The Nittany Lions waddled out of the gate, mixing a sound 24-3 defeat at Alabama between shaky victories over Youngstown State, Kent State and Temple. And now Penn State is now 0-2 in Big Ten conference play after 20-point losses to Iowa and Illinois that inspire little confidence for the remainder of the season. At its best, Penn State's offense has been efficient between the 20s and terrible in the red zone; at its worst, it's been inconsistent and unproductive all over the field. The front seven, typically the backbone of both the defense and the entire team, has been hurt by injuries but has suffered even more from a lack of star players.
Penn State must figure out how to plug a leaky front seven that has been ravaged by injuries both severe and minor. With injuries at defensive end, the Nittany Lions must find other ways to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and allow their zone defenses to work. Offensively, the Nittany Lions need to run the ball better to keep freshman quarterback Rob Bolden out of third-and-long situations and find some way to get the ball into the end zone once they crack the opponents' 20-yard line. Penn State coach Joe Paterno has some tough decisions to make about keeping unproductive veterans at key spots or replacing them with younger players.
One of Joe Paterno's team physicians told him this week that the Nittany Lions' current injury situation was the worst he had seen in his 24 years in the program.
The coach didn't argue.
As the Nittany Lions (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) try to recover from two consecutive 20-point losses, they're also trying to recover from a persistent string of injuries that has weakened an already unsettled roster.
Penn State entered last week's game without one-time starting defensive end Jack Crawford (ankle) and starting linebackers Michael Mauti (ankle) and Bani Gbadyu (leg). By the time the Illini's 33-13 rout had finished, Penn State had also lost defensive end Eric Latimore to a hand injury, defensive end Pete Massaro to dehydration and safeties Nick Sukay and Andrew Dailey to pectoral and shoulder injuries, respectively. Sukay is out for the remainder of the season.
Paterno doesn't bring up the injuries -- he was asked several questions about them during a recent conference call -- and he doesn't want to use them as an excuse, either.
"We've got to overcome them," he said. "We can't be sitting around moaning about them all the time."
But the effect of the injuries -- the constant shuffling of a lineup that already included young players in several key spots -- has made it tough for the Nittany Lions to establish much continuity on offense or defense, which has led to some lopsided defeats.
"I think that's been a big problem," Paterno said. "You just get used to playing with a guy and all of a sudden he's out and you have to bring in someone else that hasn't had the experience to be a leader."
--Penn State coach Joe Paterno has 397 career wins, the most all-time in Division I-A/FBS.
--Senior running back Evan Royster is 92 yards from tying Curt Warner's career team rushing record of 3,398 yards.
--With six games remaining, Penn State has already suffered three 20-point losses in one season for the first time since 1984. None of Joe Paterno's previous 44 teams has more than three such losses in one season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I thought after we played four or five games that we'd be a little better football team than we are right now. We've got to be encouraging and get some of these kids to realize they still have the kind of potential we felt we've had." -- Penn State coach Joe Paterno, on his team's 3-3 start.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: With the exception of the Illinois game, when he completed just eight of 21 passes and had an interception returned for a touchdown, freshman quarterback Rob Bolden has at least met what were tempered expectations. The rest of his offensive teammates have not. Senior tailback Evan Royster, who needed less than 400 yards to break the school's all-time rushing record, is still in search of that mark. He ran for a career-high 187 yards against Temple but hasn't topped 56 yards in any of his other five games. The offensive line has protected Bolden well for the most part but hasn't opened up much room for the running backs and has been putrid in short-yardage situations. Penn State's talented wide receivers have dropped passes all year and the play calling has ranged from erratic to downright puzzling.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Nittany Lions haven't found someone who has the same kind of front-line presence as 2009 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick. Junior defensive end Jack Crawford, who has battled various injuries, has not been able to build on a solid sophomore season and none of the other ends have provided a consistent pass rush. Tackles Ollie Ogbu and Devon Still have been solid but unspectacular. Penn State has mixed and matched its linebacking units but spotty play there has allowed opponents to run the ball with ease on the Nittany Lions. A secondary that has survived a lack of pass rush fairly well must play the rest of the season without free safety Nick Sukay, who suffered a season-ending pectoral injury against Illinois.
--FS Nick Sukay will miss the remainder of the season after tearing his left pectoral muscle early in Penn State's loss to Illinois. The junior had started each of the last 19 games for the Nittany Lions and leads the team with three interceptions.
--DE Jack Crawford (ankle) and DE Eric Latimore (hand) are not expected to be available when the Nittany Lions return from the bye week and visit Minnesota.
--LB Michael Mauti (ankle) and LB Bani Gbaydu (leg), who missed the Illinois game with injuries, could be available when Penn State visits Minnesota on Oct. 23.
The TSX Files: Penn State
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