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Penn State Football Takes Another Step Toward Camelot

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Each week the program moves closer to the glory that it once considered the norm.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

For many young Penn State football fans the idea of the team being ranked and nationally noticed for its play on the field seemed like a myth passed down by the elders. Were times ever really as great as they were portrayed in the stories shared around campfires and at tailgates? Now we are all sharing what it is like to have a team playing at the highest level together. It’s a feeling that can only be understood once experienced, no description can do it justice.

After a slow start No. 24 Penn State (6-2) took care of business with a conference road win at Purdue. Coming off an exhilarating win at home, under the lights of Beaver Stadium and in front of a white-out crowd versus the then-No. 2 team in the country, there was concern that the Lions would struggle to get itself ready for Purdue. Prior to the game coach Franklin told the team that they would need to ‘bring their own juice’ since the stands were likely to be mostly empty and the atmosphere would pale in comparison to the prior week.

In the early-going the team did seem to lack intensity, especially on the defensive side of the ball. As many young teams will, it regressed momentarily in the first half with sloppy tackling, which led to the continuation of a few drives.

Marcus Allen took an ill-advised pass interference penalty on a fourth down that led to a Purdue field goal which tied the game at 17 apiece. On the play, the ball was about to fall to the ground, but Allen tried to force his way through receiver Yancey DeAngelo to get a hand on it. It was an unnecessary play, a sloppy play, that was indicative of the first half for the Lions.

Penn State came out after half-time as it has so many times this season: focused, coached-up, and ready to improve over the opening half.

Jason Cabinda led the Lions with 9 tackles in his second game returning from injury. His tackle numbers illustrate the production that the junior middle linebacker provides for the team, but his contribution is much more profound than even that. He is the heart and soul of the defense, the play-caller in the middle, the chip on every teammate’s shoulder. But when Cabinda got ready to take the field in the second half, he noticed that his helmet was broken.

That didn’t mean that there would be a drop-off in production from the middle linebacker position. Newly-minted fan favorite and backup middle linebacker Brandon Smith stepped into the lineup. On the first play from scrimmage Smith made a tackle, the second play fell to the ground incomplete, and on the third play, Smith intercepted the pass and brought the ball back to the Purdue 24. It was at that moment that the steam appeared to exit the Boilermaker’s engine. The play swung momentum in the favor of Penn State, which then reeled off 17 consecutive points.

Penn State weathered a rash of injuries at the linebacker position, at one point it fielded a starting lineup featuring players that were 6-8 on the depth chart to start the season. With the return of Cabinda and Bell, the team is beginning to better resemble Linebacker University. There is solid play from the starters, capable backups to provide rest when needed, and several young, talented prospects who are now able to play to their strengths, being used in situations that illuminate their skills.

Purdue would add a touchdown late in the third quarter to briefly cut the lead to 10 points. Penn State answered back with one foot on the throat of its opponent and the other on the gas pedal, pressing both firmly to the floor. Four consecutive touchdowns later, it was an easy 62-24 victory.

The performance in the second half was exactly what one would expect of a rising team, one with hopes of a conference and national championship still dangling out in front of them. Penn State will need Michigan to lose two games and will need to run the table itself in order to play in the Big Ten championship. There is a lot that will play out before we know if that will become a reality. There are aspects of that scenario that the Lions do not control.

What the team does control are the four games that remain on the schedule. The next task will be at home versus a tough Iowa team that has been resting on the bye week. It will be a night game at home for Penn State. Following that will be two games on the road at Indiana and Rutgers. The season-finale will be at home versus a struggling Michigan State team. While there is plenty of football to be played and anything can happen, a ten-win regular season is still attainable for this young, improving team.

Whether or not that is good enough for a shot at the conference title and beyond is out of the Lions’ hands and should not diminish any part of a strong finish if the team is able to win out.

To pencil in any number of wins is extremely premature. As the four games ahead are all winnable, they too, could be lost. The team must prepare and assert itself as it did versus Ohio State, and in the second half with Purdue. If it does it will have the better team on the field for the remaining month of the regular season. Whether that translates to four additional wins will be revealed in the coming weeks.

Odds and Ends

We Wanted Improvement- The team has shown a great deal of improvement since the first game of the season. The Lions did not turn the ball over, nor have any bobbles at the mesh point of the read-option. In fact it was not even on the minds of most Penn State fans as the game wore on. How different is this compared to the beginning of the season, which featured many bobbles and untimely turnovers?

It’s not splitting hairs to say that the offensive line has improved not just over the past couple of seasons, but from the start of this season. Having lost the solid tackle Andrew Nelson due to injury for the year, the squad hasn’t missed a beat. It’s been a collective effort not just falling on the shoulders of the line itself. The coaching staff has clearly continued to teach the lineman throughout the week and during games. The play-calling has aided the group as it had not in years past. Quarterback Trace McSorley has been able to scramble and step aside when a play breaks down, further picking up the slack for the offensive line. Together the team has made it so that the play of the offensive line is no longer the theme of each game.

On the second play of the second series of the game, McSorley was sacked by Evan Panfil. It was the only sack of the game, a departure from the recent past. Outside of that play, McSorley ran the offense well, finishing with three touchdown passes and no turnovers.

Heading into the season, the play of the offensive line and new starting quarterback were on the front of everyone’s mind, now it is easy to forget while watching the game that these were ever concerns for the team. That is a noticeable improvement.

Roster Concerns Now In The Rear-view Mirror-Now that Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell are healthy there aren’t any position groups that are undermanned either in numbers or skill, to match up with any of the teams that remain on Penn State’s schedule. With all of the legitimate talk about the Lion’s depth and talent at certain positions in recent seasons, it is nice to know that the program has sailed past the stormy seas into the calm waters of this season’s stretch-run.

With the influx of young, talented contributors on both lines and sprinkled throughout the depth chart, it is clear that Penn State will have a quality team for the near future. Many of the players that are making game-changing plays will return next year and the year after that. As young players make their way onto the field, it is clear that there is some freakish talent waiting in the wings, gaining knowledge and strength as the season wears on.

No position group will be worse off next season. The team will lose a few contributors but overall the gain in talent will tip in favor of improvement. It’s hard to complete a puzzle if you are missing several pieces. Coach Franklin and his staff now have all the ingredients that it needs in order to provide comfort food for Nittany Lion fans that have been starved of a team that competes on the national level.