Penn State is in the midst of another aimless season, handcuffed by sanctions and with barely more than 50 scholarship players. They are still competing very hard and showing that improvement may be on the horizon as they near the end of year 2 of their punishment. Devon Edwards of Black Shoe Diaries was kind enough to stop by and talk about the Nittany Lions this week:
T-Mill: Christian Hackenberg has played pretty well for a freshman QB in the Big Ten. What is so exciting about him going forward?
Devon: Honestly, it's his innate ability more than anything else. Before Matt McGloin's breakout season a year ago Penn State hasn't had a true dropback QB who had any sustained success since Kerry Collins, and in terms of raw talent, Hack's miles ahead of McGloin. He's had an up-and-down season; now that teams have seen more of him, his numbers have regressed a bit, and if it weren't for Allen Robinson being Allen Robinson, his stats might look a lot more pedestrian. But amongst the freshman mistakes there have been glimpses of the QB he'll be come 2015 or 2016--he already has the arm, the accuracy, and the poise, it's just a matter of putting it all together. That he's held serve as an 18-year old is encouraging enough.
T-Mill: Penn State seems like a different team at home than on the road. Is that based on level of competition or are they really that much different?
Devon: You could point to a lot of different factors, or even just shrug it off as a small sample size kind of thing, but I chalk Penn State's lack of success on the road to a leadership vacuum. Last year's group had a ton of seniors who helped keep the team together--McGloin, Matt Mauti, Mike Zordich--but now, there aren't too many upperclassmen, at least not vocal upperclassmen, and it's not hard for things to spiral downward at the first sign of resistance when you don't have 100,000 fans supporting you. But given how Penn State played Illinois, the trend for these Lions the past month has been to struggle regardless of where the game's been played--the Michigan win seems like the exception, not the rule.
T-Mill: Is this team overachieving with the massive sanctions and scholarship restrictions in year two?
Devon: Well, it's certainly overacheiving as to the sanctions baseline. If you told Nittany Lion fans two summers ago that the team would go .500 in 2013, which is likely what our final record will be, we'd have absolutely signed up for that. Most expected a mass exodus of scholarship players, of recruits, and that a depleted roster would limp to the bottom of the Big Ten. But last year, Penn State was so damn competitive that 6-6 is going to be a bit of a letdown. That's a testament to the job Bill O'Brien did, setting the bar so high that mediocrity is a disappointment rather than something worthy of celebration, and given Purdue's struggles with a full complement of scholarships, I guess we have nothing to complain about.
T-Mill: Do you feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is coming from the sanctions and NCAA scandal?
Devon: Oh, absolutely. The NCAA obviously eased up on the scholarship restrictions, and if BOB can recruit like he did before the sanctions hit (this incoming class that included Hack and 5-star TE Adam Breneman was shaping up to be one of the country's best, before Mark Emmert swung his hammer of justice), we'll be back to full strength by 2015 or 2016, a full five years before we expected. Most expect the bowl ban to be the next domino to fall--if that's gone for next season, as many predict, then Penn State should have no trouble climbing back up to the top of the Big Ten. The fact that attitudes are shifting is also a welcome sight; it's hard to find too many reasonable people these days who think the sanctions were even a good idea in the first place.
T-Mill: I saw many tweets talking about how bad the Penn State defense is this past week. Is it bad enough to get a putrid Purdue offense moving?
Devon: It was a tale of two halves for the Penn State D. In the first half, Minnesota moved the ball at will, scored on each of their possessions, and had no trouble converting even long third downs. In the second half, up by two touchdowns, they dialed down the playcalling and Penn State responded, shutting out the Gophers and playing their best extended football of the season. But this is still a very shaky defense that just lost a key LB (one of literally 4 who gets any playing time) for the season, that features the worst group of safeties probably for any FBS program, and that has had trouble generating any pressure without blitzing (although, to be fair, that's because most opposing offensive coordinators have realized that we play almost exclusively soft zone coverage and just draw up three-step drops to get the ball to open receivers without risking a sack). We are stout up front, and generally plug up runs up the middle, but in general, this has been a poor defense with an overmatched defensive coordinator, and if we play as poorly as we did at times against Minnesota and Illinois, and your offensive coordinator takes what we give you, there's no reason why Purdue can't put together a few nice drives.
T-Mill: What is your prediction for Saturday?
Devon: I'm pretty down on Penn State right now, so while I'm sure we'll win, and relatively comfortably, I think Purdue makes more of a game of it than they have at any point since the Notre Dame (or maybe Michigan State) game. These Lions start slow, and the offense has been both mistake-prone and liable to go into a shell of hideous playcalling of late, so I think this is probably a one-score game at the half before we pull away. Let's call it a 27-13 final.