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A Somewhat Obligatory Assessment of: Penn State

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason. By popular demand.
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What’s Changed. The quarterback, significantly, but more significant are persistent rumors of a move to something PSU partisans have dubbed the "Spread HD," a spread/read option look that quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator/despised son Jay Paterno hinted at in January for the sake of keeping up with the Rodriguezes, but which was also a no-show in the spring game. The new quarterback and new system are intrinsically tied: in Daryll Clark, PSU sees Michael Robinson, former receiver-turned-scrambling savior and unlikely H*i*m*n finalist in 2005, without whom the near-miracle Big Ten championship doesn’t happen that year and the general sense of malaise that’s steadily crept over the program for eight years -- even Northwestern has an identical record in Big Ten games since 2003 -- becomes all-consuming. Clark was impressive on half a dozen carries against Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl, his only significant, game-in-doubt playing time, but he only attempted one pass there (an incompletion), and even in completing four of five in garbage time against Ohio State only had 13 yards -- 3.25 per completion.

Clark: If he can throw without the no-contact threads, that would be great.
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But Robinson wasn’t a great passer, either; if the spread is in order, it would seem to be to take advantage of Clark’s athleticism and hope the excess attention to the extra running threat and the availability of the most experienced receiving corps in the history of college football (see below) will help the rest fall into place. This might be like hoping lightning strikes twice -- at 6’2", 230, Clark is built more like a pocket guy or a fullback than a scrambler, and his reputed 40-time, for what it’s worth, is not very impressive -- but at least there is a precedent.

The least you should know about Penn State...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 9-4 (4-4 Big Ten; T-5th)
2003-07: 36-25 (19-21 Big Ten)

Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 14 • 25 • 6 • 24 • 43
Returning Starters, Roughly
16 (8 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
Offenses obviously caught on to Maurice Evans, albeit a little too late: the sophomore had 12.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in his first ten games -- 10.5 TFLs in October alone, against the meat of the Big Ten schedule, not including four against Michigan in September -- but was shut out behind the line of scrimmage in the last three. The veteran-loving conference coaches still put him in good company on the all-Big Ten team. Odds are Evans will find himself occupied too often to approach his ‘07 totals, but if his presence makes the front seven stronger, who’s counting? The coaches are noticing, even if the stat sheet isn’t.
What’s In a Name
Beavers can be found in Central Pennsylvania, just like everywhere else in North America, but the largest stadium on the continent is known for former Pennsylvania governor James A. Beaver, not the rodent, who followed his stint as governor by presiding over the university from 1906-1908, at the same time he also served as a member of the state’s Superior Court. He also has a building and a street named after him on campus, as well as a monument near the stadium, which is just the sort of thing they did for Civil War veterans who ably commanded the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers, had their right legs amputated after the Second Battle of Ream’s Station and went on to become leading Republican statesmen back then. But mainly because he was a key fundraiser to improve the then-modest football field, and later, before his death in 1914, in influencing the university to hire a young, unknown Joe Paterno. Long live deep-pocketed connections!
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* According to Rivals.

For fans, anyway, the association with Robinson might be the biggest difference between Clark and Pat Devlin, who they haven’t seen much more of but whose highly-recruited pedigree and statuesque frame veer a little too close to Anthony Morelli for comfort. Devlin is ostensibly the "status quo" guy -- he’s not going to be taking off very much out of the shotgun, or not successfully, anyway -- an assurance of three more years of diminishing returns from the conservative, power-running philosophy that’s only flourished lately when a special player like Robinson or Larry Johnson circa 2002 is in tow (the Lions finished second in the Big Ten in scoring in ‘02 and ‘05, but haven’t been better than fifth any other season this decade). Admittedly, both LJ and MR were surprises in their last year after a couple seasons as role players on very bad teams (which may or may not say something about the philosophy here in itself), but with no apparent stars of that caliber in this group, the same old thing would seem almost like giving up on competing for a championship.

What’s the Same. Penn State doesn’t have much left in the skill department, but it’s lines, oy, the Lions are going to be tough in the trenches. This is nothing new on defense, where PSU’s finished in the top ten in rushing defense, scoring defense and sacks three years in a row, and in the top fifteen in total defense; it’s also the only defense to allow less than three yards per carry each of the last three years. Even in 2004, a dismal, 4-7 disaster due to a futile wreck of an offense, they were fifth in points allowed. Penn State has almost never not been generally outstanding on defense under Tom Bradley, even if you remove misleading dominance against bottom-dwelling non-conference fodder (the offenses from Florida International, Notre Dame and Temple combined for three points and one yard rushing last year, for example), and there’s no reason to expect anything but more of the same with four regulars back on the front line, including Maurice Evans, who exploded as a sophomore with 21.5 tackles for loss, and Ollie Ogbu, who had another ten TFLs from the inside as a redshirt freshman. Those are fairly obscene numbers -- especially by Evans, who obviously drew more attention at the end of the year -- but they’re not necessary to remain fundamentally solid, as usual.

Colasanti: White. Mean. He’ll be fine.
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There are only two possible issues with the run D: a) all-American Dan Connor graduated, and all-American-to-be Sean Lee, the heir apparent in the Posluszny-Connor chain of caucasian linebacking death, blew out his knee in the spring, leaving second-year guys Chris Colasanti and Nate Stupar to assume the mantle a year earlier than expected; and b) the Lions weren’t as monolithically dominating as the overall numbers suggest against actually good running teams: Michigan, Illinois (for the second year in a row), Ohio State and Michigan State all established sustained running games in PSU losses, and Texas A&M had success on the ground in the Alamo Bowl. The Illini were the first team to average five yards per carry over an entire game since early 2004; as a whole, the defense also allowed 30 points three times, which had only happened once (against Notre Dame in 2006) from 2004-06, against balanced, run-first offenses from Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State. So even if the Lions are never gashed, they’re not impenetrable, either, for physical teams that put them on their heels.

As long as we’re on the trenches, I’d be remiss to ignore the offensive line, which has been considered a weakness here for a couple years but has produced a couple 1,000-yard backs and might be one of the more reliable units in the Big Ten, if there’s anyone worth blocking for. Four starters are back, including all-conference center/three-years starter A.Q. Shipley, and the new guy, Stefen Wisniewski, is the allegedly most promising of the bunch; he was a top ten incoming guard prospect last year and already has the scouts’ attention. If the front remains intact, the power game should remain a very viable option against all but the toughest handful of defenses.

Receivers For Life. Re: the most experienced receiving corps in college football history -- that is probably not true; Virginia Tech graduated four career starters last year, so maybe it just seems like Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwoood have been around longer than any group of players at one position has any right to. It’s hard to tell exactly how to gauge their careers: all three were big hits as freshman in 2005, they speedy keys to opening up the offense, but then, they’ve done nothing in particular to distinguish themselves over the last two years, and have actually been much less explosive; then again, they’ve been reliable starters and saddled in a run-oriented system with Anthony Morelli and Jay Paterno at the controls. If you were impressed with them out of the box, there’s not much reason to change your mind since:

More consistent, less explosive: not a ringing endorsement, but unless Clark, Devlin and/or a new, more downfield-oriented system gives them a new lease on life, they is what they is. Certainly there are no challengers in sight among the underclassmen.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. Aside from the ever-looming visage of Zombie Joe in the final year of an irrelevant contract, the most pressing concern is the lack of a breakaway threat on the offense, which Williams has not provided as expected after his towering high school hype. One way to do that, they hope, is to move Williams back to the slot, where he played before he was hurt as a freshman. Another way may be to get more than a few carries per game into the hands of spring mover Stephfon Green: if unspectacular Evan Royster is virtually assured the starting role at running back -- a good bet, after he rolled up 500-plus in surprise backup duty after Austin Scott was booted for a (later dropped) rape charge at midseason -- Green stole the show in the spring game, according to a very impressed Mike at Black Shoe Diaries:

We'll be just fine at running back. Evan Royster looked solid as expected. He didn't get much playing time with just three carries, but he gained 24 yards and scored a touchdown on those three carries.

And of course we should probably mention Stephfon Green. I mentioned last week if he takes a pitch and breaks it 60 yards we'll have a full blown running back controversy on our hands. Well, he didn't go 60 yards, but he did go 57 yards on his first carry of the game. I was sitting on the ten yard line on the sideline he broke the run down. I thought Tony Davis had the angle on him to push him out of bounds, but Green ran right by him. The kid is the real deal and he's going to take the Big Ten by surprise this year.
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Stephfon, while sporting a redundantly-spelled first name, was an unheralded, two-star DB recruit from the Bronx last year, exactly the kind of kid Penn State has to hope emerges in the next couple years, until more fast guys with a few more stars by their names aren’t scared away by the cloud-of-dust stereotype and Gerontophobia. For now, he sounds like just a good change of pace with Royster.

Penn State on You Tube. I can’t say if an entire game day in Happy Valley qualifies as an NSFW trek through a gauntlet of flying beer cans, but to be sure, in case you didn’t catch this floating around in October, you might want to avoid wearing opposing colors -- or at least when passing the PSU frat houses:

Oh, those underclassman hijinx! Truly they are the golden days of your life, to be documented so that you may treasure them forever, as well as be easily identified by police. Unless of course you’re from Pittsburgh, in which case it’s just another day at the office, man.

See Also: Simple but effective: Joe Batono. ... An old series no one should mind seeing revived: the Lions take on disastrously-attired West Virginia in 1969, an undefeated season for PSU, as well as in 1988 and 1984, featuring a special cameo. ... A very optimistic intro to the 1979 Sugar Bowl, which didn’t end as well. And just to end on a less sour note, the final minute of the ‘87 Fiesta Bowl.

Paterno: One way or another, making it out of here alive.
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Best-Case: Oregon State is a solid early test between humiliating (for all involved) romps over Coastal Carolina, Syracuse and Temple, but anything short of 4-0 entering the Big Ten opener with Illinois will be a stunning disappointment and portend doom. The real season starts with the Illini and culminates with trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State in October, with Michigan -- which, while down, has won nine straight over Penn State -- in between. The Lions are 1-3 against that set of teams each of the last two years, and even in one of the wins struggled with the better-than-it-looked Illinois team that finished 2-10 in 2006. They miss potential sniper Northwestern again, but even if PSU avoids another loss to a team from the middle or bottom half of the conference, breaking even against the upper crust would be an improvement. Nobody should challenge Ohio State at the top, but on the strength of their dismantling of the Badgers last year, the Lions might be able to wrest second place from Wisconsin with a road win in Madison and challenge for an at-large BCS bid at 10-2.

Worst-Case: Again, with Oregon State in Happy Valley, anything short of 4-0 would be a disaster beyond realistic pessimism, but the conference slate is frontloaded with Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive weeks. If the offense isn’t up to speed, it could stumble through that stretch and emerge at the other end 1-4, and fighting for its postseason life into November, where at least one quasi-upset -- and maybe two -- awaits among Iowa, Indiana and Michigan State. It’s very plausible to see the offense collapsing into an identity crisis behind two stylistically different but equally flustered young quarterbacks, dropping five or six of eight in the Big Ten, limping into the lowest possible rung of bowl game at 6-6/7-5 and turning up the impatience on Paterno to maximum -- like, boosters loudly clearing their throats in his presence and nodding suggestively to the door. It will get heavy.

Non-Binding Forecast: 'Also Receiving Votes' or Bust. As much as I like the defense, Penn State has been a very mediocre team within the conference the last two years (9-7), and a flatly bad team four of the five years prior to the 2005 moonshot. Ohio State seems well out of reach, as does (in my mind, anyway) Wisconsin, with enough toss-up games through the rest of the schedule -- mainly Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State, all winners over Penn State last year, but also Iowa, Purdue and Indiana -- that breaking even in Big Ten play again and setting off for another Alamo or Champs Sports Bowl with a new quarterback and very little momentum on offense looks right. That may be a sobering lateral step, but it could easily be backwards, so remember the program-threatening abyss of 2000-04 and count your blessings.

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Previous Absurd Assessments -- Premature, Anticipatory, Obligatory and otherwise...

March 17:  Ball StateMarch 20:  AuburnMarch 21:  Kansas StateMarch 25:  Washington StateApril 3:  DukeApril 7:  KentuckyApril 9: Southern CalApril 16:  VirginiaApril 21:  MiamiApril 23:  Iowa StateMay 24:  Oregon State • May 27:  MarylandMay 29:  ColoradoMay 30:  Tennessee • June 2:  San Diego StateJune 3:  VanderbiltJune 10:  Central FloridaJune 11:  Oklahoma StateJune 14:  WisconsinJune 18:  Florida AtlanticJune 20:  South FloridaJune 23:  ArmyJune 25:  Texas TechJune 25:  Virginia TechJune 27:  ArizonaJuly 1:  UtahJuly 2:  IowaJuly 8: California