It's hard to believe, but time has expired on the first quarter of the college football season.
For Penn State, the first three games have produced enough drama to last a season. But with games against Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin still to come, the highs and lows of the first three weeks are bound to be just the beginning of the story.
The Nittany Lions opened their season with a disappointing 24-14 loss at home to Ohio, followed that up with a 17-16 heartbreaker at Virginia, and then had a convincing 34-7 win at home last week against Navy. Temple is on deck tomorrow, and then the Big Ten schedule will begin.
With a lot of football left to be played, here's a first-quarter report card on the Penn State Nittany Lions:
The Offense: You have to be impressed with the leadership of quarterback Matt McGloin. Just watching on television, it's obvious that he's a winner, a solid on-field leader, and that he has the respect of head coach Bill O'Brien. McGloin isn't spectacular, but he's good enough to win football games. He has a completion percentage of 56.7, and he has thrown for 688 yards, eight touchdowns, and just one interception.
Meanwhile, when it lost Silas Redd to USC, you knew that the running game would suffer. Nevertheless, Penn State is going to need a little more production out of the backfield. The Nittany Lions have rushed for only 323 yards while opponents have rushed for 452 yards against them. They're currently 12th in the Big Ten averaging 107.7 rushing yards per game, and they're the only team in the conference without a rushing touchdown. Their top two running backs, Bill Belton (missed the last two games) and Derek Day (missed last week's game), have both been hurt, and Penn State desperately needs them to return.
At receiver, Allen Robinson has turned into a star. The sophomore has 24 receptions, 322 yards, and four touchdowns. He's first in the Big Ten in receptions per game and receiving yards per game. In last Saturday's win over Navy, he had three touchdown catches and 136 receiving yards. Penn State will need production from its other receivers as defenses begin to focus more and more on Robinson.
Up front, the offensive line has been solid. While you'd like to see a little more running room for the backs, they've allowed only three sacks.
One very telling offensive stat: Penn State has scored six times in 10 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. That's going to have to change.
The Defense: The defense struggled in Week 1, got better in Week 2, and then played its best 60 minutes of football in last week's win. For the second straight week, Penn State forced four turnovers. Most important, the defense was better in third-down situations, and it didn't allow any long drives -- two areas that plagued the defense in the first two games.
In Week 1 Ohio drove 93 yards on Penn State's defense in a fourth-quarter drive that took 6:50. On that drive, the Nittany Lions had four opportunities to stop the Bobcats on third down, and not once were they able to. Ohio amassed 499 yards of total offense on the day.
In Week 2, the defense improved. In fact, it forced four turnovers and gave the offense one opportunity after another to score. But late in the fourth quarter, when it mattered most, Virginia marched 86 yards in a game-winning drive that lasted 6:36. Four times the Nittany Lions had a chance to stop the Cavaliers on third down, and each time they were unable to.
Last week, the defense played well. The question now is which unit will we see going forward? One constant has been linebacker Michael Mauti, who has emerged as the defensive leader with 33 tackles. He has also come to epitomize the loyalty of the players who remained at Penn State despite the NCAA giving them a free opportunity to leave without penalty.
Finally, a lot of the blame for the problems on third down has been placed on the secondary. Penn State will need to shore up that unit.
Special Teams: This is where it gets interesting. As a result of the NCAA sanctions, players were given an opportunity to transfer without penalty -- meaning they would not have to sit out a year. When kicker Anthony Fera left for Texas, Sam Ficken assumed the kicking duties.
In the opener, he kicked two extra points and all was well. But disaster struck in the second game when Ficken missed four field goals -- including the potential game winner as time expired -- and one extra point. As a result, Penn State left 13 points on the field and lost by one point. It was as bad a day as a college football player can have.
Last week, he successfully kicked four extra points but missed one as well. And, when Penn State had a fourth down on the Navy 8-yard line, the Nittany Lions went for it instead of attempting a field goal. At this point, it doesn't appear that the head coach has any faith in his kicker.
The Head Coach: Nothing but high marks for O'Brien. From the time he accepted the position to today -- sanctions, bad press, and all -- he's been a reassuring reminder that better days are ahead. More than any other coach in the country, O'Brien is responsible for a lot more than just X's and O's. From that standpoint, he's been great.
On the field, he'd obviously like to be better than 1-2. Penn State should have beaten Ohio at home, and it had a real good chance to steal one at Virginia. Though it clearly has something to do with the ineffective kicking, you have to like the aggressiveness he consistently shows going for it on fourth down. However, at some point (scary, but it might not be this year), they're going to have to make field goals.
It will be interesting to see how O'Brien keeps this team together when the Big Ten season begins next week. Penn State is the only team in the Big Ten that has not won at least two games. Conference teams, aside from Penn State, are 24-8 this season. After this week's game against Temple, it will start to get really difficult. And it hasn't been easy up to this point.
The Conclusion: In the Nittany Lions' opener, 97,186 came out to Beaver Stadium (the stadium's capacity is 106,572.) Last week, 98,792 were in attendance. Penn State is still one of the biggest brands in college sports, and clearly the school's fan base remains passionate. As for the product on the field, it's a work in progress. While the NCAA sanctions will hurt the program, the Nittany Lions have enough talent to remain competitive. If we learned anything from the first three weeks, it's that football in Happy Valley is here to stay.
Charles Costello is a lifelong fan of the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Other articles about Penn State by this writer:Penn State Falls to 0-2
Sources:Penn State Athletics
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