Thursday, September 8, 2011
How Penn State can take down the Tide
By Adam Rittenberg
Linebacker Michael Mauti called the performance "kind of embarrassing."
Left tackle Quinn Barham admitted some younger players were intimidated at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
But Penn State vows Saturday's game against Alabama will be different because this year's Nittany Lions team is different.
"We're more comfortable, we're more confident and we actually know what we're getting into," Barham said.
Saturday's date with No. 3 Alabama will, if nothing else, be an excellent barometer for No. 23 Penn State. The Lions remain somewhat of a mystery right now -- a team talented enough to compete for a Big Ten title but potentially flawed enough to finish 7-6 again.
Joe Paterno didn't give his team much of a chance last year in Tuscaloosa, and Penn State fell 24-3 in a game where the score could have been worse. While Paterno is keenly aware of the challenge awaiting Saturday, he's more optimistic.
"This is a better team than we had last year," Paterno said. "Whether it's good enough, we'll see. But they've worked. And I think we've done a little bit better job coaching. I know we've asked more of them and they have responded."
Will the Lions' response translate into a signature win?
Here are three keys for Penn State to take down the Tide.
1) Don't waste scoring chances
Courtney Upshaw and the Tide defense are stingy, so the Lions must capitalize on scoring opportunities.
Alabama boasts what many regard as the best defense in the country, and for good reason. The Tide return 10 starters, led by standouts such as safety Mark Barron and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw.
Penn State likely won't have too many scoring opportunities Saturday, and the Lions must be more efficient than they were a year ago.
They reached Alabama's red zone on two of their first three possessions but committed turnovers both times. They moved the ball well on their first drive of the second half before quarterback Rob Bolden threw another interception in the Tide red zone.
Penn State had three sustained drives -- 10 plays, 56 yards; seven plays, 68 yards; and 11 plays, 44 yards -- and ended up with nada.
"When you're facing a team of Alabama's caliber, you can't afford to put drives together and turn it over, especially when you're down in their red zone and trying to put some points on the board," Lions receiver Derek Moye said.
Added Barham: "We shot ourselves in the foot."
2) Make Alabama's young QBs win the game
The intimidation factor works both ways, and as Bolden did last September in Tuscaloosa, Alabama's quarterback will be making his first career road start Saturday at a raucous Beaver Stadium.
"We've got the best fans in the county and the loudest for sure," Mauti said. "That Alabama offense is going to have a tough time hearing. I know on defense, I’m yelling at the guy next to me and I can't hear them. They’ve never been to Beaver Stadium before, and it'll be a challenge for them."
Whether it's AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims, Penn State must find ways to rattle the Tide signal-caller and put the burden on him to make big plays. Like Alabama, Penn State's strength is its defense, particularly a deep and talented group of linebackers and defensive backs.
Alabama will try to help its inexperienced quarterback by sparking star tailback Trent Richardson, who ran for 144 yards and a touchdown against Penn State last year. If Richardson gets going Saturday, Penn State can pretty much forget about winning the game.
The Lions might need their defense to generate offense, and the presence of players like linebacker Gerald Hodges, who broke his leg on the opening kickoff last year against Bama, could loom large.
"He brings a different type of intensity to our defense," Mauti said. "He flies around, and it’s just an energy he brings. ... He's fast, he’s physical and he's a playmaker for us."
3) Get clutch plays from Bolden and McGloin
The play of QBs Matt McGloin (11) or Rob Bolden (1) are likely key to Penn's upset chances.
Paterno remains in quarterback-protection mode, once again not naming a starter and trying to deflect as much attention as he can from Bolden and Matt McGloin.
"The whole team's got to play solid," he said. "I wouldn't put it all on the quarterback."
But to win a game like this against an opponent like Alabama, teams typically need their quarterbacks to step up in big moments.
Bolden and McGloin will need protection from an offensive line that surrendered three sacks last week to FCS Indiana State, prompting former Penn State QB Daryll Clark to tweet: "Mannnnnnn... Qbs are getting hit way tooooo much this game #gottacleanitup." Barham graded the line's performance at a "B, B-minus."
The quarterbacks also need help from the run game, as Silas Redd and Brandon Beachum face an Alabama defense that finished 10th nationally against the rush in 2010 (110.2 ypg allowed).
But in a low-scoring, possibly low-possession game -- the type Penn State should hope for Saturday -- clutch quarterback play often makes the difference.
"They understand the offense, they understand what they have to do, what their role will be," Paterno said of Bolden and McGloin. "Just go in there and play our game. Don't do stupid things, protect the ball, try to keep it when we do get it, make a couple plays in the clutch, make a couple of third-down throws.
"Literally every tough game you're in, that's how you win 'em."
Paterno has been through more than a few, and another arrives Saturday afternoon.