Like waiting on the birth of your first child, the Penn State - Alabama game is finally upon us and we've only had to wait seven extra years. If you asked a Penn State fan the chances of beating Alabama back on August 1st, a realistic one would have said slim to none. One month later and one eye opening performance (by Rob Bolden) against 1-AA Youngstown State, Penn State fans seem to be singing a different tune. The rumblings from the Nittany Lion faithful is that due to the performance of the true freshman Bolden against Youngstown State, Penn State has a legitimate shot at winning on Saturday against the Crimson Tide. Before the chickens are counted, let's take a look at what exactly Penn State is up against on Saturday (here's a hint, they are a much better team than YSU.)
Alabama kicked off the season with a 48-3 beat down against over matched San Jose State (Jeff Garcia's alma mater.) The result was par for the course. Like many cupcake openers, Bama used this game to get reps for their younger players highlighted by redshirt freshman QB A.J. McCarron (9-14, 116 yds 1 TD) and redshirt freshman RB Eddie Lacy (111 yds 2 TDs.) Lacy, who could start on just about every other 1-A team (according to Alabama fans), is the third best RB on the team behind Trent Richardson and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.
Greg McElroy, despite winning a national championship, is an average college QB. Winning a national championship does not mean you are a great QB, either does throwing for 58 TDs and 5,000 yards. Penn State had a similar type player win a national championship back in 1986 (John Shaffer) and you won't hear many PSU fans list Shaffer as an all-time great at the position. McElroy is a system QB looking to avoid making mistakes instead of making big plays. It also doesn't hurt to have two outstanding running backs behind you in Richardson and Ingram. He isn't blessed with superior athletic abilities, but it is undeniable that Greg McElroy is a winner - plain and simple.
McElroy had an efficient 2009 season completing 60% of his passes for 2,508 17 TDs and 4 INTs. He's also aided by a top flight WR in Julio Jones, a luxury for any average QB, just ask Chad Henne (Braylon Edwards), Graham Harrell (Michael Crabtree), and Matt Leinart (Mike Williams.) This type of playmaker can mask a quarterback's deficiencies and save a lot of busted plays and bad throws.
The entire playbook will be at the disposal of the redshirt senior QB. He has been around long enough to know how to manage the ball game. Look for McElroy to hand off the ball to Richardson and take a chance or two deep against our cover 3.
If something should happen to McElroy, McCarron would get the nod. The former 4 star recruit is Saban's QB of the future and the Tide faithful have high hopes for him. Saban even had to let the media and fans know that there is no QB controversy:
"We don’t have a QB controversy. There were reasons for what we did last week, but that’s over and done with. The reasoning and the purpose was AJ had never played in a game. He’s a very capable guy, he’s going to be a very good player here, he’s a great sort of a guy to be in the position he’s in right now. But he needed to get game experience."
Looks like Penn State isn't the only school that is a fan of a good old QB controversy.
The good news is Heisman winner Mark Ingram most likely won't play on Saturday as he continues to recover from knee surgery. The bad news, his backup Trent Richardson is better than him and will have plenty of opportunities (and carries) to show you. Penn State fans should immediately stop worrying about a tainted victory due to Ingram's injury because Richardson is the real McCoy. The true sophomore ran for 66 yds on only 10 carries and 2 TDs Saturday against the obviously over matched Spartans (Evan Royster only ran for 40 yds and 0 scores against YSU.) As a team, Alabama rushed for over 247 yds and 4 TDs against San Jose State. It won't be nearly as easy to run on Penn State, but Bama will try its luck at it.
Richardson can do it all (he also had 46 receiving yards against San Jose State) which could create match up problems for Penn State, especially if Lacy and Richardson are on the field at the same time. A load at 220lbs, Richardson is at top speed within a few steps, a contrast to the patient running style of Royster. Who would have thought Penn State would actually be hurt by the injury to Ingram. With Ingram out, Lacy will get enough touches to be a change of pace to the punishing Richardson.
If the run defense is not sharp early on, Penn State could be in some serious trouble. If Mark Ingram does suit up and play, expect it to be in a reserve role or for intimidation purposes only (like Bobbie Miles in Friday Night Lights.)
Wide Receiver/Tight Ends
Julio Jones. That is the name you will need to remember come Saturday. He is a home run threat in the receiving, running, and return game. During his limited action against SJSU, Jones finished with 6 receptions for 98 yds and 1 TD. He also had one carry for 14 yds. Jones is a big time playmaker and the Alabama coaches will do what it takes to get the ball in his hands. D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris will have their hands full with Jones, who at 6-4 220lbs with cheetah speed, is sure to create matchup problems for the smaller PSU secondary.
Complimenting the all-everything Jones will be Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks, Earl Alexander, and Brandon Gibson. Compared to Jones, Maze and Hanks look like Devon Smith (Maze is 5-10 and Hanks is 6-0.) The Tight Ends (Preson Dial, Michael Williams, and Brad Smelley) shouldn't prove to be huge threats in the receiving game, but will look to open Grand Canyon still holes for Richardson and company.
'Bama returned 3 of 5 starters from 2009. Jack Crawford and company will deal with:
- James Carpenter (6-5, 300)
- Chance Warmack (6-3, 300)
- William Vlachos (6-1, 289)
- Barrett Jones (6-4, 301)
- D.J. Fluker (6-6, 340)
Besides Fluker (a redshirt freshman that Penn State will look to exploit), the line isn't nearly as huge as one would think. However, besides Brandon Ware (who doesn't play), Penn State doesn't have a huge defensive line either. If the Penn State defensive line can get enough pressure on its own, the linebackers will be able to make some plays. However, if Tom Bradley has to use Nathan Stupar, Michael Mauti, and Gerald Hodges to to create the necessary pressure, Richardson and Jones might make PSU pay for it.
In case you were wondering, Alabama runs a 3-4 defense. This could be a good thing since Pannell and Klopacz won't have to deal with two big bodies in the middle, or a bad thing since they will have to deal with a fast, hard hitting linebacker. Pick your poison.
Fortunately for Penn State (or unfortunately for Alabama) Marcell Dareus will have to miss the game on Saturday due to suspension. Unlike on offensive, there is no Trent Richardson type to take Dareus' place. This is a huge blow to the Bama front seven. Dareus was the MVP of the national championship game and an absolute stud at defensive end. Quinn Barham just caught a HUGE break (same with Bolden.) Undra Billingsley will have the honor of trying to fill Dareus' Nike cleats.
Senior Luther Davis is the man at the other DE position. Darrington Sentimore and Damion Square are the backups. Look for the Tide to use some sort of rotation to fill in the hole that was Marcell Dareus.
Josh Chapman is the starter at nose tackle. He is from Hoover High School in Alabama, however there is no word yet if he was featured on that terrible short lived reality TV show Two-A-Days. His backup is Kerry Murphy, also from Hoover High School. Those Crimson Tide sure love themselves some reality TV stars (obviously the Kardashian's were unavailable.) Both nose tackles are big bodied guys that will look to get a nice push up the middle. In just his second career start, Doug Klopacz will have his hand full all night.. If he gets blown up, like he did on a few plays against YSU, the PSU coaches will need to make an adjustment and quick. Klopacz's ability to solidify the offensive line (especially the middle) is the key to Penn State's offensive game plan.
The 3-4 defense allows you to get one more big, fast twitch athlete onto the field and Alabama is not lacking in that department. 'Bama likes their outside linebackers smaller and quicker and their inside boys to be big time bangers. Senior Chavis Williams (6-4, 223) will set the outside with junior Jerrell Harris (6-3, 231.) Courtney Upshaw (6-2, 263) and Dont'a Hightower (6-4, 258) will clog up the middle. Also keep an eye out for Chris Jordan (6-3, 232).
Hightower has been a stud since his freshman season. He actually started the first four games last season before a torn ACL forced a medical redshirt. He was part of the freshmen class that brought Alabama back into the big time and out of the Shula years.
The Alabama linebackers will be a good gauge on what type of night the Penn State offense is going to have. If Hightower and company are in the backfield from the start, it is going to be a long night. If Royster and Stepfon Green (maybe Silas Redd, but I doubt he'll see meaningful carries) can get to the second level, we may be in for something special. As we know, you can't get to the second level, if the first level is in your backfield as soon as the ball is snapped. Over/Under on the amount of "three yards and a cloud of dust" jokes by 'Bama fans (at the end of the 1st half): 4.5.
First-team All-SEC and third-team All-American Safety Mark Barron is the leader in the secondary. Barron will create problems for Bolden and the passing offense. Last season he led the SEC with seven interceptions and was second on the team with 76 tackles. Barron's excellent ball skills are further complimented by his ideal 6-2, 210lb size. Expect Barron to be making plays all over the field on Saturday night. Sophomore Robert Lester will play Robin to Barron's Batman.
It looks like Derek Moye's height advantage will be tested when he matches up with 6-3 CB Dre Kirkpatrick. Teaming up with Kirkpatrick will be JUCO transfer DeQuan Menzie. Also in the mix will be B.J. Scott, a converted WR, Phelon Jones (LSU transfer), and true freshmen DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton. On paper, it looks like Alabama has the size and speed to match up with Penn State's wideouts (including Penn State mighty mite, Devon Smith.)
Finally, Penn State's first clear cut advantage. Thanks to the emergence of Collin Wagner (at least for one week), Penn State's kicking game is fairly solid. Top it off with the sonic booms of Anthony Fera in the punt and kickoff games, and we should be good to go.
Alabama is starting true freshmen at kicker and punter this season. Punter Cody Mandell averaged 40 yds a punt on his three punts against SJSU, with a long of 51 (Fera one punt, 45 yards.) Fellow freshman Cade Foster was perfect on both of his attempts with a long of 41. As for kickoffs, Foster had 8 attempts with one touchback (Fera also had 8 attempts with 4 touchbacks against YSU.) As luck would have it, the freshmen get to punt and kick at home dealing with a friendly home crowd and not the 7pm Beaver Stadium fans.
As for the return game, we've heard how dangerous Julio Jones is and we got to see how danagerous Chaz Powell is and how slick Devon Smith can be. This area of the game is a push.
What it all Means
Nothing, that's why they play the game. Paper always looks nice, but it is just that - paper. We do know this game is important to both programs. Alabama wants to stay on top and Penn State wants to inch closer to becoming a consistent national championship contender, not just once every four years. With the talent (and speed) Alabama has on defense, expect Joe Paterno to play Paterno ball, conservative attack with a focus on the run and special teams.
Bolden looked excellent against an overmatched Youngstown State team. The fan base responded with optimisim and hope. If Bolden can do the unthinkable on Saturday, he will be able to accomplish something the previous two starting quraterback's (Daryll Clark and Anthony Morelli) didn't - win a marquee regular season game.