State College, PA (November 29) – After the announced Penn State crowd of 99,902 paid tribute to 17 seniors who stayed true to dear Old White and Blue through the leanest years of extreme sanctions they had to pay due to the Jerry Sandusky crimes that laid waste to the venerable program, No. 10 Michigan State’s R.J Shelton grabbed the opening kickoff and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown to take a super-quick 7-0 lead. The Spartans never looked back as it rolled to a 34-10 win over a Nittany Lion team (6-6, 2-6) that has a lot of improving to do to cut the bindings that holds it back from reaching the heights of the former program it once was. First-year HC James Franklin has to forgo the talk now and do some creative coaching, effective recruiting, and toughness developing to bring this program back to where it needs to be. Sorry to say it’s not going to happen any time soon based on what CFF.com saw at the game on Saturday. The Spartans (10-2, 7-1) in the meantime have become formidable under fifth-year HC Marc D’Antoni and may end up as one of eight teams that will compete in a CFP bowl or at least a significant New Year’s Day game. CFF.com may see them in one of the bowl games we’ve planned to attend at the end of the year. As for Penn State, the feeble loss, one of several this year, and the upset of Rutgers over Maryland, may just knock them to the bottom of the list of B1G schools in the bowl game pecking order. Six of their last seven conference games resulting in losses show them going out with a whimper instead of a bang. Will the Blue and White faithful follow them to wherever they may possibly end up in the post-season? Even more questionable, is this team capable of even giving their fans a better effort than what they’ve shown them during the last half of the 2014 season? It’s hard for us to imagine after watching some of the worst offensive line play we’ve ever seen, non-confident quarterbacking, and questionable play-calling from the sideline. There is definitely a lack of chemistry as has been witnessed all season on the offensive side of the football. If not for a pretty good defense with their backs to the wall on numerous occasions, the Spartans could have won by a lot more.
Penn State’s reply to the opening Spartan score was 50-yard FG that failed. MSU’s Michael Geiger converted FGs of 36 and 39 yards on their next two possessions before the first period ended for a 13-0 lead. In the second, PSU twice crossed the 50 but never got in range for a field goal attempt. PSU frosh P Dan Pasquariello effectively placed his punts on the two and on the 11 on consecutive possessions, and the Lion defense held before the O took possession again on the MSU 40. Sam Fincken put points on the board for the home team with a 41-yard FG. The defense gave the Lions great field position again as quick handed DT Anthony Zettel picked off a tipped pass to put the Lions at the Spartan 36 with 43 seconds left in the half. With the time remaining for a score, even a FG would have given the Nittany Lions some momentum going into the second half. Instead of putting a together a semblance of plays to take advantage of the turnover, the call was made for Hackenberg (21 for 45, 196 yards and one INT) struggling with his accuracy to throw the ball on second and ten into the end zone. He forced his pass into tight coverage that was bobbled and DB Trae Waynes took the ball away for a wasted opportunity. With weak run blocking and an unimaginative passing game, the Lions just seemed to give away a chance to come up with any points. Without some timely PSU defense, the Lions would not have remained within striking distance down at the half, 13-3. With an offensive line that could neither run nor pass block (three sacks on the day) the Lions found point production difficult.
GGA Steve Ciesla and I talked a lot about PSU on the way up to the game that morning. Successful offensive football teams seem to build their offenses around strong offensive line. Look at recent NFL drafts. Linemen are key first round selections followed by QBs and defensive backs. A few receivers will enter into the early rounds and RBs seem to have fallen into the “dime a dozen” category. Granted the Lions faced sanctions and lost some key players, but previous HC Bill O’Brien seemed to leave the offensive line cupboard bear and when James Franklin came in, he seemed focused mostly skill position players. With this line and a lack of depth coming back, it will seem difficult to recruit immediate upfront talent that is going to step in effectively next season. This current line lacks firepower, strength, chemistry, and quickness as well as some good old toughness and a little nastiness to control the line of scrimmage. How they are going to improve this year and next is going to be a major question. Line coach Herb Hand had supposedly done an outstanding job of building an offensive line at his previous stop at Vanderbilt under James Franklin, but to be honest, we saw last spring that improvement there needed to take place. Since the beginning of this season, this group has regressed. Some PSU fans say they need to go to a bowl game to get this group some more practice. I don’t see any significant improvement since last spring, so I’m not sure what three weeks in December is going to do to turn things around. Maybe PSU will go the JUCO route for a short-term fit if it can. I’m not sure they ever recruited from JUCOs before, but I just don’t see several freshmen coming in at once to make line improvements so quickly. Without bringing in some new talent ready to step in or improving block skills or strength or toughness among the bodies returning, I’m not sure how this squad is going to turn things around a year from now. Something’s got to change. I think many Nittany Lion fans thought this would be the toughest year of the sanctions with incentives for upcoming recruit to get the program back into the national championship conversations, but without a strong core of offensive linemen, it might take a while to regain such desired stature. We will be monitoring the off season movement closely.
Penn State punted after a three and out doing nothing to negate the deferral that led to MSU’s opening kickoff return. Michigan State got the offense into gear right away and drove 63 yards culminating in a three-yard TD run by TB Jeremey Langford (30 carries for 122 yards and two TDs). DE Marcus Rush sacked Hackenberg on the first play of PSU’s next possession resulting in a recovery at the PSU 18. QB Connor Cook (13 for 25, 180 yards, 1 INT, 1 TD) found WR Tony Lippett in the end zone with a 10-yard scoring pass to put the Spartans in control, 27-3. Hackenberg finally developed some rhythm with his receiving corps completing five passes with three different receivers on a drive starting for the 21. Akeel Lynch crossed the goal line from the three to now trail, 27-10.
Michigan State’s next drive resulted in a 44-yard FG attempt that failed. PSU could do nothing and Pasquariello’s rugby-style punt put Sparty on his three. Their subsequent punt from their 30 gave the Lions the ball at their 20. The Lions got as far as the 30 until incompletions and two consecutive holding calls (one declined) put them back on their 20 where the offense turned the ball over on downs. With great field position, MSU opened the holes like Penn State couldn’t and Langford took it in for a six-yard scoring play for a 34-10 lead with 2:14 left, and the game was history. With the opening kickoff, a fumble by Hackenberg on his 18, and a turnover on downs at the 20, the Spartans took advantage to tally 21 points. On the day, the stout PSU defense only allowed 298 total yards against an offense that averaged 514 yards per game. No consolation of course, but a defense leading the nation in rushing defense with a 6-6 record can only be such when its offense cannot keep them off the field longer and cannot put enough points on the scoreboard. Hackenberg was sacked over 40 times this season , hurried consistently, and threw 15 INTs on the season. Under Bill O’Brien, an experienced QB coach, he flourished. Under Franklin, who clearly has sites on changing the PSU offense, he’s done the program no favors this season. Sometimes a coach has to adapt to the talent he has to win rather than trying to figure how to put a square peg in a round hole. If the chemistry wasn’t in place this hear, I’m not sure how it’s going to work next year. If the offensive line shows no significant improvement next season, it won’t make much difference what offensive system is run.
The media says that the Lions will have a meeting on Sunday while they await a bowl invitation. They may be waiting longer than they think. They may be waiting beyond 2015. Michigan State’s bowl prospects hinge on the outcome of next week’s Big Ten Championship game between Ohio State (11-1, 8-0) and Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1). If OSU can win and the CFP committee looks favorably upon them despite the loss of QB JT Barrett lost to injury, they could possibly enter the Final Four. But if they lose to the Badgers or the committee selects four teams ahead of them, the Buckeye decline will determine if the Spartans are considered among the twelve CFP teams to play in the six major Bowls. If not, they could end up in the BWW Citrus Bowl or the Outback Bowl against an SEC opponent on New Year’s Day. As for Collegefootballfan.com, we know our next game is an FCS playoff game. We will take our first trip to Durham, NH where we will see the top team in that division, the New Hampshire Wildcats (10-1) host Patriot League Champ Fordham (11-2) on Saturday at 1 pm in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
Extra points: PSU Senior LB Mike Hull had 13 stops for the Lions. He kept the “Linebacker” in Linebacker U this season.
With snow covered parking areas due to a big snowstorm on Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we parked at nearby State College HS where we tailgated and took a shuttle bus to Beaver Stadium. GGA Steve Ciesla did the driving as I was radio man on the way home keeping us in touch on various radio stations on AM and FM to keep up with all the scores on rivalry weekend. All my predictions on this week’s preview came up as I had called – ACC 4-0 versus SEC, Mississippi over Mississippi State, and Auburn seemed to be in control of Alabama. Of course, that changed when we got home to see the last quarter on TV.