Ed. Note: For brevity's sake, the 52-3 win over Ohio Valley powerhouse Eastern Illinois is not included. If you must know more, please consult this.
Holidays always bring together families spread out across our great land. No doubt that over Christmas ham (or fried turkey if you're local) you enjoyed a relative's tales of life in the lands of bad seasoning. My own cousin, a resident of Greenville, Ill., shared the stories of his beloved Salukis and their short playoff run this year. College football usually runs deep in families, even if we don't all wear the same colors on saturday. Comparing distant teams to one another isn't easy but their are methods that we all like to use. The best of these methods for defending your team (after you finish shouting OMGESSEEECEESPEEED!!!!!!) is the ever popular Non-Conference schedule.
Looking at PSU's non-conf games this season, I was originally going to put together some individual posts reviewing each game in detail but a few issues cropped up preventing this. Watching a replay of each of these games would have been the proper way to do it, but unlike LSU, who has full replays of every game online for free via the Geaux Zone (WHOOOOESSEEECEEONLINEVIDEOPOLICY!!!!), Penn State's athletics site is one of those CBS-run joints that hides every thing behind a pay wall. Sorry to disappoint but time is about the only thing I'm willing to sacrifice to watch a Big Ten-MAC throw-down.
An odd begining for the Lions offense. They started with a pretty open playbook, a nice mix of runs and passes, including a few bootlegs and deep balls. QB Daryll Clark had a few overthrows and an unlucky interception, but was mostly great with 3 TDs and a bit over 350 yds. The running game was a different story. Despite great pass protection, the O-line never seemed to be able to make the holes needed, and the backs suffered because of it. It was the 1st start for 3 of the lineman, but Akron came in with a very bad rushing defense from the year before. In the second half, PSU switched to classic power football to work on these issues and got nowhere with it.
PSU's defense on the other hand looked to be in mid-season form. The Akron offense stat line from the first half: 8 total yards, -15 yards rushing, no first downs, 1 INT, and a couple of sacks. In the second half Joe Pa stopped the carnage and started subbing, but they still only gave up one score. Only thing else of note from this game is that PSU's kicker Wagner shanked his first attempt of the season.
Starting to see some chinks in the armor with Penn State's offensive game plan. Clark again did well passing, but the running game went nowhere. In one sequence after a drive that had taken most of the 1st quarter driving down the field, a 1st and goal on the 2, 2 backs and Clark were all stuffed at the line, then Clark fumbled on forth down. Later during the 4th quarter, PSU had the ball on the 3 yd line thanks to an INT and tried twice to punch it in only to be stopped at the line. They eventually scored on a fake handoff pass, but it was a troubling sign that running game needed alot of work before Big 10 play.
Yet again, the defense was stellar, but a slightly odd performance from the secondary should be noted here. Remember that at this point in the season, some still believed that Paulus' semi-reverse Bo Jackson move would turn out for the best. The stat line says he was held to 5.4 yds per passing attempt, but that is skewed by a few key drops, including one sure score in the end zone and one that bounced off a receivers head for an INT. The line meanwhile held the 'Cuse to just 69 yds rushing and spent most of the day behind the line of scrimmage.
PSU's biggest win of it's tune up schedule and the running game finally showed up. Evan Royster rolled off several double digit runs and had more than a hundred yds in the 1st half. Clark was sharp as ever, but clearly the focus in this game was to get the running game going before having face Iowa without it.
The defense was also great again. The line play superb (just 46 rushing yds allowed) and the secondary made up for the previous week by being all over Temple receivers and never gave up alot of yardage even when the Owls completely gave up on the run. You wouldn't guess it at the time, but Temple would end up being the 3rd best team, record-wise, that PSU would play all year.
Neither PSU or LSU had a great slate of opponents this year and picking who had the tougher schedule is not as easy as it looks at first glance. Penn played much weaker northeastern/midwestern teams all at home (including a 1-AA pushover) while LSU played Louisiana schools (including a 1-AA pushover) and went west to open the season at UDub. The Washington game is certainly the only thing close to a marquee non-conf win that we have and should be the trump card that says we had it tougher. Though they were coming off a horrible season with a new coach, the Huskies played us tough, went on to be the team that started the Fall of Troy, and posted a decent-for-them 4-5 Pac-10 mark in a conference that was alot better than most SEC fans will admit in mixed company.
But what about PSU's win over Temple? "Temple!?" I hear you shout, "who has spent most of the decade as one of the worst programs in 1-A ball, who was kicked out of the Big East and then got even worse, who probably shouldn't even have a program, who lost at home to Villanova THIS YEAR?!" Yes, Temple. After winning only 8 MAC conference games in 4 years, the Fightin' Cosbies came out of nowhere and won 9 straight this year before falling on the road to Ohio and being kept out of the MAC Championship game.
If your one of those folks who believes in the Transitive Property of College Football (Team A beat Team B, who beat Team C, so Team A > Team C) then determining who had the better Non-Conf schedule between LSU and PSU will strangely come down to who wins the EagleBank Bowl in D.C. on Tuesday afternoon. UCLA (who beat the Huskies 24-23, thanks to a last-second tipped-ball INT) will face Temple in a game that I cant even begin to predict what will happen. A Temple win possibly gives Penn State fans an argument for a better Non-Conf schedule, but it would have to be an impressive win.
Ed. Note #2: This is the longest and most well thought out excuse you will ever get to watch the EagleBank Bowl at 3:30pm Dec. 29 on ESPN. I suggest you use it. Not to mention the fact that right around the time it turns into a typical December bowl blowout you cant just switch over to the Men playing at Xavier on ESPNU at 6pm. It's a win-win situation really. Wait, did I just recommend you root for Neuheisel?