Friday, November 9, 2007

Looking Ahead: Will the Nittany Lions Challenge for the National Championship in 2008?

Hopes were high this year in Happy Valley. As the team sits at 7-3 they are deemed a disappointment. Many thought this 2007 edition of Penn State football would be eying a trip to New Orleans on January 8th for the National Championship game. They were wrong. The team has underperformed and proven once again that they are mediocre at best; they're the best second tier team the Big Ten has to offer. Except for 1994 and 2005, Penn State is more often than not between the 3rd and 5th best team in the Big Ten. This year is no different. What about next year?

I never bought into the hype that Penn Stat could actually challenge for the National Title. There were too many question marks. Would Anthony Morelli play the entire season, or a majority of it, like he did versus Tennessee in the 2007 Outback Bowl? He certainly has not. His futility was demonstrated particularly well in a 27-20 loss at Illinois as well as a disappointing performance at Michigan. Will they be able to replace Tony Hunt? At first I wasn't so sure. Austin Scott and Rodney Kinlaw had trouble holding onto the ball and the line was not blocking well. With Scott now out of the picture, Kinlaw and redshirt freshman Evan Royster have performed better than expected. Can the defense perform at an elite level like it did in 2005 and 2006? Yes and no. They have looked dominating at times, but that was earlier in the season. Their downfall started during the Illinois game and they haven't looked dominating since, especially the pass D. Looking at the rankings and statistics doesn't make the defense sound as bad as it has looked. Here are some national rankings for Penn State's defense through 11/5/2007:

  • 12th in Total Defense; allowing 301.2 yards/game and 4.37 yards/play
  • 11th in Scoring Defense; allowing 20 TDs and 17.6 points/game
  • 9th in Rushing Defense; allowing 90.6 yards/game, 2.6 yards/carry, and 6 TDs
  • 44th in Passing Defense; allowing 210.6 yards/game and 10 TDs
  • 30th in Passing Efficiency; allowing 6.18 yards/attempt, 10.86 yards/completion, and a 56.89 completion percentage
  • 79th in Passes Intercepted; 8 INTs and 2.35% of pass attempts intercepted
  • 1st in Sacks; 40 sacks and an average of 4 sacks/game
  • 6th in Tackles for Loss; 85 TFLs, 370 yards lost, and 8.5 TFLs/game
  • 51st in stopping 3rd Down Conversions; 37.7% conversions successful
Overall those numbers look pretty good on paper. But a few things do stand out...passing defense and 3rd down conversions. The passing defense is only slightly better than average. My biggest concern is allowing almost 11 yards/completion. I know that is skewed with deep passes but it should also be skewed with short passes and screens. The average is WAY too high. I attribute this to shoddy tackling and that stupid lazy zone coverage that Tom Bradley insists on. Justin King is a supposed 1st Round NFL talent. If he really is, have him press the man! In my opinion, man coverage is more successful in shutting down receivers than zone. Strong cover corners, like King is supposed to be, should be able to line up 1-on-1 and shut the receiver down. Putting a team in zone is begging a team to complete 7-12 yard passes all game. If you don't want the whole team in zone, employ Cover 1. Not Cover 2 or 3. Obviously this changes with offensive packages, but with a base defense Penn State should use Cover 1. With their personnel, man-to-man would prove ideal. This could also help rectify another shortcoming, INTs. Only eight through 10 games? Wow. Where are those defensive playmakers? Anthony Scirrotto, King, and Tony Davis have underperformed this year. More man-to-man coverage could help increase INTs with proper technique and one roaming safety. Going back to the terrible zone coverage, 3rd down defense is atrocious. Ranked 51st? Allowing opposing teams almost a 40% conversion percentage? Unacceptable. Providing one or two more stops per game would drop that percentage into the low 30s, where it should be (Ohio State, tops in the Big Ten and 13th nationally, is allowing 30.5%). Troy (Troy!) leads the nation allowing only 24% conversions on 3rd down.

OK back to the main reason for this article: is Penn State poised to challenge for the '08 title after failing in '07? Possibly. As preseason polls show, no one really knows how a team is going to perform. We can speculate all we want. But we may not know a teams true colors until well into the season. Less than a month ago South Florida was ranked #2. They have now lost three straight. Whoops. Penn State returns a plethora of starters and lettermen for next years squad. The only significant losses are QB Anthony Morelli, LB Dan Connor, and OL John Shaw. Everyone else is back (barring jumps to the NFL from Scirrotto and/or King, but I see them coming back to prove they're more like their 2006 form and not the 2007 version). The biggest loss will be -- I can't believe I'm saying this -- Morelli. Not for his playmaking ability or his decision making. Just because he had experience. Even if Daryll Clark or Pat Devlin is potentially better in every way, they have little or no experience. Experience is everything. Losing Morelli will hurt but luckily PSU has scheduled powder puffs again for the first four games (vs Coastal Carolina, vs Arkansas State, @ Syracuse, vs To Be Announced). This will give Clark or Devlin time to adjust. Morelli will be a bigger loss than Connor because Sean Lee will be back. So will Tyrell Sales, Navorro Bowman, Bani Gbadyu, and a slew of highly touted freshman (redshirt and true). 'Linebacker U' will be fine in that respect.

So the 2008 team is almost a mirror image of the 2007 team. For better or worse. IF the team finds a suitable QB in Clark or Devlin, the team SHOULD improve. Challenge for the Big Ten? Absolutely. The schedule is rather brutal. The biggest tests will be, as usual, against Ohio State and Michigan. In 2008, Michigan comes to Happy Valley but travels to the Horseshoe. Penn State has to play four of five on the road starting October 4th @ Purdue followed by a second road trip to Madison, WI on October 11th. The Nittany Lions return home on the 18th for their battle against the Wolverines. Then they hit the road again to take on the Buckeyes (October 25th) and the road finale @ Iowa (November 8th). The last two games of '08 are in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium vs Indiana (November 15th) and Michigan State (November 22nd). The schedule is much more difficult next year than it was this year. But a true contender fights through. I don't think Penn State has it in them. They will be better in 2008, but not a real National Title contender. If they finish 2007 at 9-3 (5-3) with a probable birth (and loss to an SEC team) in the Outback Bowl, I see 2008 at 10-2 (6-2) with losses @ Ohio State and @ Wisconsin. Predicted Bowl Game: Capital One. Sorry Blue & White, next year, like this year, is not your year.


Steely McDonati said...

I will have to agree with you on this one and say there will not be a national championship next year. Main reason: the 4 of 5 on the road, with the one home game being Michigan. No matter how talented our team is, we always under perform on the road, so I can't see us coming out of that stretch with less than 2 losses.

TAS said...

They actually filled that TBA this week... with Temple. *guh*