Few foresaw the sort of season Penn State would go on to have after everything as a fan base they'd been through over the course of the last year. Many said there was no way possible Penn State would even go .500 on the year. And yet, a week removed from absolutely taking it to Iowa on the road, the Nittany Lions play host to the Ohio State Buckeyes Saturday evening with a chance to move into sole possession of first place in the Leaders division (remember, though they can't represent the division in Indianapolis, both are still eligible to take home the formal division crown).
In order to get the best possible insight on what this weekend will hold in store, we welcome in Devon Edwards from the Penn State standard bearers, Black Shoe Diaries, for this edition of Five minutes in the Holy Land. You can follow Devon on twitter at @Devon2012 as well as the staff of Black Shoe Diaries at @BSDtweet.
So...Bill O'Brien...how exactly? No seriously, cynics like myself were convinced, particularly in lieu of the last wave of Belichick assistants (and O'Brien's unflashy to say the least resume) that there was almost no chance the only guy who seemingly wanted the gig could could make this work, particularly not this quickly. What's been B.o.B.'s magic sauce?
Ohio State fans aren't the only ones who doubted the Bill O'Brien hiring. Most in the Penn State fanbase, it seemed, were apoplectic; not only because O'Brien was someone so few of us had ever heard of, but because the search process dragged on for months and because the rumor mill produced names like Chris Petersen (and yes, Urban Meyer), and so the let down was pretty palpable. You had guys like LaVar Arrington disowning Penn State and it got pretty ugly for a while. But considering how well O'Brien recruited, and how he kept the overwhelming majority of the team together after the sanctions hit, the community really rallied around him, even after he added names to the jerseys.
The success on the field, though, is pretty unexpected, especially when you consider how abysmal this offense was a year ago – and then you take away the top 3 rushers, top 4 receivers, top 2 tight ends, and 4 starting linemen from that 2011 team. It helps that O'Brien's NFL-style offense has a decided schematic advantage over the Jay Paterno/Galen Hall unit that was a) fraught with miscommunication and confusion, and b) maddeningly inconsistent with the playcalling, but the bigger reason for the turnaround is that the players seem to recognize the urgency that comes with playing not for a bowl berth, but for the soul of a university.
And yet, the coaching staff has also managed to keep the team playing loose, playing like they're having fun (a novel concept!), and for a team more fueled by emotion than any other in the country, that's been the difference.
Many Ohio State fans likely remember the Virginia game going down the way it did because of the kicking game. Has special teams evened out or is it still a dicey potentially game altering proposition?
Well, it's easy to lay the blame directly on the right foot of Sam Ficken (and I certainly do), but he never should have been in a position to have to kick five field goals in a game. Penn State forced 3 turnovers on UVA's side of the field, and didn't turn one of them into a touchdown. At that point, the offense was not nearly as efficient as it is now – it didn't help that starting RB Bill Belton (who just put up 106 yards and 3 TDs on just 16 carries) was injured, and Zach Zwinak (3 straight 100-yard games, before last week) hadn't emerged yet, so the offense was pretty one-dimensional.
The offense we've seen the last few weeks simply would've punched a couple of those turnovers in for 6 and we wouldn't have had to worry about kicking field goals. But sending Ficken out there is still a very, very dicey proposition – he actually nailed a 34-yarder Saturday, and that was a cause for celebration. So O'Brien, and this is indicative of the "playing with house money" that's keyed this run, has started going for it more than anyone else, and it's been paying dividends.
Unfortunately, as the Lions have made the kicking game obsolete, they've really struggled with the other special teams aspects: Alex Butterworth's punting has been nothing short of abysmal, and the last two weeks, a punt and kickoff, respectively, have been returned for scores. A letdown this week in those areas could prove fatal.
How on earth is Matt McGloin this competent? Was Jay Paterno just that bad?
Yeah, Matt McGloin is the best pocket passer in the Big Ten. Is that nuts or what? Honestly, I'm not sure anyone saw this coming. It's not just the new offense, or the confidence that comes with being the anointed starter all through the spring and summer, but we're seeing a completely different quarterback. The first touchdown pass he threw against Iowa was a thing of beauty. He rolled right to escape pressure, bought some time, set his feet, had a checkdown option but said, as the old joke goes, "F*** it, I'm going deep," and threw a dart 35 yards down the field perfectly between two defenders. That's a throw that we haven't seen a PSU quarterback make since, I don't know, Kerry Collins?
But the big thing for McGloin has been the weapons at his disposal – Kyle Carter is an absolute matchup nightmare, Allen Robinson is great at finding the open field, and with our glut of tight ends, one of them's bound to beat a linebacker somewhere. The offensive line has given him a whole lot of time, and McGloin's done a great job not forcing things. He's only thrown two picks this season, and one of them bounced off the hands of an open receiver. He's also getting a lot more freedom and responsibility to audible and make checks at the line of scrimmage – especially in the no-huddle "NASCAR" package – which he never really had before.
The TL;DR of it is that yeah, Jay Paterno isn't exactly a model QB coach, but I think O'Brien has done an excellent job empowering McGloin, and he's really responded.
Urban Meyer spoke glowingly of Michael Mauti at his Monday press conference. Tell Buckeyes backers out there who aren't as familiar with him what they can expect in terms of his impact on the game Saturday.
Michael Mauti is, for my money, the best defensive player in the Big Ten, but he's also the emotional leader of this football team. His impact is huge on the field, but bigger off of it. As far as what you'll see Saturday, he's in the mold of the traditional Penn State outside linebacker – think Sean Lee or Paul Posluszny – someone who can do it all for a Ted Roof defense that basically just lets its linebackers run free.
You'll see him blitzing off the edge, dropping into zone coverage, and attacking the line of scrimmage on run downs. That's how he leads the team in interceptions (with 3), tackles (65), forced fumbles (2) and passes defensed (5), and also has 2.5 sacks. He's a hard hitter and a very fluid, reactive linebacker, and the fact that he's come back from ACL tears in each knee to do it just adds to the burgeoning legend that is Mike Mauti.
The other guy whose name you'll expect to hear a lot of is Gerald Hodges, the other outside linebacker. He'll likely be the one tasked with shadowing Braxton Miler (if Miller plays, of course), and Hodges is a fantastic defensive player in his own right who flies under the radar because he's across from Mauti. I can't imagine there's a team in the nation with a better linebacking corps than Penn State. And hey, that's why we're Linebacker U (a fun thing to do is to watch that video and be shocked at how many coaches have since been fired).
Finally, the action quickly moved in Penn State's favor after a somewhat surprising -3 open for the Buckeyes in terms of the betting lines but now seems to be pretty much an all intents and purposes pick'em amongst the major books. What are Penn State's keys to winning this one? And what would a win over Ohio State mean to a Nittany Lion faithful that's been through an awful lot in the last calendar year?
Beating Ohio State would mean more than you can imagine to a Penn State fanbase that's been so maligned, and been through so much in the past 12 months. Not only would it give Penn State the inside track to the Leaders Division championship that's basically its only tangible goal (though honestly, who the hell cares about a division title?), but it would validate everything this team, this coaching staff, and this community has been fighting for all season, since the sanctions came down: that we're still Penn State, and that nothing anyone does or takes away is going to change that. After a year of hell, it's finally about football again, and that's a beautiful thing to behold.
As far as what Penn State's going to need to do? Honestly, just execute. I've watched a couple Ohio State games this year, and I really think the Nittany Lions match up fantastically well. Braxton Miller is going to find himself far less able to dance away from Hodges and Mauti than from any set of defenders he's played this year, especially if he's banged up (and I'm sorry, but there's no way someone who took that hit, and who was down so long, and who could barely walk, and who got taken straight to the hospital is just suddenly, miraculously "fine"). Plus when you consider that the Ohio State defense is so depleted you've got a fullback as your starting Mike linebacker, it's going to have a whole hell of a lot of trouble matching up against the two- and three-tight end sets this team loves to run. If Penn State can avoid a crucial special teams mistake and takes care of the ball, I think they win this one, and I think they can win it fairly comfortably.