The Outlook Moving Forward: Penn State

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Coming off their 45-3 win over Rutgers, the Spartans travel to State College for the season finale with the Penn State Nittany Lions at 3:30 on ABC.

Offense

Last week the Spartan Offense did what most expected them to against an overmatched Rutgers’ Defense. Though the Scarlet Knights surprised a few by qualifying for a Bowl in their first Big Ten season, they gave up 520 yards spread out nicely between the MSU rushing and passing attack. That number could’ve been higher, everyone in Green and White played pretty well, but MSU did lose Travis Jackson again up front and it’s unclear at this time whether he will be able to play in Saturday’s finale.

Penn State may not be a very good football team, but they do have the 3rd ranked Total Defense in the country right now, and are tops against the run. Expect those rankings to fall a tad after the Land Grant game ends Saturday night. MSU still has a top 10 Offense, and like we’ve talked about all year, could find ways to actually improve from here. MSU is deep at most offensive positions, and though Penn State has done a good job shutting down a pretty soft schedule outside of hosting Ohio State, they should have a tough time staying with the Spartan Offense for the entire 60-minutes. Points should not come as easy for the Spartans as they did against Rutgers last week.

“It’s the balance that makes them special,” first year Penn State Head Coach James Franklin said earlier this week about the Spartans’ Offense. Balance has been a goal of the Offense since Mark Dantonio returned to town, but there’s more to balance than just numbers, Franklin explained. “It’s not necessarily the number of carries or throws or the yards, it’s about having the ability to run or pass in almost any given situation.” That’s what this group has done better than any other in recent Spartan history.

This Offense is going to go down as Dantonio’s best so far, without too much of a fight from the seven previous groups. They are balanced, yet good enough to feature either the run or the pass against almost any opponent they might face. Saturday is about getting to 10 wins and securing a place in a major Bowl game around the New Year’s holiday. Many eyes will be on Connor Cook and other upperclassmen leaders to see if they have successfully taken a business approach to preparing for Penn St. They should display an understanding that the season is not yet over, and though they are not playing for anything like a Division or Conference title this week, Penn State still deserves their best effort. This program should be mature enough to operate with that mindset at this point, but again that is not the norm in College Football, it is the exception. Michigan State Football appears to have reached that rarefied air, and Saturday night we will be able to conclude whether the Offense has as well.

Defense

Penn State has the 113th ranked Total Offense out of 125 teams in Division 1 College Football. They rank 107th in Scoring Offense, averaging just 20.7 per contest. MSU once again ranks inside the Top 10 in Total Defense, which sets up as a very imposing test for the Lions in the season finale.

“There’s a model, there’s a plan,” James Franklin summed up about the consistently effective Spartan Dawg Defense of recent years. You don’t get this good for this long by accident, and you don’t get there without talent. While this group has given up more big plays than we saw in the last couple years, once again we should acknowledge those units were an anomaly. When you consider the Spartans rank 8th in Total Defense right now and 8th in Rushing Defense, given the Running Backs they’ve faced already, they still stand up pretty strong.

The story of the Penn State Offense remains the regression of Quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg was once touted as a future #1 overall NFL Draft Pick. At times this year, he’s played like a 5th rounder or less. Last year he tossed 20 Touchdowns to 10 Interceptions. This year he’s thrown only 8 TDs but 14 INTs. That’s not what any Quarterback is looking for. He’s also been sacked 18 times more than he was in 2013. The Spartans coming to town may end up extending that margin a healthy chunk more. Expect Hackenberg to look hurried, early and often, and quite frustrated by the day’s end.

On the MSU side of the ball, there’s the curious case of Tony Lippett. “He’s an extremely diverse football player,” Mark Dantonio said earlier this week. In fact, Lippett was advertised as Mr. Versatility during his Red-Shirt season of 2009. When he hit the field as a Red-Shirt Freshman, he may have looked a little thin, but displayed immediate instincts as a Corner Back. “He’s (still) got great ball skills,” Dantonio pointed out about the Senior that showed up on Defense again last week, and is expected to start at Penn State.

It’s now pretty clear that Lippett ultimately made the right move by switching to Offense as he’s become arguably the top receiver in the entire Big Ten. Then why last week, seemingly out of nowhere, did he get some time at Corner Back once again. “He brings a little bit of a leadership aspect and enthusiasm,” Dantonio explained. It’s also about packaging Lippett to NFL. “It enhances his reputation relative to playing at the next level.”

If that’s not enough for you, look down the road to a potential Bowl opponent. While Lippett, you might argue, could’ve used Bowl practice time to work at Corner, that’s not traditionally what Mark Dantonio and staff like to do. Plus, it’s far better Bowl prep to play snaps in the final two regular season games than it would be just in 15 practices. Depending on the Spartans’ Bowl opponent and the style of Offense MSU must face, Lippett could be a difference maker at Corner Back in the end. We may look back at his snaps in the defensive backfield as very forward thinking when the final whistle is blown on 2014.

Special Teams

This unit nearly had a bye week last week as Michael Geiger hit 6-Extra Points and a chip shot Field Goal from 23-yards while Mike Sadler booted only 2-Punts. But the play of the game was the Sadler to Geiger Field Goal fake that the Sophomore Place Kicker nearly took to the house for 6. Geiger took it 23-yards before stepping out at the 1, but what a fun ride it looked to be. Some would point to calling a fake in that situation as an example of how MSU likes to bully its way around the Big Ten sometimes, but the Spartans do not seem to mind. The Special Teams unit shouldn’t be a huge factor this weekend at Penn State, but if the Lions are to pull a massive upset there will probably be a Special Teams play in the game that makes that become possible.

Spartan Special teams can make this team better with improvement as we head towards the Bowl Game. There aren’t many Top 10 teams, let alone programs, that don’t have better than average Special Teams play. The Spartans’ has slipped a bit in 2014, but can finish strong and get back on the right track towards 2015.

Overall

The short story of the Spartans’ 2014 to this point is that they’ve won the games they were supposed to, and lost the two that basically looked like they could’ve gone either way. MSU also had a better chance to beat Oregon and Ohio State, earlier in those ballgames, than anyone could’ve reasonably expected. As we know, they ultimately lost them both. That’s the three line summary of the season so far. If the Spartans stay true to script, they should best Penn State by 17 points or so and end the season at 10-2.

10-2 would be a pretty fine result for a program that tested out new waters in 2014. One can quickly forget that MSU hasn’t been a player on the national stage for consecutive years in quite some time. “We want to be a football team that’s in the (national) conversation,” Dantonio said earlier this week. If MSU were to somehow lose out, they would drop back out of that conversation heading into 2015. “We need to be able to continue to perform at this level if we’re going to be in that conversation year in and year out.”

Penn State remains among the least popular programs in the county, and don’t expect that to change anytime soon. As we continue to hear trickles of news that still erupt from the awful scandal that took Penn State University down a couple pegs, people are reminded again of how much they dislike Penn State Football. While the media continues to try and pick between the bad guys from the worse that were involved in that mess, the average fan’s disgust for the entire tragedy only gets poked at once again. Whether it’s Jay Paterno trying to sell a book or the NCAA’s internal memos about how to handle the Penn State situation, none of those reminders help anyone move on. It only reaggrivates them.

The Spartans are the best 2-loss team in America right now. The Coaches Poll has it right. The others wrongfully have Georgia and UCLA ahead of MSU for now. Georgia lost to their biggest rival by 18, an unranked Florida team, and to a barely ranked 6-5 South Carolina team in September, on the road. UCLA lost to an unranked Utah team at home and to Oregon at home by 12. MSU lost on the road at Oregon and at home to Ohio State. In both games they were ahead and had a chance to take each game over for good, and both teams look lined up for a Playoff berth.

Though MSU lost to both, we are comparing losses here.  As far as wins go, ULCA’s home win over Arizona is no more impressive than MSU’s over Nebraska, but Georgia’s wins over Clemson and Auburn probably stand out as the best of the three teams. If you’re choosing between MSU and Georgia, MSU probably carries the edge when it comes to the statistics and eyeball test, especially since the Bulldogs are now without superstar Running Back Todd Gurley. Maybe the debate will be settled on the field in yet another Spartans-Bulldogs Bowl Game matchup.

Before that becomes possible again, MSU must handle Penn State and Georgia must avoid ending up on the wrong side of “clean old fashioned hate” (Georgia vs. Georgia Tech). Unlike the overachieving Bulldogs, the Spartans may well be frustrated at this point because they haven’t gotten the most out of the opportunities 2014 presented. And unlike some schools that have had difficulty handling success this year, MSU has done a good job of staying on task, week by week. That’s what they’ve got to do this week, go down to State College and beat a team they are clearly better than by at least two scores.

If the Spartans do that, they will get a shot to even things out in the Bowl against a brand name opponent on the national stage. Sure, it won’t be as part of the inaugural Playoff, nor for a Big Ten Championship, but a Top-10 final ranking will be up for grabs between two teams that will want to finish the season off with a single digit-final season ranking.

That’s the big mental challenge for MSU this week, to take care of business on a trip they’d probably rather not make against a team that is not competing on their level right now. In fact, that’s exactly the type of scenario that the top programs in the nation find a way to drive through so they can hang a 10th regular season win in the history books.

P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)

  1. Nick Saban to the Atlanta Falcons seems far more likely than Jim Harbaugh to Michigan. So for everyone in “Go Blue” fantasy land that wants to talk about the Harbaugh homecoming, give equal time to the concept of the all-mighty Nicktator coming to Atlanta to cut a toughness groove in a football city that’s itching to develop one. Saban would be taking a step up in the profession, Harbaugh would undoubtedly be taking a step back by going to Michigan at this point.
  2. More than anything, Drew Stanton the football player is a survivor. Watching him Sunday in the most hostile environment in pro-football while trying to lead a shorthanded Cardinals past the defending Super Bowl Champions on the road in Seattle, “survivor” is the first word that came to mind. And then his ankle got rolled up on late, so we’ll see how he looks Sunday at Atlanta. At MSU, Stanton survived poor coaching, an incredibly painful meltdown of a loss versus Notre Dame during his Senior year, and then the most bizarre ending to a playing career known to Spartans. If you recall, MSU was driving towards the Goal Line in the finale against Minnesota when Stanton’s helmet took contact, cracked and caved in, and left him concussed. He later survived the Detroit Lions, and even a Tim Tebow controversy too. So don’t expect he won’t survive last Sunday’s 14-29 effort, the 3 sacks that he took, and his 30 year old left ankle being twisted around a bit. It’s just what Drew Stanton does.
  3. His specialty is the other side of the ball, but Mark Dantonio has come to remind me of Hall of Fame Head Coach Joe Gibbs. Gibbs, the rare man that’s excelled in two sports (NASCAR being the latter, and racquetball if you really want to dig deep), brought innovation with a sense of consistency and focus to a “sleeping giant” of a Head Coaching gig. Both men didn’t get enough credit for their ability to identify and then get the most of the talent that they had to work with. At the same time, the talent levels of the teams that both men coached, consistently overlooked at first, was eventually recognized as far better than it first appeared.
  4. If Ohio State wins out and is not selected for the inaugural College Football Playoff, this could end up being the final regular season Outlook Moving Forward of all-time. I would have a hard time supporting the broad organization of College Football if a 1-loss Big Ten Champion Buckeye team was left out unless the Playoff structure was immediately redesigned for 2015. As you have read in past P.A.Ts, I have been concerned about the failed infrastructure of this Playoff system since day one because it initially looked doomed to fail. And I’ve remained critical of the Big Ten for selling out the Rose Bowl to join a system that looked set up to fulfill an agenda driven by the powers that rule this game, led by ESPN, first and foremost. It would be a sad scenario to unfold, but even harder to continue supporting an organization that can’t figure out how to put together a fair College Football Playoff system. Fix your fundamentals, College Football. It’s not that hard.