What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask opposing bloggers questions about their team; they answer. A truly revolutionary idea, no? This week: Devon Edwards, from SBN's excellent Penn State blog, Black Shoe Diaries.
1) Things started out pretty badly for you guys, with losses to Ohio and Virginia. But since then Penn State has won four games in a row and finds themselves a half game back of Ohio State for the Legends division lead. What's change since those first few weeks? How have things turned around for Penn State?
It's kind of hard to draw a significant distinction between the first two games and the last four--or at least between the loss to Virginia and the four wins--because those are games that Penn State could have and should have won. I'll give Ohio more credit, but Penn State far outplayed Virginia. I mean, if Sam Ficken doesn't miss four field goals and an extra point, we're 5-1, but that's beside the point. In realizing the futility of its special teams, Penn State has actually found success--they're converting more fourth downs than anyone in the country, and the aggressiveness has flowed down from the coaching staff to the players. They're getting into the end zone with more regularity than anyone can remember and seem to be playing very loose. Defensively, Ted Roof has found a nice mix between the overly aggressive scheme of the first few weeks and the bend but don't break of yesteryear. This is a team that's more obviously fueled by emotion than any other team, and so the momentum probably matters a little bit more, here.
2) What's gotten into Matt McGloin? He's near the top of the conference in passing yards and completion percentage and he's got a stunning 12-2 TD-INT ratio. Is it dumb luck? A statistical aberration? The expected maturation of a senior? Did Bill O'Brien bring Tom Brady's lucky pair of Uggs with him?
Heading into this year, I was the farthest thing from a Matt McGloin fan you'd find. Let's put it this way: I was the guy who still thinks Rob Bolden never got a fair shot. I was hoping to see Paul Jones or Bolden or Sunshine Shane McGregor or anyone not named Matt McGloin under center this year for Penn State. But the McGloin who's gotten off to such a fantastic start this season is not the same one who threw 5 interceptions against Florida or went 1/10 for 0 yards against Alabama or threw two pick-sixes in Columbus. Part of it, surely, is the knowledge and comfort of being "the starter" heading into the season, and the exclusive reps that come with it, but he's also fitting perfectly into Bill O'Brien's scheme. That is to say, this isn't a fluke, and yes, Matt McGloin is probably the best pocket passer in the Big Ten right now. (I know. It's weird). The offensive line has held up much better than in past years--thanks, Mac McWhorter--and the receivers have done a good enough job getting open, especially tight end Kyle Carter, who's a matchup nightmare. But really, I'm not sure anyone saw the poise and accuracy coming from McGloin, not to mention the discretion. He's only thrown two interceptions, and one bounced off the hands of an open receiver.
3) How different is the offense this year to the offense under the Paterno years? What are some of the biggest changes BOB has wrought on that side of the ball?
Last year's offense would probably have drawn the scorn of that 2004 team, which, as we all remember (and yes, we've all tried to forget) lost 6-4 in the ugliest game in the history of sports. It wasn't just a quarterback controversy between two uninspiring options--though that was key--the bigger issue was the unbelievable lack of communication between the coaches. You had Joe Paterno, in the booth, suggesting a play to Galen Hall and Jay Paterno--who, as co-offensive coordinators, seemed to be engaged in a power struggle--who'd then call it down to Mike McQueary on the sideline, and by the time the QB got to the line, he had five seconds on the play clock and couldn't check out of it if he wanted to. The fact that Bill O'Brien is the head coach and offensive coordinator has done wonders just to avoid that miscommunication, as has the added freedom he's given his quarterback to audible at the line. He's also instituted a hurry-up offense, which has worked as a change of pace, as well as his offensive schemes which aren't quite at Holgorsen-level innovation, but are pretty far removed from Jay Paterno's "Spread HD".
4) Likewise, how is this year's Penn State defense different than the defenses that Tom Bradley orchestrated for years? Are there areas where it's noticeably better than the Bradley defenses? Noticeably worse?
Well, heading into the season we knew the defensive backfield would be a weak spot. Then Derrick Thomas and Curtis Drake, the team's second and third best cornerbacks, left the team after disciplinary or grade issues. So yeah, the secondary is pretty damn thin. In the early weeks, Ted Roof didn't realize just how little he had there, and was too content to come with heavy blitzes and leave a ton of man-to-man coverage down the field which, to put it kindly, did not work. At all. He's since realized just how good his linebackers are, and the scheme the past month or so has basically been to let Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges run wild--in Penn State's four wins, one of those two was Big Ten DPOTW three times. The defensive line, anchored by Jordan Hill, has also been very stout. You can beat this team through the air, but it's going to be tough to pound the run consistently. The chief difference from what he's done with the defense the past few weeks and Tom Bradley's patented "bend-but-don't-suck" is a little bit more experimentation, though dialed down from the opener against Ohio when he got burned--we've seen a lot of zone blitzes, even some corner blitzes, and a little less mixing and matching--this team doesn't actually have a nickel back--though that's more a result of the personnel.
5) In the absence of a bowl trip or a Big Ten title, what would constitute a successful season in your eyes for Penn State this year? Winning the Leaders Division? Is there a certain win-loss record you'd like to see Penn State achieve? Or is there one team you'd just really, really like to see Penn State beat this year?
Heading into the season, I thought a winning record would make this a winning season. After the 0-2 start, I wondered whether that was even a possibility. But the way the team has rebounded and has continued to improve, it's easy to see just how close this Penn State team was to being something special. For as much credit as a 4-2 Penn State team is getting, a 5-1 or 6-0 one would be the headline of the college football season thusfar, and they came so close to getting there. The rest of the way, though, there's not a game this team can't win--though there's almost certainly one or two or maybe three they won't--so it's more a matter of seeing just how much noise they can make. Bill O'Brien's playing with house money, which has made this season more fun than it would've been if he was positioning this team for the Outback Bowl, so who's to say they can't win the division? Or beat Ohio State at home? The latter would certainly be a crowning achievement, but unless this team totally collapses down the stretch, this season will have been a complete and total success.
6) Finally, prediction time -- who ya got?
Normally, I'd be a lot more apprehensive about going on the road, especially into Kinnick, at night, because of how timidly Penn State has always played in big road games. But there's something different with this team--they're actually having fun, and that's an amazing breath of fresh air. I just can't pick against them, even if Iowa is looking a whole lot better than we though a couple weeks ago. Penn State 24, Iowa 20.
Thanks for being a good sport, Devon. Be sure to check out Devon and the rest of his PSU-loving crew over at Black Shoe Diaries. You can also follow Devon on Twitter at @Devon2012 as well as Black Shoe Diaries at @BSDtweet. The Iowa-Penn State game is in Iowa City, IA on Saturday, October 20 at 7pm CT, with television coverage from BTN.