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Know thy Opponent Takeover 2008: Black Shoe Diaries

We're going to get a bit out of sequence today, but I don't mind. Pat from Blue Gray Sky has agreed to answer some of my questions about Notre Dame's upcoming season. He'll get back with me either later this week or sometime next week, so those questions and answers will go up as soon as I get them. That means I have a blogger lined up for 10 of or 12 opponents. The possibility still exists for a Central Michigan Q and A, so if anyone can find a brave soul that blogs about Northern Colorado football please let me know.

What causes me to go out of sequence today is the expeditious nature of Mike from Black Shoe Diaries. Like my earlier session with Pac-10 winner Addicted to Quack, Black Shoe Diaries is the 2007 winner of College Football Bloggers' Best in Conference blog for the Big Ten. Here is Mike with some insight on our first conference opponent of the 2008 season, the Penn State Nittany Lions.

OTT: If you listen to the media, losing Sean Lee in spring practice has cost Penn State the season, caused rioting in the streets against the idea of spring practice, and much existential angst among Nittnay Lion fans. I know it is Linebacker U., but how bad is this loss, really?

BSD: Our defense is deep enough and talented enough we can withstand the loss of any one player and still be very very good (Ed. Note: This is true, as Penn State is the only team that has shut out a Joe Tiller Purdue team). We’ve recruited enough man-eating linebackers in recent years that we’ll plug the best guy in there and he’ll do fine. In that sense I’m not worried about it.

But what Penn State can’t replace is his leadership. He’s a student of the game spending hours in the film room. Nobody else on the defense reads plays as well as he does. That can’t be replaced. Lee will take a redshirt this year, but his teammates still voted him a captain. He’s the heart and soul of the defense. Everyone looks up to him. While he’ll still be on the sideline cheering on his team and offering advice, we’ll badly miss the field general keeping everyone focused in the huddle.

OTT: Of all the programs in the conference it seems like Penn State has the most trouble in replacing its quarterback. This is a large question coming into the season, even though Morelli was somewhat disappointing. Who will be under center when the season starts?

We don’t have any problems replacing quarterbacks. We always have four or five of them on the roster. Our problem is getting any of them to play well. Some might say the common factor is the quarterback coach. But then that wasn’t part of the question, was it?

The quarterback situation has been a topic of debate ever since the Alamo Bowl. The major players are Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin. Clark played sparingly in the bowl game rushing six times for 50 yards and a touchdown. But he didn’t throw a single pass leading many to believe he’s not a great passer. It’s your typical "black quarterback" stereotype thing. Everyone is calling him the next Michael Robinson which probably isn’t fair to him. On the other hand Pat Devlin came to Penn State highly touted after breaking the Pennsylvania state record for passing yards in high school. Reports are he’s a highly accurate passer, but he doesn’t yet possess the confidence and poise Clark does. But the best part is no matter who we go with his name is not Morelli.

If I had to bet money I would say both guys play a lot, but Clark sees 75% of the snaps. Paterno refuses to commit to one guy publicly, but that’s how it played out in the spring game. Penn State is going to go back to the spread offense we used in 2005. That means Clark is going to see 10-12 carries a game. He’s going to take a beating, so Paterno is going to want Devlin to get experience and be sharp if we need him.

OTT: Rumors of JoePa's health have been circulating all spring. With other schools having a succession plan in place how does Penn State handle the delicate issue of its beloved, but sadly aged coach? How does this affect your seasonal outlook?

This has been the topic of debate all spring and summer. Paterno and university president Graham Spanier have agreed that from here on Paterno will coach on a year-to-year basis without a contract. But there is wide speculation the end is near. My personal belief is that 2008 will be Joe’s last season.

But I don’t see this having any adverse effect on the season. Joe’s assistants have been handling the team for years. They put together the game plan during the week. Joe looks it over and makes changes to it if he wants to, but they do most of the work. During the week the assistants run practice. On Saturday they run the game. Joe offers observations and makes suggestions for personnel changes and play calls, but for the most part the coordinators call the plays.

Where I though Joe’s situation was really going to hurt us was in recruiting, but that has not been the case. Several recruits have stated the coaches are telling them the next head coach will come from the current staff. I’m not sure I believe that, but that’s what they are being told. So perhaps there is a succession plan in place and we just don’t know about it.

OTT: It seems when Penn State is successful they have a very good running back to pace the offense. How does this area look and who should Purdue's shoddy run defense fear in the conference opener?

Those expecting three yards and a cloud of dust they are used to seeing from Penn State will be very surprised this year. We’re getting away from the Tony Hunt battering ram offense and going back to the spread option we ran with Michael Robinson. We lost Rodney Kinlaw and his 1300 yards from last year, but Evan Royster returns after averaging 6.3 ypc as a redshirt freshman last year. He’s a good all around back with a good combination of size and speed. He should get the bulk of the carries, but watch out for freshman Stephfon Green. The redshirt freshman is a high school track star with sub 4.3 speed. In the spring game he took his first carry off tackle and broke it 60 yards for a touchdown against the first team defense. He gives the offense the home run threat in the backfield we’ve been lacking since Larry Johnson in 2002 (Ed. Note: Wonderful!).

Don’t be surprised to see both of these guys in the backfield along with Daryll Clark effectively giving us three options in the running game. But the real strength of our running game will come from the offensive line. We return all five starters on a line that averaged 193 yards/game last year. Our running game will be just fine, and that spells bad news for shoddy run defenses (Ed. Note: If Purdue's D is anything like the past three seasons you may have that by halftime).

OTT: It's been 15 years now, how do you feel Penn State fits in with the rest of the Big Ten, especially since some have argued to either add a 12th member or kick the Lions to the Big East and go back to 10 teams?

No question that geographically we’re a horrible fit, and I think that’s why most people have a tough time accepting us in the Big Ten. Fifteen years after joining we’re still looking for a natural rival in the conference. But academically and athletically we more than hold our own in the conference. Football hasn’t worked out as well as we would hoped. I sure thought we would have won more than two conference titles by this time. But last year Illinois and Michigan State both dumped Gatorade on their coaches after beating us, so a win over Penn State must still have some prestige in the conference. Basketball has been a complete disaster for us. We were a respectable program in the Atlantic Ten before joining. We started work on the Jordan Center almost immediately and everyone thought for sure we were going to get over the hump and become a national player (Ed. Note: Thank you for beating Indiana and Michigan State though, I appreciate it). Obviously things haven’t worked out as well as we had hoped there. But I feel Penn State has elevated the level of play in other sports like wrestling, volleyball and soccer, so I think our presence in the Big Ten has been mutually beneficial.

Penn State fans have never felt welcomed in the conference. (Ed. Note: Actually, we brought some good friends of ours that are Penn State fans two years ago and they had a wonderful, welcoming time at Ross-Ade). You may be too young to remember, but a lot of people were afraid Penn State was going to dominate in football when we joined. The Big Ten was going through some down years in the early 90’s and Penn State was still fresh off of two national championships in the 80’s. We’ve always had an inferiority complex since the 60’s and 70’s when we struggled to earn respect as an independent school in the east. Not many people outside of Penn State know that Joe Paterno went undefeated in 1968 and 1969 and finished #5 in the polls. We always feel like we have something to prove which is probably why Penn State fans are perceived as the crackpots of the internet.

OTT: Last year's Purdue game featured a ton of controversy with the officiating that may or may not have cost Purdue the game. What makes you afraid of visiting Purdue this season, even though the Boilers have a ton of questions right now?

Oh no. You’re not complaining about the officiating to a Penn State fan are you? Please. Do I have to explain our games against Iowa in ’02 or Michigan in ’02 and ’05? We were due for a few breaks. Consider it karma finally coming back our way. And I seem to recall a few calls going your way in that game as well. (Ed. note: Fair enough, I was in Miami so I didn't get to watch the game)

I’m not overly confident in our secondary this year. We return everyone except Justin King, but they weren’t very good at times last year. The Tony Davis at safety experiment didn’t work so well last year, so he’s moving back to corner where he played pretty well in 2006. That puts Mark Rubin at safety who frankly I believe is a step slow for the position. If Painter gets hot we could be in trouble.

But what really scares me is our own coaches. We have a tendency to go conservative on the road and dumb down the offensive playbook. On defense we sit back in cover three and let the other team chip away at us five yards at a time. We always come out flat once or twice a year on the road, so if Purdue jumps out to a quick lead we could be in trouble.

OTT: Finally, do you plan on visiting Ross-Ade or have you in the past? What are your impressions?

Unless my business travels happen to land me in Indiana that week I will not be attending. I hope to make it to every Big Ten stadium at some point in my life, but so far I’ve only been to Ann Arbor. My current life situation with two kids, a mortgage, and a wife with a shoe addiction severely restricts my expendable cash.

Hehehehehe, Everyone needs their addictions, Mike. At least that one is better than crack. Thanks for stopping by and giving my readers some insight on the Nittany Lions. If you ever do make it to Ross-Ade you'll be more than welcome.

As a preview to tomorrow's Boilermakings Lake the Posts recently compiled the Big Ten blogging network's preseason picks for 2008. The outlook isn't so good for Purdue, but tomorrow I'll reveal how I voted and my explanation why (as if I have detailed, inside analysis all the time).