clock. Blackledge is feverishly trying to explain the Penn State playcalling hierarchy while the ABC cameras flash between Paterno, Galen Hall, Tom Bradley, Mike McQueary, and the respective tombstones of Hugo Bezdek, Bob Higgins, and Pop Golden. With eight seconds left, Penn State is still in the huddle. They never even get into an actual formation before the clock is at double-zeros, but this is totally cool because Joe Paterno has won 402 games and those who dare criticize this unbelievably moronic playcalling and communication system are haters who don't sufficiently appreciate greatness. Blackledge can no longer hide his disbelief: "This is unbelievable..."
As we would later learn, the final timeout occurred because the play that was sent in wasn't even on Bolden's wristband.
Then there were the actual, individual performances of the quarterbacks. Hey, look how stupid this guy is!
The solution at quarterback is readily apparent to the students, the Scranton media, and every single Alabama fan who has stopped by a Penn State blog or message board since the final play on Saturday. If the coaching staff doesn't see it at this point, not much more can be said. Some are improperly getting bent about Joe Paterno's unwillingness to name Rob Bolden the full-time starter immediately after the game (why would he, at that moment?), but the proof will be on display at Lincoln Financial Field in Philly next weekend, if not printed in black and white on a mid-week depth chart.
There's no sense harping on McGloin or his performance, only the questionable judgment of a coaching staff that continues to stunt Bolden's potential in favor of a player who is physically incapable of beating quality defenses. The good news, presumably, is that the charade concluded at about 6:30 p.m. Saturday. This is most assuredly not to say that Bolden getting all the first-team snaps is an express ticket to 11-1. He remains a very young quarterback with essentially a half-season of starts under his belt, still prone to both tunnel vision and assorted mental errors.
Still, enough is enough. Even the other players on the offense can't stand it any longer. The offense can certainly be mediocre in perpetuity, if that's the goal, with the current arrangement. They'll continue to move the ball on the Indianas and Northwesterns of the world, and fail against Ohio State and Nebraska. Bolden needs a chance to develop without the prospect of losing his job on a series-by-series basis. In other words, if he's going to suck, allow him to suck without fear or reprisal.
The comment battle in that post is still amazing, incidentally. Anyway, to be fair, McGloin was 1-for-10 for zero yards, right? Also, those who thought McGloin should've been nail-gunned to the bench weren't exactly the silent minority that afternoon. Would Bolden have eventually improved, given the starting job full-time and assurances that he was The Man? We'll never know.
Regardless, the Alabama game exposed the warts of a stale and outdated Penn State program to a national audience. The defense was valiant as hell, even when they were repeatedly subjected to short possessions by the Penn State offense. Alabama dominated time of possession in the second and third quarters, and squeezed the life out of the game.
Yet, just when Penn State was making their last gasp effort to remain a credible threat that afternoon, the coaching staff ordered an early fourth quarter punt on 4th and 6 from the Alabama 40 yard line, down 17 points. From a personal standpoint, it was the final straw. Penn State's offense hadn't exactly been scaring the Tide defense (the previous possession reached the 'Bama 41, but ended with a Mark Barron INT). They needed three scores to tie the game. Instead of showing faith in their players and being brave, the coaches turtled and quit on the team. Bolden's late touchdown drive was hopeful window dressing, nothing more.
With that, all of our greatest fears about the 2011 team had come to realization. Another year of quarterback cycling, chaotic playcalling, and needless conservatism at dire moments. The defense, fine as ever, would proceed to carry the day throughout most of the 2011 season (exceptions against Wisconsin and Houston, duly noted), but the afternoon beating at the hands of Alabama showed that, once again, Penn State wasn't able to hang with the big boys on a national stage.