In the days leading up to Penn State's 24-3 loss to Alabama Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Joe Paterno preached patience. He reminded fans that the Nittany Lions' game against the defending champion and currently No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide would be a learning experience as much as anything else.
In that sense, it's hard not to see it as a successful trip south. Freshman quarterback Robert Bolden got his first taste of big-time competition in a tough road environment, and showed flashes of ability to go along with his ballyhooed poise. The young defensive front seven learned the importance of turning first contact into tackles against a back as talented as the Crimson Tide's Trent Ricahrdson. Perhaps most importantly, the offensive line showed it could pass block against a tough defensive front for the first time since 2008, as the Lions moved the ball fairly well on Alabama via the air, and yielded no sacks.
However, Penn State's effort in the running game was uninspiring, and it shows just how far the Lions have to go in the next two games against Kent State and Temple before meeting Adrian Clayborn and the Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City on October 2.
Evan Royster and Stephfon Green, Penn State's two primary backs, averaged only 3.2 yards per carry against Alabama after averaging only 4.2 against lowly Youngstown State. That's doesn't translate to success in the Big Ten.
Simply put, the running game needs to improve if Penn State is going to make a run at a Big Ten championship or at-large BCS appearance.
To do that, the Lions will first have to sort out the mess at left guard. Johnnie Troutman and DeOn'tae Pannell have been playing musical chairs at that spot since the spring, and both continue to struggle. It's important that one of these guys step up in run blocking if the running backs are going to have any chance.
Speaking of the running backs, the Lions need to get them straightened out, also. Last season, it was hard to look past the line's struggles not only in losses to Iowa and Ohio State, but in some wins where the running game was less than stellar as well. This season, it's clear the line has gotten better, but the running backs have not.
Evan Royster has been tripping over his own feet frequently and hasn't shown the north-south burst he did last year. Stephfon Green, used mostly as a speedy change of pace back to this point in his career, has bulked up but failed to make that translate to tougher inside running so far.
Sure, freshman Silas Redd has shown flashes of brilliance in mop-up duty, but Royster and Green are Penn State's big guys. They're the ones who need to run hard and take some of the pressure off of Bolden and the still-developing passing game.
If they can do that, Saturday's performance from the rest of the team says Penn State has a shot to win the Big Ten this year. If they don't, Penn State could be looking at a lot more losses than they've grown accustomed to in averaging ten wins the last five seasons.
Penn State has the talent to be at least a good, if not great, running team. How the unit gels in these next few weeks before the conference schedule will determine how far it goes. Green talked a lot after the game about getting better and "waking up a sleeping giant."
Now it's time for he and his teammates to back it up.