First, and probably more importantly, is the ground game. It needs to be pointed out that although the running attack executed poorly against Syracuse according to the box score, upon further review it was not quite as anemic as it appeared. Yes, Zach Zwinak netted 61 yards on 24 carries but in the second half, Scott Shafer and Chuck Bullough decided to put eight and sometimes nine defenders near the line of scrimmage in an effort to force Penn State’s rookie quarterback to beat them with his arm. Critics were awfully quick to place the blame on the offensive line. Not so fast.
Despite the phrase “stacking the box” being tossed around so much that it sounds tacky, those who truly understand football know how hard it is to have a successful ground attack when the situation is eight versus six.
Take a peek at the drive chart in the first half when the Orange were in a base 4-3 scheme. Zwinak posted rushes of 11 yards, nine yards, eight yards, five yards and three four-yard gains while Billy Belton added an 11-yard scamper. There were also no-gain attempts and lost yardage runs in the opening 30 minutes, but the game’s sum was not as bad as it looked on paper because the numbers in the second half – when Syracuse literally brought its entire defense up to take the running game completely off the table – skew the totals.
All that being said, and taking into account the 100-plus degree temperatures at field level and the fact that it takes several games for any offensive line to gel, improvement needs to start against the Eagles tomorrow. It should help that EMU was the worst team in the nation – ranked 125th out of 125 teams – against the run last season.
The other area to watch closely is the secondary. Color commentator Gary Danielson, who did Big Ten games in the late 1990s and early 2000s but now works for CBS covering the SEC, once said, “If you have two shutdown cornerbacks, you can do anything in college football.” In the NFL, the players at every position are the same size – on every team. But because that’s not the case in the college game, taking away the boundaries and the deep/fly routes on both sides can cripple offenses at this level. For the Nittany Lions, Trevor Williams certainly has shown the tools to become a shutdown corner and fellow sophomore Jordan Lucas has the athletic ability to potentially match him. It’s still very early, but the future is bright for both.
The issue is at free safety. Malcolm Willis was exposed on several passing plays against Syracuse and also missed tackles. Badly. He and Ryan Keiser will alternate until one wins the job, but John Butler knows that this gaping hole needs to be fixed – or at least bandaged – before Big Ten quarterbacks see it. The answer might be Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who was excellent as Butler’s utility infielder last week. Although he is listed behind Adrian Amos at strong safety on the depth chart, it might not be long before Obeng-Agyapong becomes the starter opposite Amos in place of Willis and/or Keiser. Keep an eye on tomorrow’s rotation at safety (primarily in the first half). A starting unit of Williams, Lucas, Amos and Obeng-Agyapong could be quite good.
In contrast, when looking at an area of strength that was apparent at the Meadowlands, it should be a field day for Christian Hackenberg, Allen Robinson and friends in the home opener. Eastern Michigan’s secondary is porous and actually could be worse – physically not statistically – than its run defense; strange for a head coach who is known for defense. (Lloyd Carr should be proud.) The tight ends need to get much more involved. Adam Breneman has been elevated due to Matt Lehman’s season-ending injury, and he along with Jesse James and Kyle Carter need touches during these non-conference matchups.
Also, kudos to the thief who stole Sam Ficken and replaced him with Sam Ficken.