Four Down, Four to Go
More on that later.
With a 7-1 record, Penn State is in the exact position which this space said it would be since the beginning of the season – in the driver’s seat atop the Leaders Division and in position to earn a berth in the inaugural Big Ten title game. But the fun has only just begun.
Now comes the hard part. Rather, the hardest part. Tomorrow afternoon in front of a regional broadcast audience on ABC, the Nittany Lions have the chance to defy their naysayers. If you were one who doubted the indestructibility of Wisconsin (or WiZ-Kohn-Znn, according to John Saunders), as yours truly was, then the same axiom must be applied to State. To be fair, PSU has not really played anybody yet. The Badgers ran up tons of points against inferior opponents, but when they finally played a real team, well, you saw what happened.
Call it a trap game, call it whatever you want. This is one of four remaining slugfests and the beginning of the home stretch. Yes, Illinois is the least talented team overall of the four (don’t think for a moment that just because Ohio State is 4-3 that the talent level has dropped one iota in Columbus) but its quarterback is dangerous and made State look like a junior varsity team last year – in State College.
Nate (don’t even bother trying to spell it or say it) is a very good college quarterback because he does many things well. He’s not a superstar but rather a Jack-Of-All-Trades type; he can be deadly if given time in the pocket and is mighty swift on his feet, too. He also has, statistically speaking, the top receiver in the conference in A.J. Jenkins, who leads the league in receptions per game, receiving yards per game and total receiving yards. The kid’s pretty good.
The Illini are also very good defensively against the run. They are tied with Penn State for the second-best margin at just under 102 yards per game allowed on the ground. State’s strength on offense is of course handing the ball to Silas Redd, so this presents a matchup problem which the PSU offensive coaches need to maneuver around in order to be effective.
If effective is what Joe Paterno wants tomorrow, it appears that McGloin is now the desired option under center, although god forbid he’ll ever say so publicly. As one who has defended Rob Bolden staunchly throughout the offseason and the first eight games, it must be said that body language speaks volumes about his character.
Rob, stop being a baby. When you didn’t even look McGloin’s way as he walked past you after that first scoring drive against Northwestern, you officially became a sulker. You lost respect in many eyes. The claim can no longer be made that the coaches didn’t give you a fair shake, and although you are still the more talented football player, raw talent can be overcome by mental toughness; you are Witness 1-A to the same. The hope is that Bolden is still given chances to play down the stretch as well as in the bowl game, but it appears that McGloin – rightly so – has won the job. The junior has simply outplayed the sophomore. There’s really not much more to be said other than this offense, as inept as it’s been generally speaking, operates more smoothly with Snake Eyes at the helm.
However, in (slight) defense of Bolden, his counterpart has still yet to fair well – or even just fair for that matter – against a legitimate defense. Don’t forget that the two best defenses against which McGloin has ever played, he was simply awful. In the matchup with the Gators in the Outback Bowl, he threw five interceptions. Versus Alabama, which in all fairness to McGloin might have the best defense in college football over the past three or four seasons, he was 1-for-10 with zero passing yards. Yes, zero yards; his only completion was to Redd for no gain early in the fourth quarter. Bolden, meanwhile, did not play a single snap in the bowl game, and against ‘Bama, finished 11-for-29 with 144 passing yards while sprinkling in 25 yards on the ground.
What cannot be overstated is the importance of a positive early start for State against this team. If Ron Zook’s crew jumps out to a 14-3 lead and holds it deep into the third quarter, it could be curtains. Such a scenario would force at least a partial separation from the running game and that is not what this team does well. Redd needs to get off the line of scrimmage early and often, combined with a solid spelling by Curtis Dukes and several big yardage screens in the hands of Stephfon Green in order to keep the Illini secondary both honest and out of the box. The mental preparation by the guards must continue to be strong and Matt Stankiewitch needs to stop taking penalties.
On the injury front, Malcolm Willis is questionable with a leg sprain but should be able to play. Willis did not have his best game last weekend, but is still a very talented sophomore defensive back who will finally take his rightful place as a starter next fall. For now, Willis’ presence as the nickelback will be a key against Illinois, especially when Tom Bradley sends Gerald Hodges in on the blitz. State’s zone blitz scheme has been successful over the years because the back five (in the nickel package) are able to get to the ball and make plays, and Willis has shown a propensity to do just that.
Zook and his offensive coordinator Paul Petrino love to use the entire field in the passing game, and this will be the toughest test for the secondary since the Crimson Tide came to town seven weeks ago. Chaz Powell will most likely be matched up against Jenkins, mostly because he’s a bit more of a physical cornerback than D’Anton Lynn. Look for Powell to play at least some – gasp – press coverage versus the talented Jenkins; Bradley knows that if Powell plays off the line for the entire game and Jenkins makes good on a double-move, the only entity between the latter and the end zone is Drew Astorino. Need we say more?
Get ready, because chances are excellent that this game will be decided no sooner than midway through the fourth quarter, as has been the case in all four conference games thus far. It’s no secret that the bane of existences within an incursion of doubt is the unknown, but Penn State can squash such in the first quarter if this defense continues to be outstanding. And there’s no reason in the world to believe that it won’t – Bradley is simply too good of a football coach to allow for a letdown.