Yes, Joe Paterno is back in Happy Valley for his 46th year as Penn State’s head coach. In recent years, despite a 2008 Big Ten championship, the Paterno regime has come to preside over a football team that wins more games than it loses, but doesn’t push very far up the rankings. That trend will continue if the first 3 games of 2011 are any indication. After taking down Indiana State, the Nittany Lions suffered a sound defeat to Alabama in week 2 (27-11) and then a difficult escape against perennial in-state ragdolls Temple, winning just 14-10.
Penn State now has one game against Eastern Washington waiting before taking on their difficult Big 10 schedule. It’s difficult to draw too many concrete conclusions about Penn State on their performance so far, since Temple and Indiana State are pretty far below average, and Alabama is pretty far above. So let’s look back at last season before analyzing this one.
Penn State came into 2010 fresh off an 11-2 season and a New Year’s Day victory over LSU in the Capital One Bowl, but by week 6, even dreams of defending that Capital One Bowl glory had faded.
Penn State’s first loss came the exact same way it did this year—in a week 2 blowout to Alabama. But the real trouble started when the Big 10 season began with two losses to Iowa and Illinois, by a combined score of 57-16. By the time the last whistle had sounded in the Outback Bowl, PSU had also fell at the hands of Ohio State, Michigan State, and Florida. Or in other words, the Nittany Lions lost to every good team they played, finishing at 7-6. They also lost 4 games by 20 points or more, which was a first for the Paterno era.
There were a few bright spots though. Beyond graduated senior RB Evan Royster’s 1,000-yard season, freshman tailback Silas Redd emerged as an explosive threat, averaging over 5.6 yards per carry. In addition, junior wideout Derek Moye averaged over 16 yards per catch en route to 8 touchdowns and nearly 900 yards. Perhaps most encouraging for this season, however, is just how many players have returned.
- Experience—15 starters have come back from last year, which is enough to make their experience matter. On offense, both quarterbacks who split snaps—sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin—have a year under their belt, and they have three upperclassmen leading the receiving corps, including the junior Justin Brown, who has combined to average over 100 yards a game so far with Moye. Three offensive linemen have also returned, enough to sustain a very solid front five. On the other side of the ball, the secondary that allowed the 17th fewest passing yards per game in the nation last year has come back intact, and almost all of the linebackers and defensive lineman have too.
- Defense – The plethora of returning starters has no doubt improved the Penn State defense, which is noticeably better in 2011. Of course, Indiana State and Temple don’t have very fearsome offenses, and the Nittany Lions did give up nearly 200 rushing yards to ‘Bama. However, Alabama head coach Nick Saban had this to say about Penn State’s D:
"Penn State is a much better team than they were a year ago in my opinion. They are very good up front on defense, they really hold on defense."
To back Coach Saban up, Penn State stands at 6th in the nation in passing yards per attempt allowed. Yes, Indiana State and Temple, but last year’s relative success with the secondary indicates that this year’s success is not solely based on opponent weakness.
- Quarterback—Speaking of weakness, the quarterback position has been a glaring one so far for Penn State. In terms of stats, they rank 100th in the nation in passing yards, with a grand total of zero touchdowns through the air. The situation at QB though is really complicated by its uncertainty—Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin continue to split snaps, and there’s no clear breadwinner. Both have been mediocre at best so far. Bolden managed to complete close to 60% of his passes last year, yet wasn’t as productive as McGloin in terms of scoring and yardage. This year though, Bolden is missing on nearly 60% of his passes, while McGloin was 1-10 in the only true test of the season against Alabama. It’s that kind of disappointing performance from Paterno’s signal callers that makes it possible to only score 14 points against Temple.
- Special Teams—Of course, what also contributed to the close call against Temple was the awful special teams performance. Beyond a blocked punt, the Nittany Lions’ kicking game was also atrocious. Two kickers combined to miss all three of their attempts, including one that was blocked. So far on the year, starting kicker Evan Lewis is 1/5, and has even missed an extra point already. Add that to backup Sam Ficken’s miss against Temple, and Penn State’s odds of making a field goal are a little worse than rolling a 7 at the craps table.
- Schedule—The Alabama game has come and gone, but the last three games on Penn State’s schedule make for a devastating November. First, they take on Nebraska at home. Then the Nittany Lions must travel to the Horseshoe and face Ohio State, before finishing their Big 10 regular season off with a visit to Camp Randall. Even with the Buckeyes’ recent fall from the top 25, it’s still a grueling test at the end of the year.
Expectations for Penn State coming into the year, as is the usual, were pretty high. Such a storied program with a history of success and rabid fan base, plus experienced returners, seemed to signal a rise in 2011. After these first three games however, it’s apparent that Penn State is likely headed towards the middle of the Big 10 once more. It’s certainly possible that Bolden and McGloin will find their stride, or that one emerges head and shoulders above the other, and manages to finally take hold of an offense that seems to have all the tools to succeed. Until that happens though, it’s looking like a déjà vu from last year’s campaign, with the offense struggling to hold up consistently and an improved defense that can offer enough to most likely go 7-5 once more.