Inside the Lions' den

Ron Musselman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette joins Purple Reign in an exchange about the Nittany Lions. Inside, Musselman discusses the PSU community's perception of Joe Paterno and Daryll Clark, insists that State will be taking Northwestern seriously and highlights some key positions and players for the No. 12 Nittany Lions.

More than a decade has passed – it was 1998 – since Halloween was on a Saturday. So it's been hard to establish much of a track record or history for Halloween Day football games.

But back in '98, the last time that Halloween doubled as College Football Saturday, Northwestern wore its scrawny-little-brother outfit, limping into East Lansing and getting pasted 29-5. (Yeah, five.) Meanwhile, over in College Park, Penn State donned the big-bad-bully garb and proceeded to roll Illinois, 27-0.

Hopefully for NU, Halloween is kinder this time around. And hopefully there is no blood – real or fake – needed to complete Penn State's costume.

But really, we're not here to discuss the past. Or Halloween costumes. Instead, let's talk about this year's Halloween matchup between the Wildcats and Nittany Lions. To shed light on the Cats' visitors from Pennsylvania, Purple Reign is excited to welcome in Ron Musselman, who covers the Nittany Lions for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Alright, Ron. Thanks for joining us. Let's jump right in, yeah?

For starters, talk if you will about the career of Daryll Clark – or more specifically, how Penn State fans perceive the career of Darryl Clark.

On the one hand, all he does is win. In PSU's last 21 games, Clark has 18 wins. That's pretty staggering. And those three losses came:

- On a last-second field goal on the road last season in Iowa City
- In a Rose Bowl against USC, a virtual home game for a virtual NFL team
- To a still-undefeated Iowa squad, a team that is quickly turning into national darling

Outside of those hiccups – big as they may have been – Clark has compiled a pretty laudable career. Dude wins. A lot.

At the same time, though, he's been woeful in those losses. In that epic setback last season against Iowa – the one that dashed Penn State's national title hopes – Clark was just nine-of-23 for 86 yards and a pick. And this season against Iowa he was even worse – 12-of-32 with three INTs. (Still, even with that Iowa nightmare, he is the 19th-rated passer in the nation – ahead, for example, of Heisman hopeful Colt McCoy.)

"Clark played a great game," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said after last week's win at Michigan. "I don't think he's gotten the credit he should get.

"I think Daryll Clark has been a darn good quarterback for a couple years."

In light of this dichotomy – an 86 percent winning percentage versus apparent big-game jitters – what does the Penn State community think of Clark? Is he the quarterback who has helped reassert the Nittany Lions on the national scene after some down years? Or is he part of the reason that Penn State hasn't challenged for a national title recently?

Ron Musselman: Thanks David. Glad to be here to join this great chat. Well, the perception of Daryll Clark is that he's a pretty good quarterback, he's just not great. I think his lack of marquee wins – the losses to Iowa and the USC setback – do taint his resume. The Iowa loss last year cost Penn State a possible shot at a national championship and this year's loss to the Hawkeyes knocked the Lions out of the national championship picture after one month. And the loss to USC last year was much uglier than the final score.

I think Clark has done a very good job of winning the games he should win. Beating Michigan at the Big House last week for Penn State's first win there since 1996 was Clark's first big win since beating then-No. 17 Michigan State in the 2008 regular-season finale to clinch a Rose Bowl berth for Penn State.

Purple Reign: While we're talking about perception and such, what's the read on JoePa these days? Not long ago, calls for his jobs were louder than a third down at Beaver Stadium, especially in 2003 and 2004 when the squad went a combined 7-16 – an ugly* 7-16.

* In 2003 the Lions' only Big Ten win was against Indiana, which that year went 2-10. And in 2004, Indiana was one of just two Big Ten wins. Plus – maybe more interestingly – PSU lost a game 6-4 to Iowa in Happy Valley. 6-4. "I don't know whether we could play much poorer than we did today," Paterno said after that one. Touché, JoePa.

That drought, however, doesn't seem quite as big a deal now. Not after last season's Rose Bowl, and not after Paterno has proved that he can definitely still recruit. PSU is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation in Scout.com's 2010 class rankings; last season it was No. 11. Looks like JoePa's still got it.

But that's what it looks like from Evanston – hundreds of miles away and without the proper navy-and-cream tint in the blood. What's the perception of Paterno over there? Do people see him as a guy who, after all these years, is still a vital asset, nabbing recruits and tallying up double-digit-win seasons? Or is he one of the reasons that the team has been good, but not great – too antiquated to win it all in the Young Gun Era of Meyer and Carroll and Miles and Stoops?

Musselman: JoePa was able to turn Unhappy Valley into Happy Valley again. He brought is some really good recruits and the Lions have gone 47-12 since 2005. That winning percentage of 79.6 percent is the ninth-best in the country in the past four seasons. He also is the winningest coach in Division I-A history with 390 victories, and with the way things are going with Bobby Bowden at Florida State, it looks like their race is about to slow to a crawl. Paterno works from home a lot more these days than he ever has, but what else do you expect from someone who is not only an icon in the coaching world, but is less than two months shy of his 83rd birthday.

The perception here in Happy Valley is that Joe won't go until he has taken his last breath, according to former All-American linebacker LaVar Arrington. Joe has made very few recruiting visits in the past few seasons, but he did visit Terrelle Pryor two years ago in Jeannette, Pa., although Pryor slipped away to Ohio State after calling University Park "a little too country." The Lions' success in recruiting lies mainly with the assistant coaches. Joe is pretty antiquated – he has lived in the same modest house near campus since the early 1960s.

PR: You do make good points about how tough the Wildcats tend to play PSU. It's interesting that Northwestern has given Penn State fits, especially because Penn State has been much better of late. As you noted, the Nittany Lions are 47-12 since 2005. NU is just 31-26.

It's also interesting that JoePa doesn't have much to do with recruiting anymore. Certainly NU's assistants are integral in the recruiting process as well as Penn State's – recruits always mention the position coaches as a factor in recruiting. But Pat Fitzgerald is still a big, big part of the process. Not only do future Cats mention Fitz as a reason they're coming to NU, they often mention his youth, how he can relate, how he's a young guy who's full of energy. The guy uses Facebook to help recruit and is a frequenter over at Twitter. Can't see JoePa twittering.

(Speaking of social networking, Paterno said in a recent SI piece: "What's that thing called, Facemask?")

Before we worry about the nuts and bolts of this Saturday's game – you know, injuries and matchups and the like – let's talk about Northwestern from the point of view of Penn State.

It seems like the Wildcats – per academics and school size and tradition and sparse attendance – wouldn't conjure much excitement when they appear on the schedule. Especially not the schedule of a team like Penn State, and especially not one week after the Nittany Lions played at the Big House and one week before they host Ohio State.

PSU has all the tradition, the 100,000-plus seat stadium, the stately helmets and uniforms. And Northwestern – none of it. Attendance at Ryan Field has been paltry this season – even for NU – and the team's 5-3 record is a bit discouraging to Cat fans who were expecting more. (And the fact that Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa still populate the schedule makes the 5-3 mark a little bleaker.)

Now, of course players and coaches aren't going to say, "We're glad that we got past Michigan, and now we can kind of chill out this week with Northwestern. It'll be like a little reprieve." That's not how this works, and JoePa can surely recite the we-respect-our-opponent line as well as anyone.

But honestly, what crosses Lions' minds when they see Northwestern on the schedule? Any chance that the players are sleeping on this one? Do fans get up for this like any other game, or are people already gearing up for next week's tilt with Ohio State?

Musselman: Penn State takes Northwestern more seriously than you might think. Paterno was just saying Tuesday that his team can't afford look past the Cats and ahead to the Buckeyes. Did you know that the Nittany Lions' past five games in Evanston have been decided by an average of 6.4 points. They are 3-2 in those games.

In 2005, the Lions roared back from a 16-point first-half deficit to beat the Wildcats, 34-29, to remain unbeaten at 4-0. Quarterback Michael Robinson converted a fourth-and-15 play on the game-winning drive, then tossed a 36-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Williams with 51 seconds left.

In '01, backup quarterback Zack Mills threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to running back Eric McCoo with 22 seconds remaining, carrying the Lions to a 38-35 win as Paterno tied Paul "Bear" Bryant's Division I-A record of 323 coaching victories.

In 1997, Penn State nearly blew a 17-point lead in the final 3:33 at Ryan Field but held on to claim a 30-27 victory.

And I will end with this nugget: Did you know that Northwestern has won just as many Big Ten championships as Penn State (three each) since the Lions joined the conference in 1993.

PR: Curious if the Penn State players have as deep an understanding for the history of this matchup as you do... Anyway, moving forward. Let's talk about this season's game.

Let's start with the Northwestern defense. It looked to some who covered the Wildcats – who penned articles of consternation over NU's defense – and some NU fans – who took to the message boards to voice their own consternation – that NU's defense was a problem early in the season. And on the surface, there were some issues. The Wildcats gave up 37 points to Syracuse and 35 to Minnesota in back-to-back weeks. Two weeks, 72 points.

But if you looked a little closer, you saw that the D was getting hung out to dry by the offense. Against Syracuse, a trio of turnover inside NU territory – including a fumble on the first play of the game – repeatedly put the defense in sticky situations. The same thing happened against Minnesota: two fumbles inside the 20 – and one inside the five – to go with a pick. Needless to say, these turnovers were turned into points. And as a result, the final scores were artificially inflated (as were some people's anxieties over the D).

Thus, Purple Reign is none too surprised that Northwestern's D has been shutting people down the past few weeks. Against Purdue, that unit forced five turnovers. They held Miami (Ohio) to six points. They held Indiana to 0 points for the final 40 minutes of the game. They've been fine, basically, if not better than fine.

But Penn State's offense looks like the best that NU will have faced this season. The Lions are averaging more than 35 points per game over their last four, and they have the second-best scoring offense in the Big Ten at more than 30 points per game. And there's incredible balance – PSU is fourth in the conference in passing (243 yards per game) and third in rushing (184). As a result, PSU is first in the conference in total yards, netting more than 428 yards per outing.

Evan Royster has more than 100 yards in each of his last three conference contests. Clark has eight TDs and one INT over his last three games. Five different receivers have TD catches the last three weeks. That's scary to opponents.

So, is this offense as good as it looks on paper? Or are there – like with NU's defense – mitigating circumstances that have skewed the numbers?

Musselman: Penn State's offense is good, but last year's was better. Daryll Clark has shown a lot of patience while breaking in a new line and all new receivers. Clark has throw just one interception in the past month after tossing six in the first four games. Keep in mind, he threw only six all last season. Clark, who has eight TD passes in the past three games, had to deal with three new starters on the line at the beginning of the season and the two returnees (Stefen Wisniewski and Dennis Landolt) were both playing different positions.

The Lions experimented with four different line combinations the first six games before finally settling on a lineup. Consequently, and the running game struggled the first month as Royster managed just one 100-yard game. He has three 100-yard efforts in the past month. Also, after losing the three most productive receivers in school history – Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood – this group is finally coming around, led by Derrick Moye. The Lions are 22-for-22 in the red done the past six games (18 TDs, 4 FGs) after going 6-for-11 (5 TDs, 1 FG) the first two games.

PR: Alas, for how good the Lions' offense is, the defense looks even better. PSU has given up fewer than 11 points in six of its eight games. And there's more:

* The Nittany Lions lead the conference in total yardage by a non-insignificant 44 yards per game – 240 yards per game to No. 2 Ohio State's 284.

* The Nittany Lions have the No. 1 rushing defense, allowing just 79 yards per game.

* The Nittany Lions have the No. 1 pass defense, giving up just 160 aerial yards per game.

* Predictably, the Nittany Lions also lead the conference in points allowed: 8.9 per game.

Gulp.

Especially for an NU offense that scored just 16 points against still-winless Miami (Ohio) and just 14 points against Michigan State. And the Cats' rushing numbers are utterly hapless: No running back who had more than one carry averaged more than 2.9 yards per carry against Miami. MIAMI, which has the 76th-ranked rushing D in the nation. And against Michigan State, NU ran 29 times for 79 yards – 2.7 per. Not good. And no one besides Mike Kafka – the quarterback – has a rushing touchdown since Oct. 3.*

* Some more fun facts: Last week's 73-yard performance by former walk-on Scott Concannon against IU was the best yardage output that the Cats have had from a back since Week 2, when Stephen Simmons had 73 against Eastern Michigan. The previous best for an NU running back against a Big Ten team was Arby Fields' 43 yards – on 18 carries – against Purdue. There's more, but we'll spare you.

This post-MSU quote from Fitz sums it up well: "If we can't run it, I'm not going to keep running it. I want to win. If that means we have to throw it 175 times in a game, that's what we're going to do."

So from over here, it looks like this: An uberefficient PSU offense, which happens to be coupled with far-and-away the best defense in the Big Ten (seriously, 8.9 points per game?). Then there's an NU offense that simply can't run the ball, and a quarterback who has had a season-long battle with turnovers.

Am I missing something here, or does Northwestern look like the longest of long shots this Saturday?

Musselman: Penn State's defense has been rock-solid as usual, and is ranked in the top-10 nationally in scoring (first), total defense (third), rushing (fourth), tackles for losses (tied for fourth), sacks (tied for eighth) and passing (ninth). Defensive tackle Jared Odrick has been the MVP so far. He consistently fights off double-team blocks, freeing his teammates to make plays. Outside linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee both were touted as All-American candidates in the preseason, but they had only been on the field for four plays together through the first six games. Bowman missed the majority of the first three games with a groin injury and Lee missed the next three with a sprained left knee. Lee returned to the field two weeks ago against Minnesota, but he still has not started since the third game of the season. Lee played 10 plays against the Gophers in the nickel package and 20 last week against Michigan in the base defense.

PR: Thanks again to Ron Musselman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for indulging Purple Reign in this exchange. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like there are many chinks in the armor. It may take something unusual for Northwestern to pull this one out. But hey, if there were a day for something odd or…supernatural to happen, Halloween's the day, right?

To reach Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com


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