- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
Bill O'Brien spent the bye week evaluating his talent at midseason, so NittanyNation felt inspired to do the same.
Here's the Nittany Lions' midseason report card:
NittanyNation debated whether to add a minus to that grade, but what more could Matt McGloin have done? He's the best pocket passer in the Big Ten, the unquestioned team leader, and he spearheaded a fourth-quarter comeback against Northwestern. He has exceeded every expectation, so he has earned this A. His arm strength could have brought it lower, but, with his success, that would be a lot like penalizing Zach Zwinak for not being fast enough.
Running backs: B-
If we were grading just the Killer Z's, this would be an A. But, as a whole, this corps has played at a mediocre level. Penn State is averaging about 3.5 yards per carry so far -- that's third-worst in the conference -- so a lower grade really was debated here. But Zwinak has boosted this team's GPA by carrying it the last three weeks. Without him and Michael Zordich, PSU could be flirting with a C.
Wide receivers/tight ends: B
Again, thanks to some high-testing players -- Allen Robinson, Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman -- this grade was raised. Inconsistency and drops have plagued just about every wideout at some point, but Robinson continues to get open and Carter is a great complement. Seeing as A-Rob and Carter account for nearly half of Penn State's catches, a B seems like a good fit. Those two are elite, but struggles from Brandon Moseby-Felder and Alex Kenney obviously push this grade down.
Offensive line: B-
With a healthy Donovan Smith, this offensive line tests higher. It started off slow but has been relatively strong as of late. So, if there's one position that will likely see a higher grade by the end of the season, it's this unit. The line has come a long way, and the interior seems especially strong right now. But, factoring in all the games and performances, this group will have to settle for a low B for now.
Defensive line: A-
Jordan Hill might not be the second coming of Devon Still that fans hoped for, but he has been solid -- just like the rest of the line. Deion Barnes has fast become the team's top pass-rusher, while Sean Stanley and DaQuan Jones have quietly put together good seasons. This unit has faced several good rushing teams, but it has allowed opponents to pick up only 3.7 yards a carry. It has good depth and will only be stronger once Pete Massaro returns.
Does this grade really surprise anyone, or can we just move on? Michael Mauti is arguably the top 'backer in the country. His ability might overshadow that of Gerald Hodges, but Hodges remains one of the best in the Big Ten. And has there really been a No. 4 'backer in the conference who has played better than Mike Hull? This unit has turned in more consecutive 4.0 semesters than John Urschel.
No depth, questionable ability, bad games -- this unit hasn't been tested much in the last four weeks, but it's clear these players have a long, long way to go before stacking up with any other unit. The safeties are especially weak, and opposing offenses have always found a soft middle of the field when it needs to find open targets. Penn State still ranks No. 42 in passing defense, which isn't terrible, but this group could very well see its end-of-the-season grade lowered once teams start to pass more. Temple often found open wideouts, but the quarterback was so frazzled from the front seven that he missed wide-open throws. This secondary needs more of that to remain in the C range.
Special teams: F
This is like bizzaro Linebacker U. Sam Ficken is one of the least accurate place-kickers in the NCAA, and Alex Butterworth has one of the worst net punt averages in the nation. That in itself is reason for an F, but let's not forget the failed Hodges-as-returner experiment, a costly Jesse Della Valle fumble and a punt returned for a score. If football included no special teams, Penn State would be a comfortable 5-1.
It's not often 4-2 teams generate a buzz for their coach to earn the Coach of the Year award. But that's just a testament to the job Bill O'Brien has done. He has scraped together a shallow roster reeling from the sanctions to not just compete but perhaps win the Leaders Division. This staff knows what it's doing, a stark contrast from previous seasons, and the game plans have clearly been executed by an experienced group that understands this team's strengths and weaknesses. O'Brien might not win Coach of the Year, but no other coach likely could have gotten PSU to 4-2 at this point.
16dMitch Sherman and Brian Bennett