I have asked Mike over at Black Shoe Diaries to help us out a little bit by answering a few questions about his favorite team.
TDG - I am kind of fascinated with expectations. Minnesota, record-wise, is about where people had thought they would be yet I'm hearing plenty of grumblings about how terrible we are. Clearly the Gophers are not a perfect team. Penn State is halfway through the season sits at 5-1 having beaten nobody significant. Factoring in preseason expectations and how people currently feel about the Nittany Lions, how has the season gone so far?
BSD - The Iowa loss was a tough pill to swallow, but I can't say there was a lot of shock on the Penn State side over it. Going into the season I think everyone knew that going undefeated would be difficult when you have to rebuild the offensive line as well as replace all of the wide receivers and the entire secondary. Iowa did a good job of exploiting the offensive line, and they capitalized on opportunities presented by the special teams and turnovers. Most people, including myself, predicted a 10-2 season and so far I think that record is still achievable. I had hoped that Penn State could sneak through the first half of the schedule and use the lesser competition to make themselves into a really good football team. I think they did that, but unfortunately they had the hiccup against Iowa.
In a way I think the program overall will be better because of the loss. I think it served to wake up some of the younger players on the team and made them realize they are going to have to work hard and show up to every game and every practice because nobody is going to lay down and take a loss just because the game is played at 8 PM in Beaver Stadium and everybody is wearing white. The team seems more focused now and has made some significant progress the past two weeks. I'm really pleased with the way they used to loss as motivation.
TDG - First in total offense, first in total defense, first in points allowed, first in third down conversions, first in 3rd down conversions allowed, first in sacks, first in sacks allowed...is there a weakness on this Penn State team? Or are these guady stats a function of their opponents.
BSD - I think to some degree you have to say the level of competition helps pads the stats, but they are very good. Ask yourself this: If any Big Ten team other than Ohio State played Penn State's schedule, would they also be ranked first in all of those categories? Probably not.
Penn State is a very good football team, but they're not really a great football team yet. They're getting there though. I already mentioned the concerns I had at wide receiver, offensive line, and secondary before the season. I think the wide receivers are fine. Chaz Powell and Derek Moye have exceeded my expectations. The jury is still out on the offensive line. They seem to be doing better since the Iowa game, but until I see them do well against a decent defense I'm still skeptical. And I'm still not 100% sold on the secondary. They have played well to this point, but they get a lot of help from the defensive line which doesn't give quarterbacks much time to throw. I think this week will be their first real test against Eric Decker. If they can hold him to just five or six catches and 60 or 70 yards I'll be pretty pleased.
TDG - Which is more dominant the Penn State offense led by Royster and Clark or the defense?
BSD - So far you have to say the defense. They have been more consistent than the offense to this point. The defensive line led by tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu has been just nasty. They're a little thin at linebacker until Sean Lee comes back from tweaking his knee, but Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull do a fine job. I already mentioned the secondary is doing well, even though I'm not sure they are as good as their stats suggest.
The performance of the offense centers around the offensive line. Royster and Clark are proven commodities at this point, and like I said, I'm pleased with the way the wide receivers have stepped up. When the offensive line can open up holes for Royster and Stephfon Green while keeping Daryll Clark upright, the offense is unstoppable. But Iowa showed that teams that get pressure on Clark can force him into turnovers. So it's important for the offensive line to do well. One thing that worries me about the game this week is that Penn State may be down to their third option at right tackle as DeOn'tae Pannell and Nerraw McCormack are both nursing sprained ankles. Last week they had to start Ako Poti who was a junior college transfer a few years ago.
TDG - Special Teams is maybe the one area that Penn State hasn't completely dominated this year (see the Iowa game!). And conversely the Gopher special forces have been very good this year. Can this actually be an advantage for Minnesota? And if so can it translate into a win?
BSD - Penn State is playing a lot of young players on special teams this year. Normally your coverage teams consist of a lot of second string linebackers and safeties...or in other words, guys who know how to tackle. But Penn State is thin in the secondary due to years of poor recruiting, and they are thin at linebacker due to injuries. So now when I look at the coverage teams I see a lot of backup running backs and true freshmen. So early in the year it took a few shoe string tackles to keep Temple and Syracuse from returning kickoffs for touchdowns. They've made a lot of improvement since then, but they're still not great. They're good at filtering the play inside and stopping it, but not before they give up a 30 yard return. Minnesota should be able to get some good returns on kickoffs.
Jeremy Boone is a fantastic punter, so he will hopefully pin Minnesota deep a few times. Place kicking is an issue though. I'm not happy with Colin Wagner. His kickoffs are short and I don't think he's made a field goal over 35 yards yet. That could be a problem they haven't really been faced with yet.
TDG - So the Gophers actually have a little recent history of pulling out big wins in Happy Valley. Does Saturday's game concern you a little? What will have to go right for Minnesota and wrong for Penn State for the Gophers to pick up their 5th win in the last 7 meetings between these two clubs?
BSD - I like how you spun that stat around to suggest Minnesota has won four out of the last six games between our two clubs. I could also ask you what the Gophers plan to do to break the two game losing streak against Penn State? If you consider three wins against some of the worst Penn State teams of the Paterno era to be "big wins", more power to you. (Granted, 1999 was a big win. I'll give you that.)
Kidding aside, I'm not too worried about this game. No disrespect intended to Minnesota or yourself, but Penn State is on a different talent level from the Gophers. I see an offense that is not just one dimensional, it's one-player dimensional. And the Gopher's are ranked 83rd in rushing defense and 77th in total defense. This is a game, in Beaver Stadium on homecoming, that Penn State should handle easily. If they don't I will be extremely disappointed.
Excellent stuff as always from the premier Penn State blog (that is saying a lot because there are about 346 PSU blogs out there). Thanks Mike.