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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions’ 15 Biggest Surprises of 2010

by on December 01, 2010 2:38 AM

Penn State’s 7-5 regular season record wasn’t that big of a surprise. Even to Joe Paterno himself. (He figured on an 8-4.)

Disappointing for the Nittany Nation, but not beyond the realm of reasonable expectations.

Still, in a year that featured its share of both desultory defeats (five) and delirious delights (Joe’s 400th), there was a bundle of surprises. More than most of Paterno’s 45 seasons, actually.

I’m not giving anything away here, but the quarterbacks provided the biggest surprises for Penn State football in 2010 – for myriad reasons. We’ll get to that in a second.

But this is important: Not a surprise is that the Nittany Lions led the country in Academic All-Americans. If interviews with the press are any indication, all three picks – Stefen Wisniewski, Chris Colasanti and Pete Massaro – are bona fide examples of Paterno’s ongoing Grand Experiment. Their GPA’s in challenging and worthy majors bear that out as well.

That’s the good with the following bad, the alarming and the pleasantly unexpected. This list has them all. Here are my 15 biggest surprises of the Nittany Lions’ 2010 regular season:

1. Rob Bolden.

A true freshman at starting quarterback for Paterno in the season-opener. True? True! You can teach an old Joe new tricks. From the initial looks of it, Bolden apparently showed Joe and Jay more in 20-some practices than Kevin Newsome – remember him? -- did in 140 and Matt McGloin – we all now know him – did in 200.

The Kid didn’t do too badly, but the Lions buttoned down everything – offense and defense – because The Youngster was at the helm. The whole thing seemed just so, well, fragile. And let’s not forget, before Wally Pipp…Rob Bolden…went down with a head injury, he had just completed nine of 11 passes against Minnesota. Gopher figure.

1A. Matt McGloin.

This is the two interceptions in the Blue-White Game Matt McGloin, right? He came in for Bolden against Minnesota, heaved a touchdown pass, and had us all at “hello.”

Spunky, showy, gritty, fun, charismatic – McGloin is all of that and more. He blossomed immediately, no surprise since his folks own a floral shop in West Scranton. Even when he fails, like was the case in the first three quarters against Michigan State on Saturday, he’s got this Favre thing going on (and I do not mean texting, either). You’re just waiting for him to make things happen. Get this: He is the only QB in PSU history to throw for 300 yards in back-to-back games. Loved this surprise!

2. The Northwestern Game.

The 21-point comeback, the biggest in Beaver Stadium history under Paterno, was surprising enough. So were the 35 straight points, to say nothing of McGloin’s four TD passes. But Joe’s genuine response to the crowd, and the understated yet classy recognition, was as good as it gets. When he said, “Now let’s go beat Ohio State,” I started tearing up. I’m sorry, but it’s moments like that when you know Joe is The Real Deal.

3. Healthy Joe.

Joe called in sick for the summer (that’s OK, remember he’s a university employee; imagine all those sick days he has accumulated in 61 years). In August, at the first day of the Big Ten media days, it seemed like there was no way he would last the season without at least going to the press box. Turns out he was at a good friend of the program’s anniversary party the night before, and although by all accounts, he didn’t party ’til dawn, getting his beauty sleep before going to Chicago in the a.m. may have been the better part of valor.

Physically, as the season went on, he seemed to be at his healthiest in years.

4. Not So Healthy Nittany Lions.

Where have you gone, Nick Sukay? A Nittany Nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Imagine Michael Mauti if he were healthy. Lou Eliades, we hardly knew thee. You know it’s a rough year when your punter is on IR with appendicitis.

I could add up all the injuries, but you probably wouldn’t believe it. Scrap must have been on his cell constantly, asking his brother Jim, the Steelers’ doc, whether anterior means front or back.

5. Illinois.

We saw Alabama coming. Same with Iowa and Ohio State (see No. 8). And maybe even Michigan State. But Illinois? C’mon. The Lions were Zookered, 33-13, and everyone is still shaking his and her head over that one. Mulligan, anyone?

6. Evan Royster.

By now we know that Evan went home for the summer. He shouldn’t have. He gained double-digit weight and also added body fat. He shouldn’t have. He gained –poor word choice; I mean rushed for -- only 450 yards in the first seven games. Definitely not phat.

But he rebounded and finished with 466 yards over the final five games, including 284 vs. the Michigan-Northwestern daily double. I must tell you, I like the guy. I was happy to see him get the record, and even when you add in Curt Warner’s (extraordinary) 474 yards rushing in four bowl games, Royster needs only 39 yards in the bowl game to pass Warner as Penn State’s true all-time leading rusher. And that, my friends, is surprising.

7. Defense.

The Lion defense gave up 272 points in 12 games, the most in an entire season since the 2001 crew yielded 281 in 11 games. By comparison, the 2009 “D” gave up only 159 points –- in 13 games. That’s 12.2 in 2009 vs. 22.6 in 2010, when the Lions allowed 19 TD receptions and 35 touchdowns overall.

It was a far cry from the very elite stature of Penn State’s defense over the previous five years. From 2004-09, Penn State was one of only two defensive units ranked among the top five in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense. With the losses of three ’backers and a No. 1 pick at DT, a slip was anticipated. But this was a defense that had fallen and couldn’t get up.

8. The Buckeyes.

First half vs. Ohio State (Nittany Lions 14, Buckeyes 3) and second half vs. Ohio State (Buckeyes 142…er, actually 35, Nittany Lions 0). Say no more.

9. Defensive line.

Jordan Hill, a bulky 309-pound confirmed defensive tackle, actually started at defensive end. That’s how bad it got. He’s a good player; he had seven tackles against Alabama. But he’s not a DE. For years and years, Larry Johnson’s unit was a Nittany Lion bright spot. This year, there was an eclipse. Jack Crawford was among both the injured and missing, even when he was playing. Just a bad year. To cap things off, Devon Still was hit for a pair of dumb penalties against Michigan State that cost Penn State dearly.

10. Pounding (times four).

Four losses by 20 or more points. Never happened before in the Paterno Era. Read this list, then disavow any knowledge of these horrendous defeats: Alabama, 24-3; Iowa, 24-3; Illinois 33-13; Ohio State, 35-14. These scores will self-destruct in five seconds.

11. Homecoming and Senior Day losses.

These two fairly innocuous games are traditional winners for Penn State. Before 2010, Paterno had won 39 of 44 Homecoming games. And before Saturday, Penn State had won 19 of its previous 20 Senior Day games. Combined, that’s 58 of 64 – a .906 winning percentage. Ohfer two in 2010 – similar odds to a former woman hoopster from Alaska running for vice president. You betcha.

12. Captains.

Tell me you weren’t surprised when neither Stefen Wisniewski nor Evan Royster – the only true stars on this year’s Penn State team, and seniors to boot – were not named as captains. Ollie Ogbu, given his three years as a starter, made sense. But Brett Brackett was a bit of a surprise, even though he was a Lift For Life leader. To outside observers (me), it seemed like he did a very good job as the season progressed.

Speaking of captains, it was a bit surprising that Ogbu was late for a pre-game team function vs. Indiana, and sat out the first half. OK, it was downright alarming.

13. Brett Brackett.

The guy had 17 catches in his first three years as a Nittany Lion, only three last season. In 2010, he had 37 grabs, five for TDs. He was Bolden’s go-to guy, and until the season-ender against MSU, he was Mr. Surehands. Without that catch in the end zone with three seconds left in the first half against Northwestern, Joe may still be looking for 400.

14. Chris Colasanti.

Who saw this coming? He led the Lions in tackles with 102, the 21st Penn Stater to crack the century mark. As slow afoot as Gino Capone and nearly as smart as Ron Vanderlinden, he may have been a one-year wonder at linebacker. But what a great kid – polite, insightful, an old-school Nittany Lion from the 1960s. Too bad he had to burn a redshirt year when injuries plagued PSU’s LB corps.

15. Student turnout.

Quite frankly, it sucked. So many noon kicks hurt, but so did a slacker attitude once Lions fell to .500. Kids tell me the ticketing/entry process slows things down. It may be somewhat true, but I know firsthand that Penn State ticket, marketing and facility people give 110 percent in making things as good as they possibly can be for the student ticket-buyers.

HONORABLE MENTION

Collin Wagner is really that good, the quarterbacks’ silent treatment of Graham Zug, the emergence of Silas Redd, Paterno’s early pronouncement that he intends to return in 2011, Tim Curley’s non-committal response to Joe’s comments, Chaz Powell’s back-and-forth switches and occasional apparition status, unfailing commitment to the reverse, Temple’s 13-9 halftime lead, early and often bandwagon jumping, the disappearance of Kevin Newsome into the Backup Quarterback Protection Program, people who really think Al Golden or Greg Schiano will succeed Paterno, Joe’s inability to get press conference answers synched with the questions and wasn’t there a kid named Paul Jones who looked pretty darn good in the Blue-White Game?

DISHONORABLE MENTION

Paltry early commits, red zone troubles (both sides of the ball), not one but two public urination infractions, Sean Stanley’s continued play even though he had pot (to/and) pee in, the firing of the Nittany Lion mascot, Derrick Thomas’ disappearance for some sort of infraction, the aforementioned Indiana pre-game Ollie Oops and the sideline coaching foibles (especially the Iowa episode).

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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