One half of the Penn State football season is in the books in 2010, and it's been much more a mixed bag than Nittany Lion fans usually expect. There have been triumphs against Youngstown State, Kent State and Temple in which the Lions have shown flashes of brilliance, and looked like a team that could be pretty good. There have been losses at Iowa and Alabama, where flaws have been exposed, but where Penn State seemed to learn along the way and appeared better off for having played tough opponents.
Then there was Saturday against Illinois.
Penn State was out-gained by almost a 2-1 margin against the Illini. The offense played an uninspired second half despite beginning down only seven, and the defense allowed Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and running back Mikel Leshoure to have their way, cutting it up for 282 yards rushing.
This loss, perhaps more than any other in recent years, exposed Penn State's warts, and showed fans and critics alike that the Nittany Lions will be in dogfights the rest of the way this season, regardless of the opponent. The days of taking wins over average Big Ten opponents for granted are over. So what is wrong with Penn State, and what will the Lions have to do better in the second half, beginning Oct. 23 at Minnesota, to be a good football team the rest of the way?
1. Staying healthy. Injuries rarely make the difference between a good team and a bad one, but they matter, and the Lions have had more than their share in 2010. Against Temple, Penn State lost offensive lineman Lou Eliades for the season to a torn ACL. A week later, freshman tight end Garry Gilliam, second on the preseason depth chart, went down to the same injury, leaving Penn State with only freshman Kevin Haplea to man the middle of the field in the passing game. Against Illinois, Penn State played at least part of the game without regular defensive contributors Jack Crawford, Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Bani Gbadyu, Nick Sukay, Eric Latimore and Andrew Dailey. That's a lot to recover from. Penn State needs to get healthy and have those guys back on the field through the rest of the Big Ten schedule.
2. Forcing turnovers. Safety Nick Sukay has three interceptions this season, two against Temple and one against Iowa, and that's really about it Penn State. The defense hasn't recovered any fumbles, and when you're not changing the field on the opposition's defense, you're not going to see a whole lot of success. The Pittsburgh Steelers, in their win in Tennessee a few weeks ago, showed how much forcing mistakes can help a mediocre offense by causing seven Titans turnovers. If Penn State could remotely approach that total for the season, let alone one game, it'd take a lot of pressure off Robert Bolden and the offense.
3. Tackling. Schematically, Penn State plays the same "bend, don't break" style it has for a long time. The difference in 2010 has been that that Lion defenders, especially the linebackers, are taking poor routes to ball carriers and failing to get them on the ground once they do get to them. Alabama's Trent Richardson has probably been the best at exploiting this deficiency, but Iowa's Adam Robinson, Temple's Bernard Pierce and Illinois' Leshoure have made the tackling look pretty bad, too. Fortunately, of all of Penn State's problems, this is probably the most easily corrected moving forward, and if the Lions can improve at it by Minnesota in two weeks, they'll be a long way closer to becoming a pretty good unit.
4. Red zone offense. Penn State didn't get a whole lot of chances down deep Saturday against Illinois, but when they did, they once again came up with little, converting only field goals on their two first half trips. The 80-yard bomb in the first half from Robert Bolden to Derek Moye was nice, but reliance on the home run rarely results in sustainable success, and Penn State found that out the hard way against the Illini. The blocking has to get better in the red zone (more on that in a minute), but it's also important that someone step up and catch passes across the middle down there, too. Whether that what's left of the tight end corps or a wideout, Penn State is taking a third of the field away from itself before the ball is even snapped.
5. Offensive line. Though they don't all end here, many of the offense's problems certainly begin with the poor play on the offensive line. Remember that the Lions are playing with the same wide receiving corps that carried Daryll Clark to Penn State's first 3,000 yard season in 2009, and a backfield that includes Penn State's soon-to-be all-time leading rusher Evan Royster. Robert Bolden has had his troubles, but he's held onto the ball, and considering the rush he's been under seemingly every game, it's a wonder a freshman like him continues to stand in the pocket and try to make throws knowing he's probably about to get decked. The offensive line doesn't even appear to have a pulse at the moment, and that's going to make whatever problems Penn State has at other positions ten times worse. The rest of the offense has the potential to be a respectable unit, but with the current line blocking in front of it, it could be a long six games through the end of the season.