Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Miles Dieffenbach could return Saturday.

As we all know, in the spring Penn State lost one of their senior leaders to a knee injury. Left guard Miles Dieffenbach tore his ACL in spring practice, and has not played at all yet this season. It has shown as Penn State's offensive line has been absolutely horrible.

In his weekly meeting with the media today James Franklin said that Penn State could possibly have Dieffenbach back on Saturday night. Dieffenbach has been practicing with his teammates the past few weeks, and is close to a return. Franklin said his knee is a "week to week thing," and that getting the senior captain back would also provide a huge emotional boost to the team.

How much Dieffenbach could help on the field obviously is a huge unknown. First off, he has not played in a game since November of 2013 in the season finale at Wisconsin. Secondly, it's pretty crazy to expect him to go from having missed nearly a calender year to starting and taking every snap. Odds are Dieffenbach would be eased back into his playing role. But, even at 75% and rusty Miles Dieffenbach is an upgrade over the offensive line play the Nittany Lions have gotten this season.

When Dieffenbach returns, rather it is Saturday night vs Ohio State or at some other time, he will be reinserted at his left guard position. This could potentially make the left side of the Nittany Lions offensive line a strength with Dieffenbach and left tackle Donovan Smith. I would expect Brendan Mahon to move from left guard to right guard, with Brian Gaia moving to the bench. Having Dieffenbach may not be felt on the field in his first game back, whenever that ends up being. However, once he knocks rust off and is able to play the majority of games that should help improve the line.

It would be very nice if Dieffenbach is able to start against Indiana, Temple, and Illinois. These three games are all extremely winnable, and having Dieffenbach and Smith on the left side of the line should improve pass protection and the running game. Being at full strength for those games gives the Nittany Lions a great chance of going 7-5. Even if Dieffenbach is not back Saturday night, he should be back soon. All along my guess was that he would be back for the Maryland game on November 1st, and I'm sticking to that prediction.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Previewing Penn State vs #13 Ohio State

What: Penn State Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2) vs #13 Ohio State Buckeyes (5-1, 2-0)
When: Saturday, October 25th, 2014, 8pm ABC
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pennsylvania

After having their second bye in three weeks last Saturday, the Nittany Lions are back in action this week. Saturday night Penn State will host the 13th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes under the lights at Beaver Stadium in front of what should be a rockous White Out crowd. Hopefully the crowd will be able to have a negative effect on the Buckeyes, because Saturday night Penn State is going to need all the help they can get.

After Ohio State stumbled around with Navy, and then lost to Virginia Tech to start the year this game looked totally different. Penn State was 2-0 and seemed to be on the rise this season, while the Buckeyes were 1-1 and looked like a team desperately missing their star quarterback. Since then however, the Buckeyes' have been getting better week in and week out while the Nittany Lions have wasted a dominate defense due to their offense progressively getting worse. Largely due to putrid, unacceptable offensive line play.

The Nittany Lions come reeling into this game after losing back-to-back Big Ten games to Northwestern and Michigan. Penn State's offense played horribly in both games, and despite that the Nittany Lions still should have beaten Michigan. Penn State's defense has been among the best in the country all season long, but they will face their hardest test of the season Saturday night.

Ohio State has arguably the best offense Penn State will see all year. The Buckeyes rank 4th nationally, and second in the Big Ten, averaging 46.8 points per game. Ohio State is led on offense by freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. Barrett was thrown into the fire when returning starter Braxton Miller blew out his shoulder in training camp. Barrett struggled early in the season, especially in the Buckeyes' loss to Virginia Tech. However, he has played fabulously of late.

J.T. Barrett

Barrett is completing 65.2% of his passes this season, and has thrown for 1,615 yards and 20 touchdowns. His passing yardage total is the second most in the Big Ten behind Christian Hackenberg. Barrett has also been a key cog in the Buckeyes' rushing attack through six games. So far this season Barrett is second on the team in rushing yards with 383 yards, and he is tied for the team lead with 4 rushing touchdowns. Penn State made Devin Gardner look decent, J.T. Barrett is a lot like Gardner except he's just a heck of a lot better. I think, or maybe I should say fear, Barrett will have a huge game Saturday night.

The rushing attack is led by sophomore running back Ezekiel Jackson. This season Jackson has rushed for 531 yards and 4 touchdowns. Freshman Curtis Samuel will also see carries, and has chipped in 251 yards and 2 touchdowns this year. Senior Rod Smith has run for 4 touchdowns. The Nittany Lions of course sport the nation's best rushing defense, and it will need to be stellar Saturday night. If Penn State has any chance at pulling the upset, they must stop the Buckeye rushing attack. I expect the Nittany Lions' front seven to be up to the challenge Saturday night, I just fear the Buckeyes wearing them down.

The reason I fear the Buckeyes wearing them down is the Penn State offense. The Nittany Lions absolutely stink right now on offense. Their offensive line can not block anyone. This is why Hack has been sacked a Big Ten worst 20 times this season, and why the Nittany Lions rank next to last in the nation with 93.2 rushing yards per game. Ohio State has a very talented, athletic, and physical defense. I do not expect Penn State to do much at all on offense Saturday night. I foresee Hack running for his life while being chased by guys like Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett. We will most likely see Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, and Akeel Lynch getting stuffed on rushing attempts all night.

If Penn State has any shot they must, absolutely must, sustain drives on offense. They have to stay on the field to let their defense rest, and must also, you know, score some points. Ohio State is averaging more than twice as many points as Penn State this season. That is a bad, bad combination for the Nittany Lions. As much as I want to say Penn State can pull off this upset, I just can't. The formula to pull off the upset is to sustain long drives on offense to let the defense rest, playing lights out defense like they have all season, and scoring at least 24 points. While I think the defense has the capability to play well if they aren't absolutely gassed, I do not think the offense can do nearly enough to prevent that.

Penn State is in big trouble come Saturday night. I love Penn State has much as anyone, but I fear they are going to get absolutely annihilated Saturday night. The Nittany Lions' defense is the real deal, and they will keep this game somewhat close through two quarters. However, I think the offense's inability to sustain drives and move the ball will lead to Ohio State's offense wearing Penn State's defense down. I do not think this will be as ugly as last year's 63-14 shellacking, but it still won't be pretty. It's also going to make me sick to my stomach seeing Larry Johnson in Ohio State gear and listening to ABC ram it down people's throats all night long about his career at Penn State. Don't worry, Urban Meyer is still a complete punk. The Nittany Lions will get their payback in another two years or so once the scholarship numbers are back where they need to be, and guys like Brian Gaia, Angelo Mangiro, and Ryan Keiser are not seeing regular playing time.
Ohio State 40
Penn State 14

Monday, October 13, 2014

It was always going to get worse before it got better.

When the sanctions were levied in July of 2012, things seemed extremely bleak for Penn State. On top of the crippling sanctions, the Nittany Lions then lost the first two games of their 2012 season starting the season 0-2. Then we all got spoiled for a little while. The Nittany Lions would go on to win 8 of their final 10 games in 2012, and it should have been 9 of 10. Remember the fumble debacle in Nebraska that the refs blew? However, that 2012 team was still pretty good. Matt McGloin went from not very good, to the Big Ten's best pro-style quarterback. On defense there were players like Mike Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill, and Glenn Carson who are all now in the NFL. The offensive line was always very good with players like John Urschell, Miles Deffienbach, and Matt Stankiewitch. That team was 8-4, and should have been 10-2. That team was the best team Penn State has had since the sanctions were levied, and was going to be all along.

Why was that the best team of the past three years? One word, math. The Nittany Lions had 74 scholarship players in 2012. The most of any year during the sanctions. For comparison, this year the Nittany Lions have 64. Last year Penn State was still able to post a winning record at 7-5. However, anyone who watched that team and the 2012 team will tell you the 2012 team was much better. Ultimately though, the Nittany Lions managed to go 15-9 the past two years with the sanctions hanging over them. Then this year they started 4-0, and were 2-0 when the sanctions were lifted. Due to the fact the Nittany Lions went 17-9 during the sanctions I feel a lot of people failed to realize that things were always going to get worse before they got better.

This year Penn State currently sits at 4-2. However, despite being 4-2, they are not a very good football team. A big reason why is the sanctions. The offensive line has 1 scholarship player, Donovan Smith, that is not a freshman or a sophomore. I did not include Miles Deffienbach since he is still out with his knee injury. No disrespect is intended here but guys like Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey, and Angelo Mangiro should not be starting on the offensive line of a school like Penn State. Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson have each got some good potential, but neither appears to be ready to be starting yet. But due to the sanctions and lack of offensive line depth all of these guy are starting, or seeing significant playing time.

Penn State's defense has improved leaps and bounds over last year. Largely due to the fact the defense is more athletic this year than last year, but due to the issues on offense it has not mattered much. Even on defense though the sanctions can be seen. Penn State is extremely thin at linebacker. This was on display against Northwestern when Nyeem Wartman was out with an injury, and the Wildcats exploited Jason Cabinda and Vonn Walker all day long in the passing game. There's a reason Mike Hull and Brandon Bell have played nearly every snap on defense this season.

This team has zero margin for error right now. There is a lack of depth at most positions, lots of inexperience, and a flat out lack of talent at some positions. Look at last night's game, Ryan Keiser's failed play on Funchess' touchdown was an absolutely killer play. Getting two field goals instead of two touchdowns on three red zone trips would also prove to have a major effect on the outcome of the game. Now having these things happen to any team during a game can decrease their chance of winning the game, but for Penn State stuff like this is that much more detrimental due to the fact they have zero margin for error.

When the sanctions were handed down a lot of people felt that year three would be the toughest for Penn State, and so far that appears to be true. This team is not nearly as good as the 2012 Nittany Lions. They are much better than the 2013 Nittany Lions on defense, but much worse on offense. A big reason is this team currently is dressing 64 scholarship players each Saturday, the least they have had since the sanctions were handed out. They are also currently the second youngest team in the FBS. Inexperience and a lack of depth is usually a bad combination for any team to have. I still believe this team will get at least 6 wins and make a bowl game this year, and had I told you when the sanctions were levied that Penn State would not have a losing record and reach a bowl game in the next 3 years you would have been ecstatic. If you say otherwise, you are lying to yourself.

Now, things will start to get better begging next year. First off there are a lot of young guys getting a ton of experience this year that will be better next year simply due to more experience. Secondly, Penn State only has 9 seniors on the team. Take away those 9, and add in guys being redshirted right now, and that puts the Nittany Lions at 62 scholarships before the 2015 recruiting class comes to Happy Valley. The recruiting class will add somewhere in the range of 20-25 scholarship players which will put the Nitany Lions in the same ballpark as their competitors in terms of scholarship players available. It should be noted that I only counted guys that are redshirt or true seniors into that figure of 9, there are 16 redshirt juniors but, with the exception of maybe Anthony Zettel, they should all be back for their senior season.

What will also help next year is there are a lot of players that will be able to step in and help right away as true freshman. Offensive linemen Steven Gonzalez, Ryan Bates, and Sterling Jenkins can all help right away. So can defensive backs John Reid and Jarvis Miller. Franklin and his staff have done a great job of targeting Penn State's three areas of least depth (OL, DB, and LB) in the 2015 class. Now I know some people will say, "why will playing true freshman help when part of the problem this year is inexperience?" It is because guys like Gonzalez, Bates, Jenkins, and Reid are all more talented players than some of the players Penn State currently have at their respective positions. I know I'd much rather have Steven Gonzlez or Sterling Jenkins on the offensive line next fall than Brian Gaia or Derek Dowrey. I'd also be more comfortable with John Reid covering wide receivers than I would be with Trevor Williams. Once the Nittany Lions are able to bring in back-to-back recruiting classes of 20+ players, they will really start to be in a much better place scholarship numbers wise. I truly believe this team will start to turn a big corner in 2016, and that 2015 will be better than 2014.

A lot of people are questioning Coach Franklin and his staff right now. I totally understand that, it'll happen after losing games the way Penn State just did to Northwestern and Michigan. Yes, the play calling and clock management have been rough at times. However, this coaching staff has worked wonders with the defense. Offensively they are not exactly working with the cream of the crop in terms of their line, and no team can be successful offensively without solid line play. Coaching is far from Penn State's biggest problem right now, it is lack of depth and talent at some positions. It is blatantly obvious on the offensive line, but is also seen elsewhere at times. Such as Ryan Keiser horrible play last night that led to Michigan's lone touchdown.

Coach Franklin and his guys are good football coaches. They proved that by averaging 8 wins a year at Vanderbilt, in the country's hardest conference, with very little talent. They can also recruit extremely well, which they proved at Vanderbilt and are now proving at Penn State. This program will be very good, and soon. However, things were always going to get worse before they got better. Right now, in my opinion, things are as bad as they are going to get. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Michigan 18, Penn State 13. The good, not so good, and other notes.

Tonight the Nittany Lions lost their second consecutive game. This one coming on the road to the Michigan Wolverines by a score of 18-13. The sanctions are really starting to shine through. Penn State only has 64 scholarship players this year, and it is showing. Especially on the offensive line. However, this team will still get to bowl eligibility this year and make us all feel better. However for now, it's time to dissect tonight's mess.

The Good

Anthony Zettel
Tonight defensive tackle Anthony Zettel continued to play like an All-American. He had an interception, batted two passes down at the line, and was blowing up Michigan offensive linemen all night long. Zettel has been an absolute beast this year, and that continued tonight.

Mike Hull
The Big Ten's leading tackler once again had over 10 tackles tonight. This included a sack and two tackles for a loss. HE absolutely played like a mas possessed tonight. Hull is solidifying himself as an All-Big Ten performer this season, and his NFL Draft stock is rising. Hull will be playing on Sundays next year, but until then let's enjoy what he is doing on Saturdays for Penn State.

The Defense
Penn State held Michigan to just 256 yards of total offense, and the Wolverines really did not put together a good drive once all night. The defense also forced a turnover, pressured Gardner all night, and continued their good work against the run holding Michigan to 64 yards. Penn State's defense has been dominate this year, that continued tonight. If the offense was even mediocre, the Nittany Lions would be 6-0.

The Not So Good

The Offense

Penn State mustered just 214 yards of total offense tonight. This included just 61 yards in the second half. The running game, which averaged over 5 yards per carry in the first half, wound up sucking again with just 54 yards tonight. Hack started out hot, and then came unglued. He threw a very costly interception, and missed some open receivers. However, some of his struggled could be linked to the continued horrible offensive lien play. Brian Gaia and Angelo Mangiro both flat out suck, and Andrew Nelson hasn't played very well either. Hack was sacked 5 more times tonight, bringing the season total up to 19. That is horrible. There was also the terrible red zone offense. The Nittany Lions penetrated deep into Michigan territory their first two drives, and had to settle for a pair of field goals. If they get even one touchdown out of those drives, it's a totally different game. The offense must improve. Both games Penn State has lost has been due to the poor offense. It must improve.

Play Calling
This game really seemed to turn after that failed fake punt. The Nittany Lions never, ever should have faked a punt on 4th and 11 at their own 40. Just punt it and pin Michigan back deep. Especially since the Wolverine offense was doing nothing all night. Also, going to the wildcat on second goal was bad. Even though it should be noted that Kyle Carter was open but Bill Belton made a poor throw, if Belton's throw is better PSU gets touchdown there. That said, it was still a stupid play call. There's a reason Belton si a running back and not a quarterback. I've defended John Donovan, but his play calling needs to get better. When Franklin named his coaching staff Donovan was the guy I was least excited about. Tonight Franklin exploded on Donovan on the sideline, possibly a sign he's frustrated as well. Akeel Lynch needs more touches as well.

Right now people are very negative and I get that. The last two games have been very ugly. However, Coach Franklin and his staff are good coaches. They took a Vanderbilt team short on talent, and averaged 8 wins a year and had a top 25 team in 2 of their 3 seasons there. However, at Vandy they had a full allotment of scholarships. Not 64. Bear Bryant would struggle to win with this team right now. Coach Franklin is also a top notch recruiter that currently has a top 10 recruiting class, and no there will not be some mass exodus of recruits due to Penn State losing back-to-back games. It will take 1 or 2 recruiting classes, but things will be okay. Coach Franklin and his staff will turn this program into big time contenders once again. Plus hey if the officiating crew knew what is and isn't offsides on a kick off, Penn State may have won tonight anyway. Had the Nittany Lions been given the ball down 5 with 1:40 to go, anything could have happened.

Ultimately, this team will get to bowl eligibility this year. Between Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, and Temple they'll get at least 2 wins. Go back to July 2012 when the sanctions were issued. Had I told you the next three season Penn State would not have a losing record and make a bowl game, you would have been ecstatic. Breathe, it'll be okay.

Other Notes

- This loss snapped the Nittany Lions 4 game win streak against Michigan.
- Tonight DaeSean Hamilton recorded his first career TD catch, and broke Deon Butler's record for receptions by a freshman in a single season.
- Penn State has a bye next week.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Previewing Penn State at Michigan

What: Penn State Nittany Lions (4-1, 1-1) at Michigan Wolverines (2-4, 0-2)
When: Saturday, October 11th, 2014, 7pm on ESPN 2
Where: The Big House, Ann Arbor, Michigan

This Saturday Penn State will be back in action following a bye week last weekend. The Nittany Lions will travel to The Big House to take on a very poor Michigan team that is essentially in a state of disarray. Last week the Wolverines fell on the road at Rutgers 26-24 in what was their third consecutive loss. Penn State will be looking to bounce back from a dreadful performance in a 29-6 loss to Northwestern two weeks ago, and Michigan appears to be a good opponent to do it against.

As I said, Michigan is a mess right now. They currently sit 0-2 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1967. In all honesty, if they lost out and went 2-10 it would not be a surprise and if they finished any better than 5-7 it would surprise me.. Their problems start on offense. They rank 109th nationally in passing yards per game (173.2 yards per game), 57th in rushing yards (180.8 yards per game), and 103rd in points (22.3 points per game). So they have not done much right on offense thus far this season.

What Michigan has done best this year in run the football, even at that they rank about middle of the pack in the nation in rushing yards. Well luckily for Penn State stopping the run is what the Nittany Lions do best. Penn State is second in the country in rushing yards allowed per game (60.2 yards) and leads the country in yards allowed per rush (2.0). It will be vital on Saturday for Penn State's front seven to stop the Michigan running game and try and force Devin Gardner to beat Penn State with his arm. This is something I believe the Nittany Lions will be able to do Saturday night.

Michigan's rushing attack is led by a pair of sophomore running backs, De'Veon Smith and Derrick Green. Green leads the team in rushing this year with 471 yards 3 touchdowns. Smith has run for 282 yards, and a team leading 4 touchdowns. However, Green will not play this Saturday. He suffered a broken clavicle against Rutgers that will cost him the rest of his season. Furthermore, Smith's status for Saturday is also up in the air do to an injury he suffered late in the game against Rutgers. Michigan might be forced to rely heavily upon their third and fourth string running backs this Saturday, that is bad news for an offense that is already struggling.

Quarterback Devin Gardner is also a huge threat with his legs, having run for 131 yards and 3 touchdowns this year. What honestly scares me most about Michigan's offense is Gardner's ability to make things happen with his legs. One knock on Bob Shoop's defenses at Vanderbilt was the way they struggled with spread style offenses with athletic quarterbacks. Well Devin Gardner is as athletic of a quarterback as you are going to see. Last year against Penn State Gardner made a lot of plays with his legs. Working in Penn State's favor is that they are much more athletic on defense this year than last. Hopefully, the Nittany Lions can contain him Saturday and prevent his legs from causing too much damage.

I do not believe Gardner is capable of beating a team with his arm. This season Gardner has complete 62.5% of his passes for 911 yards and 7 interceptions. Gardner's play was so poor early on that he was benched for Shane Morris before that whole concussion debacle unfolded. Gardner has always been a turnover machine throughout his career, and this year has been no different. If Penn State can pressure Gardner, they should be able to force him to make poor decisions and turn the ball over. If Gardner struggles and Morris is healthy, then it is very possible the Nittany Lions could see some of Shane Morris this Saturday. Morris, more of a pro-style quarterback, has completed just 35.9% of his passes and has thrown 3 interceptions this season.

Michigan's biggest receiving threat is by far tight end Devin Funchess. The 6'5, 230 pound junior has caught 29 balls this season for 392 yards and 3 touchdowns. All of which are team highs. Funchess can be a matchup nightmare for defenses. In their last game against Northwestern, the Nittany Lion defense was shredded on passes down the middle. This is where Michigan will look to use Funchess, the loss of Nyeem Wartman could be felt again this week. If Wartman is out, the Nittany Lions need to use Jason Cabinda inside more than Vonn Walker. Cabinda did not have the best of games against Northwestern, but he is more talented and athletic than Walker giving the Nittany Lions a better option to cover Funchess. However, Wartman is currently listed as a starter for the game this week. So it appears he will start. That does not guarantee he will be able to play his usual amount of snaps though, odds are he will not be able to do that.

Michigan's defense is allowing 22.8 points per game this season, which ranks 53rd nationally. The weak point of their defense is their secondary. Last week Gary Nova torched Michigan for 404 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. Yes, the same Gary Nova who threw 5 interceptions against Penn State. If the offensive line can give Christian Hackenberg any kind of time at all this Saturday, he should have a monster game. With how much Penn State has struggled to run the ball this year, it is very important that Hackenberg and the passing game have a big night on Saturday.

Michigan ranks 12th nationally (100.2 yards per game) in rushing defense. So Penn State is facing a very strong rush defense, which does not inspire much confidence in me that the Nittany Lions will be able to start to finally establish a running game this week. I would like to finally see Akeel Lynch and his 7.4 yards per carry be given more carries this weekend, but that won't fix this team's woes rushing the football. Only better offensive line play will. Penn State needs to get a big game from Christian Hackenberg and the passing attack Saturday night, but they also need to try and the run ball to take some of the pressure off of Hackenberg. If the Nittany Lions are going to win Saturday, then they have to rush for at least 75 yards in my opinion.

Michigan has struggled immensely in forcing turnovers so far this year, in fact they have a -13 turnover differential so far. Through their first six games the Wolverines have forced just two turnovers, both of them being interceptions. There is only one team in the nation that has forced less turnovers so far than Michigan. Furthermore, Michigan is the only team in the country that has not recovered a fumble yet this year.

Even though Penn State has won 4 straight games overall against Michigan, the Nittany Lions are just 3-5 all time in Ann Arbor. However, this might be the worst Michigan team Penn State has ever played at The Big House. That said, you still can not expect to go into The Big House and get an easy victory. Especially in a game that will be under the lights, should feature a good atmosphere, and against a Michigan team that know their backs are against the wall. The Wolverines are 2-4 and Brady Hoke's job is on the line, this team will be inspired Saturday night. The Nittany Lions need to come prepared to weather the early storm Saturday night. This weekend Penn State will continue to look to find their way on offense, especially with the offensive line. But their defense needs to continue to play strong, and I believe they will. Michigan has struggled mightily this year on offense and defense, and is a very bad team right now. This game is one of three game remaining on the schedule, along with Indiana and Maryland, that to me are real coin flip games and could go either way. It would not surprise me to see either team win Saturday night, the only thing that would surprise me is a blowout by either team. Saturday night may not be the prettiest football game anyone will ever see, but in the end I believe the Nittany Lions come out on top.
Penn State 20
Michigan 16

Monday, October 6, 2014

Penn State recruiting round up (10/6)

With everyone worrying about recruiting due to Brandon Wimbush taking an official visit to Notre Dame and Jordan Whitehead committing to Pitt over the weekend, I figured this would be a good time to do a piece on recruiting. First off, Wimbush. Yes there have been rumors of Wimbush de-committing for a little over a month now, and I realize him taking an official visit to Notre Dame will only add to the fear. However, Wimbush has already taken a visit since committing to Penn State. He visited Stanford, and stayed committed. Even though a Wimbush flip to Notre Dame would not surprise me at all, there is no reason to panic. The Nittany Lions still have a top 10 recruiting class, and a lot of in house talent at QB already in Christian Hackenberg, Michael O'Connor, and Trace McSorley. It would suck if Wimbush flips, but QB is one position where Penn State can survive something like this happening. So don't panic if he does.
Christian Wilkins

Now, onto the remaining targets. Penn State can afford to take 4 to 5 more recruits this class. The fact Sterling Jenkins is enrolling early helps with this. Penn State remains in on a lot of big name guys. Defensive tackles Tim Settle and Christian Wilkins remain very high on Penn State. Settle and Wilkins are two of the nation's top 10 defensive tackles in the 2015 recruiting class. Landing one would be awesome, landing both would be worth a celebration. Settle will commit on December 20th, and it appears to be a two horse race between Virginia Tech and Penn State. Even though the Hokies are the frontrunners, the Nittany Lions are gaining ground and fast. Settle is a guy with some academic issues, but he is working extremely hard to take care of them and become DI-A eligible. As for Wilkins, the Suffield, Connecticut, native has no time table on when he will commit. However, he appears to be a Penn State lock. I, along with many others, will be rather surprised if he does not choose the Nittany Lions.

Kittaning tight end Nick Bowers is another guy it appears the Nittany Lions will land. Bowers is currently committed to Pitt, that is in large part though due to the Penn State sanctions. It appeared Penn State would not be able to offer him due to scholarship restrictions, however he was committed shortly after the sanctions were lifted. Bowers has said his recruiting is closed until his football season ends, but I expect him to flip to Penn State at some point between now and signing day. George Washington (Philadelphia) defensive end Shareef Miller also appears to be a Penn State lock, that should be noted.

Another player that could flip to Penn State is cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick. Even though Fitzpatrick is currently committed to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, he has started taking official visits. He was in Tallahassee this past weekend, and will take one to Penn State eventually. Now that Whitehead is committed to Pitt, I imagine Coach Franklin and his staff will really recruit Fitzpatrick hard in their efforts to find a corner to compliment John Reid. A Fitzpatrick flip would be a little surprising, but not a total shock.

I get people are a little worried about recruiting right now, but the Nittany Lions will be fine. They currently have a top 10 class and, even if Wimbush flips, this class will only improve between now and signing day. Penn State will take 4 or 5 more recruits in this class. I'm willing to bet Wilkins, Bowers, and Miller are 3 of them. Hopefully Settle is another one. Coach Franklin is an excellent recruiter as he has shown, never doubt him in recruiting. He was able to put together a top 25 class at Vanderbilt for goodness sake. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Dissecting Penn State's offensive woes.

Before delving into this everyone do yourselves a favor: take a deep breathe, realize Penn State is still 4-1, they will go bowling for the first time since 2011, and take a step back from the ledge. Saturday was ugly. Very, very ugly. The Nittany Lions were embarrassed on homecoming Saturday against Northwestern by a score of 29-6. This was the Nittany Lions' worst ever loss on homecoming, and worst home loss since 2001.

Penn State's biggest problem this year has been the offense. Penn State ranks in the top 12 nationally in scoring, rushing, and total defense. The Nittany Lions' defense is not the Swiss cheese it was a year ago. However, the offense has regressed. Largely due to the terrible play of the offensive line.

This year Penn State ranks 100th nationally in points per game (22.8), 115th nationally in rushing yards per game (101). The passing attack, despite a bad game from Christian Hackenberg this past weekend, still ranks 25th nationally, and first in the Big Ten, in yards per game (306.8).

OL Coach Herb Hand has his work cut out for him.

The offensive line must improve, and the improved play must start in Penn State's next game which is against Michigan on October 11th. Penn State has allowed 14 sacks so far this year, the most in the Big Ten. They also rank last in the Big Ten in rushing yards. Penn State has talent at running back. Zach Zwinak is coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, Bill Belton is a dynamic play maker, and Akeel Lynch has more upside than Zwinak and Belton. I have trouble faulting the running backs for the failure of the running game.

All season long Penn State has had no running lanes whatsoever. Hackenberg has also constantly been under pressure, as evident by the 14 times he has been sacked. Up front redshirt junior left tackle Donovan Smith has played very well. Outside of Smith however, the offensive line has not had much success. Center Angelo Mangiro has shown flashes of good play, but his shot gun snaps have been bad all season. They tend to resemble dead ducks as they head toward Christian Hackenberg and get there slowly, something you can not afford when you have an OL that can't pass protect. Left guard Brendan Mahon has improved each week and is showing flashes of why he was one of the top OL recruits in the country in 2013, but he also needs to continue to get better each week. The right side of the offensive line has really been troublesome. Both Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey have been bad at right guard, and Andrew Nelson has had struggles at right tackle.
Belton and the RBs have had no room to run this year.

The big problem is Penn State really has no other options on the offensive line. Coming into the year many people, myself included, predicted Penn State's offensive line would be bad. However, I don't think any of us expected it to be this bad. With Miles Deffienbach out with injury, Donovan Smith was the only returning starter and it has shown. Deffienbach could be back in the next few weeks, and that should provide a huge boost to the OL as it would shift Brendan Mahon to right guard and get Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey off the field. The sanctions have hit the offensive line hard. Gaia and Dowrey were defensive linemen until this past offseason, but were shifted to offensive line due to lack of depth. The depth problem got even worse when Deffienbach got hurt in the spring.

Penn State's offensive line will improve, it just has too. Brendan Mahon has all kinds of talent, Andrew Nelson has a high ceiling too. The addition of Deffienbach, which could come as soon as the Maryland game, will also be a big boost. Not just on the field, but also mentally as he is one of the senior team leaders. As I said above, the sanctions hit the OL hard and it is showing. However, Penn State has some very solid offensive linemen committed in the 2015 class highlighted by the state's top recruit Sterling Jenkins. These young men could easily step in and play right away next fall, but that does not help the here and now. The point is, don't pile on Coach Franklin and his staff too much for poor offensive line play this season. There is not a whole lot of talent there, and there are two guys playing out of position. It will get better this year, it just simply has to, and will really improve in coming years.

There are ways to work around poor offensive line play however, and we have seen some of that from offensive coordinator John Donovan this season. Penn State needs to just about scrap draw plays, RB screens, and stretch runs that all take time to develop. Penn State's offensive line simply is not good enough to allow these plays to work. Donovan has done a better job of not calling these plays as much the past few games as he did early on, but he has still been stubborn with them at times. I do understand is line of thinking though, as you must be as balanced as possible on offense in order to win football games.

On offense Penn State needs to go with runs in between the tackles on which they just hand it off immediately and try and get yards. These have been the runs they have had the most success with this season. Cutting out on the penalties would also help, as Belton has had a few big runs called back this season due to holding penalties. Another thing that has led to huge success this year is something we saw a lot of in the second half of the Rutgers game, quick passes and screens to WRs. Those quick slants, out routes, hitches, and screens willed the Nittany Lions to a come from behind victory over the Scarlet Knights in their conference opener. They are plays that work to perfection when you have explosive WRs, which the Nittany Lions have, and also are great for teams with offensive lines that have protection problems. Penn State, obviously, also has that. I'd like to see Donovan call these more often on offense.

While the offensive line has been Penn State's biggest problem on offense, it is not the only one. The Nittany Lions have also not been good in the red zone. They have scored just 8 red zone touchdowns this season, which is tied with Northwestern for the least in the Big Ten. This must improve. I've pointed out multiple times this year that Penn State must stop settling for 3, or nothing, in the red zone and start getting 6. This hurt them Saturday, as their three red zone possessions resulted in two field goals and a blocked field goal. Had they scored touchdowns on even two of those drives, it would have been a completely different game.

Mental mistakes such as drops and penalties have also been killer. Penn State has had a lot of big plays called back due to holding and illegal block penalties this season. The WRs have also had a case of the drops at times this year, even the sure handed Geno Lewis had a killer drop on Saturday. They need to clean up the mental mistakes as well.

Penn State's defense is one of the best in the country, and they have a stud at quarterback in Christian Hackenberg. They also have three very talented running backs, and roll three deep at tight end. Furthermore, they have a very talented group of WRs led by Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. However, Penn State's offensive line is a mess. Their offensive is truly the one thing keeping Penn State from currently being 5-0, and from being a top 15-20 team this season.

Ohio State and Michigan State are the only remaining games on Penn State's schedule I'm chalking up as guarantee losses. The other 5 are all very winnable. Temple, Indiana, and Illinois are all games Penn State should win, and Michigan and Maryland are also very winnable. Especially the Michigan game even with it being in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are an utter mess right now, much more of a mess than the Nittany Lions. There is no reason for Penn State to finish any worse than 7-5 this season, with 8-4 being a real possibility. Even 9-3 still wouldn't surprise me. It is extremely frustrating to watch this offense right now. But the offense must play better as they get into the teeth of conference play, and that all starts with the offensive line.