With all the hype and excitement of the coaching search, it's easy to forget there's still five games left in the 2010 season, including the tilt Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium against our "rivals" from Penn State. SB Nation Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries covers the Nitts, and Joe from BSD agreed to answer some questions we had about the team and Saturday's game.
The Daily Gopher: How do PSU fans feel about the 3-3 start?
Black Shoe Diaries: Going into the season a lot of Penn State fans marked Alabama and Iowa for losses, so there was no surprise there. However, besides the Illini fans, heading into the season no one had Penn State losing to Illinois. However, as we progressed into the season you can tell that the offense was young, struggling, and lacking any sort of run blocking from the offensive line (fairly decent in pass protection). The defense has been a step slow and unable to stop the run all season long. So when we lost to Illinois, I wasn't completely shocked. This team needs some more experience and leadership. If they didn't find it during the bye week, I'm not sure we are going to see it until next season. With 6 games remaining, Penn State will need to work hard to find three wins to get them bowl eligible, because Michigan and Northwestern are no longer guaranteed wins.
TDG: What's the feeling about Coach Paterno and his future? If this season continues to go downhill, is there any chance the administration asks him to step down? Would fans support that?
BSD: Penn State has been down this road before (and recently). Penn State hit the worst stretch of Joe Paterno's career with losing seasons in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004. Critics and fans were calling for Joe's job. Some members of the University wanted Joe to step down because they said the game had passed him by (it hadn't). Well 2005 came and Penn State only lost one game, won the Big Ten title and beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The team went 9-4 in 2006 and 2007 and 11-2 in 2008 and 2009. College football is crazy. You have one bad season, especially at a big time school, and everyone wants you fired. Georgia would be making a huge mistake if they fire their coach Mark Richt. Winning is important, don't get me wrong. But Joe has always done things different at Penn State. The Grand Experiment was something that was laughed and people didn't think it was possible for athletes to be students first and excel on the field. Joe proved everyone wrong.
I'm sure you have heard a Penn Stater say this before, but it is the truth. Joe has earned the right to decide when it is time to go. It would be a shame if the University forced him out like Florida State did to Joe's friend Bobby Bowden. As long as he is healthy, able, and wants to coach, Joe Paterno should be the head football coach at Penn State.
TDG: We here in Minnesota have (finally!) started our coaching search. We have a huge mancrush on Temple's Al Golden, but it's widely believed he's waiting for the Penn State job, and wouldn't accept a coaching job at Minnesota. Any truth to that?BSD: Al Golden turned down opportunities to interview at USC, UCLA, Cincinnati, and Virginia (where he was Defensive Coordinator). So it is safe to say he won't be looking to take on another rebuilding project at Minnesota. I feel (as do many other Penn State fans) that Golden is waiting for Joe to retire to make a run at the Penn State job. Golden will have to beat out both Tom Bradley and Larry Johnson Sr., both of whom are already on the current staff. Penn State is all about tradition, so I don't think you will see them go too far out of their comfort zone when it comes to hiring the next coach (like Michigan did when they hired RichRod). I highly doubt you will see someone like Mike Leach or Gus Malzahn walking the Penn State sidelines.
TDG: What's gone wrong with the offense, and can it be fixed this season (well other than the one game fix of playing the Gophers)?
BSD: It starts with the offensive line. They haven't been able to run block or create running lanes all season (with the Temple game being the Outlier). They just aren't very good right now. Penn State lost their starting RT, Lou Eliades to a knee. Center Doug Klopacz has been the weakest link so far in his first year as a starter. If Penn State was going to make a change to this group, it would have happened during the bye. From everything I've heard, no changes have been made to the starting five, which is problematic in my opinion.
On top of the poor offensive line play, Penn State is starting an 18 year old true freshman QB, Robert Bolden. I'm not sure if you have caught any of the PSU games, but Bolden has all the tools to be the real deal. The media kept throwing around the word poise when describing Bolden like they were getting paid per word. Bolden is raw, but he is the best option for Penn State. His backup, sophomore Kevin Newsome, is an outstanding runner...and that's about it. He has an awkward throwing motion and takes off running as soon as you blitz him. In a couple of years, Robert Bolden is going to be the best QB in the Big Ten, and one of the best in the country...he just needs time and experience.
The running game hasn't been that great this season, due in large part to the offensive line and play calling. Penn State struggles to get any sort of push up the middle, yet Penn State continues to call for running plays right up the gut. They have had some success running to the outside. Hopefully they will do some of that on Saturday.
Our receivers have been up and down this year. Derek Moye is the best of the bunch and one of the best in the Big Ten. He has great size and speed. Devon Smith, is the fastest player on Penn State's team and one of the fastest in college football. His only problem is that he weighs about 150 lbs and is listed at 5'7". Senior Graham Zug was expected to play a huge role this year but has been dropping more balls than Lindsay Lohan. Brett Brackett is the captain and is having a bounce back season after he struggled with the drops in 2009. Brackett is playing a Hybrid TE position due to the fact that we lost our top two TEs.
Can it be fixed? Sure it can. The problems Penn State has are all fixable. But unless they fix the offensive line, this team will struggle to score points the rest of the season.
TDG: Has Evan Royster regressed, or is his lack of production (at least compared to his previous seasons) because of the offense as a whole?
BSD: A lot was made of Royster's weight gain this summer, but that is a non-factor. Royster is struggling because the offensive line can't block. On top of that, Penn State has been rotating tailbacks all year, inserting Stephfon Green and true freshman Silas Redd at key moments. For a while, it looked like Green was the best back this year, but he has been almost invisible the past couple of weeks. Royster is still the best option for this team, although Silas Redd should be the next great PSU RB. Royster will still break the all-time rushing record at Penn State, but it can be argued by most if he is one of the top 5 RBs to every play at Penn State (My top 5: Lenny Moore, John Cappelletti, Ki-Jana Carter, Curt Warner, Blair Thomas).
TDG: Despite the injuries, your D has still fared quite well, especially on opponents 3rd down % where you're tops in the conference. What's been holding this group together?
BSD: Smoke and Mirrors. This defense is not up to the standards of Penn State. Penn State is not even starting the best three linebackers (Michael Mauti, Nathan Stupar, Khairi Fortt). MLB Chris Colasanti is a step slow in recognition and catches opposing players instead of driving through them. Jack Crawford has been struggling all year to make big plays or get any sort of pass rush. We just lost safety Nick Sukay for the season, so Penn State will have to do some mixing and matching to put the secondary back together. It's probably not good for the defense that the offense continues to struggle with 3 and outs.
TDG: Thoughts on expansion next season and the way the divisions shook out?
BSD: I think they did a pretty decent job. I hope they don't keep the Title Game in Lucas Oil Stadium. This is the Big Ten, and we need to play that thing outdoors. There are plenty of NFL stadiums in the Big Ten footprint (Solider Field, Lincoln Financial Field, Heinz Field, Browns Stadium, Lambeau Field) to have an amazing game. The weather might be a factor, but that is a part of Big Ten football. I'll miss not playing Iowa every season, but Nebraska is a pretty decent trade off. I just hope that the Big Ten conferences don't become what the Big Ten became. Winner of Texas/Oklahoma plays whatever comes out of the other division. I just wish we could trade Indiana and some basketball players to the Big 12 for Missouri.
TDG: How excited are you guys for a yearly battle with Nebraska?
BSD: Very excited. Hopefully in two years they will move the game to the last game of the season and make it a true "rivalry game". Nebraska is an outstanding team and has great tradition. When they came to Happy Valley in 2002, it was one of the best atmospheres we've ever had at Beaver Stadium (it was topped later by the 2005 Ohio State game). Nebraska and Penn State are a lot a like and I look forward to matching up with them every year.
TDG: On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being "we had a rivalry trophy?" and 10 being "the rivalry you have with Pitt", how upset were you to lose the Governor's Bell "rivalry" with Minnesota?
BSD: I'm going to go with a 3. I think those trophy games are a little hokey, but I don't think Penn State has gotten enough revenge on the Golden Gophers for ruining what could have been a national championship year for us in 1999. That loss started Penn State down the path to the "dark years." Hopefully we can ruin a hockey national championship season for you...
TDG: With the way Gopher hockey has played lately, I don't think you have to worry about that anytime soon. Despite that, we here in Minnesota do love hockey. Especially Golden Gopher hockey. How excited are Penn State fans for the Nittany Lions varsity hockey? How well do you think the new sport will be supported?
BSD: I think there will be great support. State College is smack in the middle of the state in between Philadelphia (GO Flyers!) and Pittsburgh. I think the year Penn State joins 1-A, they should try and get the Flyers vs. Penguins at Beaver Stadium for the Winter Classic game. They would absolutely fill the stadium and would be an amazing game. Pennsylvania is a hockey state. I do hope the Big Ten forms a conference in the near future. But until then, I hope Penn State plays against Minnesota, Maine, Michigan State, Michigan, and any Hockey East team.
TDG: I read a Sports by Brooks article recently that said Nike had the audacity to suggest some uniform changes for Penn State football. Did that idiot make it out of Happy Valley alive? Should he have? (You have the best jerseys in all of sports. Never, ever change them.)
BSD: I believe Nike approached Penn State about doing one of those Combat uniforms (which are terrible for the record). Penn State obviously declined, but I was actually surprised that Alabama actually agreed to do it. If the next coach even suggests a change of the uniform, he might be in for some trouble. The only thing I could possibly see ever changing is the maker of the uniforms (Penn State hasn't always had Nike), but I think Nike would do everything in its power to never lose Penn State.
Penn State should never change their uniforms. When you turn on a TV and you see that white helmet, blue jersey with no name on the back, and black spikes, you know it's Penn State. Now if we were doing a throw back game or something, I would love to see them put the numbers back on the helmets, even if it is just for one game. We did have a Heisman winner when they were on...
TDG: How do you see the game playing out on Saturday?
BSD: Do you remember in scene in "Zoolander" when the male models thought it would be a great day to have a gasoline fight with each other and they ended up blowing up? Well this game will be nothing like that at all. If Penn State scores more than 10 points I’ll be excited. If Penn State can't score in the red zone (AGAIN), Minnesota has a good chance to get the W. However, if Penn State made the necessary adjustments and fixed some of the problems they had in the first six weeks of the season, then watch out. But we'll have to see