Penn State Football: Paterno's Veteran Lions Equipped to Handle Bad Breaks
Penn State is 5-1 -- for the fourth time in seven years.
In 2005, 2008 and 2009, the Nittany Lions started the season in the same fashion, winning at least five of their first six games -- or better.
This time around, it feels different. Looks different.
Often, the 2011 season hasn't been pretty. On offense, style points – and simply points, for that matter – have been at a premium. What really counts for Paterno and his 24th-ranked team at this point is this:
They are still in it – albeit with Illinois and Wisconsin on the horizon.
“We’re trying to do something special here,” Paterno said at a recent press conference, his only acknowledgement that his vision for this year's squad goes far beyond last year's 7-6 desultory performance.
MOYE CATCHES A BAD BREAK
Penn State has already faced its share of adversity in 2011.
The latest came to light on Thursday, when it was reported that after dinner on Tuesday wide receiver Derek Moye slipped on the stairs of his apartment.
The accident broke the fifth metatarsal bone on Moye’s left foot, and now the Nittany Lion co-captain will miss two games – including Penn State’s game against Purdue on Saturday in Beaver Stadium (noon kickoff).
Moye leads the Nittany Lions in catches, with 28. Only junior wide receiver Justin Brown is also in double-digits, with 19, over six games. Among the wideouts, Devon Smith is next, with eight receptions, and averages just 25.5 yards a game.
Penn State has certainly have had its share of bad luck – unprovoked, through no fault of its own – halfway into the season.
There was Joe Paterno’s summer practice run-in with Devon Smith; linebacker/leader Michael Mauti’s second torn ACL; veteran cornerback D’Anton Lynn’s knockout against Eastern Michigan; foot injuries to key reserves Brandon Beachum and Stephon Morris; the recent deaths of two starters’ loved ones; and 2010 starting defensive end Pete Massaro’s spring practice ACL.
These are things the Nittany Lions could do nothing about. Grin, bare it, move on.
Not so true about other adversities Penn State has faced this season: A quarterback controversy, the absence of Anthony Fera and Stephfon Green, missed field goals (see previous clause), a succession of drive- and touchdown-killing penalties, early pass droppings, red zone woes, scoring difficulties, allowing Alabama to postpone some games in the series to now, STEP…
These have been manufactured, self-inflicted adversities.
Synthetic or man-made. Nature vs. nurture. No matter how a squad contracts its adversity, the important thing is how it is handled.
Penn State’s first six opponents have a combined 20-9 record when you factor out their games against PSU. The Lions are on a four-game win streak, but take out Eastern Michigan, and their average margin of victory is less than a touchdown.
It hasn’t been easy. Even its biggest win of the year, over Iowa – when the Penn State defense held the Hawkeyes to one drive over 29 yards after the first quarter – was a tight one.
If Penn State beats Purdue, it will retain a share of the lead of the Leaders Division at 6-1 and 3-0 in the Big Ten. And at that point PSU might think it can make some of its own luck:
Northwestern, Ohio State and Nebraska appear to be not as good as many thought; the Lions’ defense is even better than many thought; the PSU offensive line thinks it can run block; Matt McGloin plays quite well as a second thought; Fera has a mind to punt and kick; Silas Redd and Curtis Duke have made us forget Evan Royster; and Paterno is – sans pain-killers – single-minded in his pursuit to coach and heal simultaneously.
Will there be bad luck? Sure.
But if Paterno is going to take a crack at a Big Ten division title or another 10- or 11-win season, this might be the year. And not next year or the year after that, as the conventional wisdom goes. (As conventional as you can get, anyway, with a coach who will soon be 85.)
The Nittany Lions’ biggest break, right now, is that it is a veteran squad.
(Certainly, Paterno’s coaching staff is a veteran one as well. On average, his nine assistants graduated from college in 1980 – which puts the average age of the staff around 53. Five are older, three are younger, and one is right there.)
For as much as Paterno said his players were a young squad in 2010, they are definitely an old one in 2011.
The Lions’ starting defense has one sophomore (middle linebacker Glenn Carson), three juniors and seven seniors.
The defensive front features two seniors (Devon Still, Jack Crawford) and two juniors, Sean Stanley and Jordan Hill. The seniors have been running with the first team, at least in part, since 2009, while Hill and Stanley saw some starting time last season.
The linebacking corps, even without Mauti, mixes and matches a great deal. The top seven ’backers average three years on the squad.
Lynn (30 career starts) is part of a quintet in the secondary that has started 110 games on defense – including Drew Astorino (33), Nick Sukay (25), Chaz Powell (18 overall, 9 on defense) and Morris (13). All are seniors, save for Morris, who is a junior.
Ultimately, losing Moye for two games may have its upside. Brown may get the chance to be the featured receiver – he still has a huge upside himself. Shawney Kersey may prove he’s a reliable No. 3 option. Allen Robinson, Brandon Moseby-Felder and Bill Belton may get more looks. And McGloin will be forced to look elsewhere other Moye.
On offense, the Lions are not as young as you would think. With Moye out of the lineup on Saturday, if Penn State starts just two wideouts and goes with a fullback, it will feature five grad students, two seniors, two juniors (Brown, Kersey), a sophomore (Redd) and a quarterback.
If Bolden starts -- as he has all year -- although he is a true sophomore, it will be his 15th start – hardly a rookie or a novice anymore.
And if McGloin opens the game at quarterback, it’ll only be his sixth start at Penn State. But he’s finished more games that, plus he’s in his fourth year on campus – although his third year of eligibility.
Penn State’s experience on offense lies on the line. Counting tight end Andrew Szczerba, the front six has been at Penn State for 28 years. (So how can it still be called for procedure penalties?)
Only Szczerba (5) and center Matt Stankieicz (8) don’t have double-digit starts under their belts. Johnnie Troutman (25), Quinn Barham (19), DeOn’tae Pannell (15) and Chima Okoli (14) -- although he’s a former D-lineman -- bring a good deal of experience to the table.
SAME OLD STORY
To repeat: Penn State is a veteran team – from its head coach on down.
And if you take the starting lineups when Moye returns, Penn State starts seniors in 14 of its 22 positions – 15 of 23 if you include fullback Joe Suhey.
To them, Moye's break is certainly a bad one. But not a back-breaker.
The senior leaders have seen 11-2 and they've seen 7-6. And however unlikely it may seem, they are now a lot closer to the former than the latter.
It’s enough to make Joe Paterno feel like he’s 78 again.