Last updated: February 17. 2013 9:56AM - 176 Views

Story Tools:

Font Size:

Social Media:

After how last season's open week went, Penn State is pretty happy to have made it through this year's with little noise.

Coach Bill O'Brien and his staff spent the first half of the week doing some self-scouting before allowing the players to head home and see their families for the weekend.

Following O'Brien's lead at the midpoint of the season, here's a look at how the Nittany Lions have done so far.


Despite having to learn a completely overhauled offense and dealing numerous defections on offense, Matt McGloin has emerged as the team's first-half MVP. Before Saturday, McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (1,499), passing touchdowns (12) and total touchdowns (17).

The top grade is not to suggest that the senior from Scranton is perfect – far from it. He is fortunate to have thrown just two interceptions. But McGloin is the one player Penn State can't afford to lose down the stretch. The Lions have scored 22 touchdowns this season and McGloin has figured in on all but five – one of which came on defense.

"He understands the things we talk about at halftime – we have to do this better or that better," O'Brien said. "He understands it's a 60-minute game. … He's a great kid, a fun kid to coach. I love coaching competitive people, and he's a very competitive guy."


The recent emergence of Zach Zwinak (325 yards in the last three games) saves his unit from a lower grade. Of course it was never going to be easy after Silas Redd left the team just before the start of camp. But injuries have kept the Lions from getting much of any rhythm going on the ground until now.

Zwinak and Michael Zordich in particular have done an admirable job, showing some surprising chops as receivers out of the backfield as well. But the team could use a healthy Bill Belton to give the offense another dimension down the stretch.

"All of us can do different things," Belton said, "but with Zach especially, he's more of a downhill runner and is a big, strong, powerful guy. And he brings a lot of things to the running game that some backs don't. I'm more of shifty, fast guy. We definitely complement each other and Zach's been doing a great job these last two games."


Though the group as a whole isn't exceptional, it can't be ignored that Allen Robinson, a sophomore, is on pace for the greatest statistical season by a wideout in Penn State history. Already at 41 catches, he is 23 away from setting the school's single-season record. Before Saturday he led the Big Ten in catches, receiving yards (524) and receiving touchdowns (7) and is ranked in the top 15 nationally in all three categories.

"Obviously he's made a big improvement from the spring, and from the spring we saw that he has potential to be a really good receiver," position coach Stan Hixon said. "Each and every day he's getting better and better at running routes. … He has done a good job getting separation in certain routes, like we ask him to do, and he's been a really good student of the game."

Boosting the unit's grade is the play of four different tight ends, led by redshirt freshman Kyle Carter. While the Lions don't have a consistent target among the receivers to complement Robinson, tight ends like Carter and Matt Lehman have helped make up for it.


Much of the offense has benefited from the coaching staff overhaul, and the line under Mac McWhorter is no exception. Early on in the year, O'Brien called this the top unit on the team despite injuries to starting left tackle Donovan Smith.

Senior Mike Farrell has brought stability there, shifting between the right and left side on the fly when needed. Matt Stankiewitch and John Urschel have been solid in the middle and a big reason why the Lions have been able to take over in the second half of these two Big Ten games.

In a change, the Lions are rotating linemen more than before, with as many as eight playing at least a drive in a given game.

"What I tell these guys is that I'd obviously like to play as many as I possibly can," line coach Mac McWhorter said. "You can only get better if you play. But you have to earn the right to play – I make sure guys I'm putting in are productive and don't drop off."


Lack of a game-changing pass rusher is the one thing missing from Larry Johnson's group. Deion Barnes may develop into that down the road and Jordan Hill remains an excellent all-around tackle, even picking up his first career interception last month. Barnes could be in the running for Big Ten freshman of the year.

Up-tempo offenses like Northwestern and Ohio that get rid of the ball quickly have reduced the number of chances for sacks, but the Lions rank third in the Big Ten with 14 in six games.

"We've hit the quarterbacks a lot – more than we have since I've been here," Hill said. "Now we've got to take it to that next step, where we're actually sacking them."


Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges have teamed up to win three of the six Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors this season. The work they have done on and off the field this year for Penn State has been impressive, both rallying the troops and helping deliver wins.

With both of them down to the final six games of their college careers, however, it's just as encouraging for the Lions to see Mike Hull performing well in his first extended action. Hull coming in on obvious passing down has made a big difference in allowing Penn State to get off the field after terrible numbers the first two weeks.

"I don't have the market cornered on evaluations of linebackers, but I've been around some good ones," O'Brien said. "I can tell you that Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges are some of the better players I've ever been around. They're instinctive players, they've had good years and they've meant a ton to this football team."


Fortunately for Penn State, the Big Ten is not littered with top-flight pocket-passers. Even Northwestern's offense is heavily based around the run this season. So the defensive backs haven't been tested much recently.

"Yeah, I definitely think we've got a lot to prove," senior corner Stephon Morris said to open Big Ten play. "We still see ourselves as the weakness on the team. The D-line's doing really well. The linebackers are doing a great job. The finger's always pointed at the secondary when something goes bad.

"We've came a long way and we're improving, but we've got a lot more to show."

With true freshman Da'Quan Davis providing another reliable option at corner, the defense has been able to use Adrian Amos at safety when needed. The flexibility has helped.


O'Brien trumpeted his kickoff coverage unit this week, but that's the only silver lining here. Failures on special teams already cost Penn State the Virginia game and they nearly led to a loss against Northwestern.

The return games have been quiet, with the kickoff return unit ranking near the bottom of the national rankings. The coverage teams had been solid until last week after allowing a touchdown on a punt.

Punts remain wildly inconsistent and the team is a miserable 117th in the country in net punting. And certainly the field goal issues have discussed to death. Coaches are passing up 23-yard field goal attempts while trailing by 11.


O'Brien was correct this week when he said it was much too early for anything resembling "coach of the year" talk. Still, it's hard not to admire what he has accomplished thus far, especially after the Lions were being left for dead following a demoralizing 0-2 start.

Every decision hasn't paid off. O'Brien himself isn't this wild riverboat gambler by nature. But circumstances are what they are following the NCAA sanctions, and O'Brien and his staff have adapted reasonably well.

Almost anything could happen in these final six games. The Lions could just as easily smash up a very weak Big Ten as they could run completely out of steam as we approach the one-year anniversary of all hell breaking loose at the school.

Either way, it should be entertaining.

All user comments are subject to our Terms of Service. Users may flag inappropriate comments.
comments powered by Disqus

Featured Businesses


Info Minute

Gas Prices

Wilkes-Barre Gas Prices provided by GasBuddy.com