Good teams make plays when they need to. They will find ways to win. Penn State, even in their best wins over UCF and Rutgers, barely managed not to lose. They shot themselves in the foot but hobbled to the finish line, and we somehow took inspiration from that. We had dreams of 9, 10 wins, of January 1st bowl games, of making noise in the Big Ten East race.
Now, it'll be an uphill climb for bowl eligibility. 5 wins seems a lot more likely than 8. But then, even the 2010 team that lost a game much like this one, 33-13 to Illinois, crawled its way to Tampa.
Anyway, we all saw the game, or, if you didn't, well, you're one of the lucky ones, and I'm not going to taint your Saturday--because, by definition, whatever you did other than watch this game was an improvement by default--by talking about it at great length. Suffice it to say that it was everything we've come to know about this 2014 Penn State team writ large: An impossibly slow start, a defense that was unimpeachable against the run getting gashed in the middle of the field, a #2 cornerback getting targeted and beat whenever the defensive line failed to bring sufficient pressure. Bob Shoop's defense continues to start too slow, and the losses of Nyeem Wartman--and, potentially, Brandon Bell--will hurt more in the coming weeks than they did against Northwestern's pass-first spread offense.
Then there was the special teams unit--no, I won't call it the we-fense--that, far from nektons, hasn't been able to go a game without giving up a long return or a blocked kick.
And, in short, an offense that couldn't sustain a drive because, inevitably, something would go wrong: a dropped pass here, a wide throw there, missed blocks ever-present, a crucial penalty behind the play. For a while, it looked like we were destined for another Christian Hackenberg special: Penn State had a chance and the momentum, as the defense stiffened up and the offense cut a deficit from 14-0 to 14-6, as Northwestern seemed to have the air go out of its sails. But then came the turnovers, the final note--with ten minutes left--on the sad trombone that was its performance.
Perhaps it's too early to call for John Donovan's firing.
This is still a very bad offensive line, one that's prevented a trio of good college running backs from establishing any ground game whatsoever, one that's had Christian Hackenberg running for his life far too often, one that, on a key 4th down attempt, blocked more fellow linemen than Wildcat defenders. Yes, it's hard to do much when you can't count on the line to give your quarterback a chance to throw, or to open up a hole for a back to run through.
But Donovan hasn't shown an iota of positive creativity--the few (failed) wrinkles on an otherwise impotent Wildcat notwithstanding--or any indication that he knows how to handle a pass-first offense that has a quarterback like Hack and receivers like Lewis and Hamilton. If it weren't for the terrific ball skills of the latter, Penn State's offense would be even more stagnant, and almost by design. When there's only two types of routes to sit on, it doesn't matter who your quarterback is: He's going to get picked off.
The throws seem to be alternatively low-upside hitch routes or low-percentage bombs. There are no yards after the catch. There are no opportunities to get playmakers the ball in space--except for on horribly telegraphed bubble screens, which every single opponent, by the second quarter, has become attuned to. Penn State has tight ends like Jesse James, Kyle Carter, and Mike Gesicki, and the fact that they're not used to create matchup problems downfield and down the seam is criminal. Lewis and Hamilton--and the likes of Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall, probably--are solid enough route runners that the lack of any intermediate passing game is incomprehensible.
Is Donovan not watching the same games we are? Penn State's otherwise dominant defense been getting gashed in the middle of the field, in the second level. And yet I can't remember a single throw down the middle of the field by our All-Everything QB that wasn't practically a Hail Mary. Where are the rollouts, to help Hackenberg buy time? Where is the playaction? Hell, if you're so committed to the short passing game, where are the quick slants and underneath throws and crossing routes that will actually give a Penn State receiver a chance to do something with the ball in his hands? Where are the spread looks that can mitigate a pass rush? And it's only because they couldn't get there that Penn State didn't have a chance to fail in the red zone yet again.
No, it's not fair to make a one-to-one comparison to Bill O'Brien, considering that he had Allen Robinson, and an offensive line that was, if not a strength, then at least something other than the raging tire fire that the 2014 unit has been. But we're seeing, now, the difference between a pro-style offense and whatever the hell John Donovan is running. More importantly, we're seeing the difference between a pro-caliber playcaller, and someone who's been riding James Franklin's coattails for the last half-decade. O'Brien had his flaws, yes, and we griped about them a year ago, but even if this is rock bottom for Donovan, it's too far down to stomach.
Perhaps it's too early to call for John Donovan's firing, but I'm going to do it anyway, because: Hi, I'm Devon. Have we met?
Happy Homecoming, Penn State. At least we can't lose next week.