1. Matt McGloin seems to have stepped up his play this year. What is the offense doing to take advantage of his skills and what is he excelling at this year?
MB: There is no "seems" to it. McGloin is vastly improved from previous seasons, and it all has to do with new coach Bill O'Brien and his staff. They instilled confidence in the senior by naming him the starter after spring practice.
McGloin won the job first by quickly absorbing the complicated offense O'Brien brought with him from the New England Patriots and second by improving his decision-making. The QB is no longer the risk-taker you've seen the past couple of years, but rather either takes what the defense is giving him or gets rid of the ball.
Once McGloin was named the outright starter, he no longer felt as if he had to do something spectacular every time he went into a game. So that has helped him cut down on mistakes, as well.
How has this helped the offense? Well, McGloin does a lot at the line of scrimmage. In the conventional attack, he reads the defense and makes adjustments. In the hurry-up — called NASCAR in PSU's terminology — he calls the play at the line. As he has gotten more comfortable, defenses have struggled to react.
McGloin has been effusive in his praise of O'Brien and new quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher, to the point where his comments have come across as not-so-subtle shots at the previous staff.
2. Penn State lost some skill position talent in the offseason, but new faces like Bill Belton, Allen Robinson and Kyle Carter are stepping up. What do some of those backs and receivers bring to the table?
MB: Penn State really only lost two "key" skill guys following the NCAA sanctions — TB Silas Redd (to USC) and WR Justin Brown (to Oklahoma). There is no downplaying the loss of Redd, who would have been one of the best ball carriers in the Big Ten. But Brown, while physically talented, never lived up to expectations at PSU. In three seasons, including two as a starter, he caught a grand total of three touchdown passes. Robinson did that in one game this season (vs. Navy) and already has eight scores on the year. He is typical of the group of skill players who have stepped up in that he was on the roster last season but barely played. Carter was redshirted, even though tight end was a huge liability for PSU in 2011.
Each of the players who have emerged brings something a little different. Robinson is a freak athlete who also runs precise routes. Carter is sort of an athletic combo who will line up anywhere from fullback to tight end to slot to spilt wide. Belton is a shifty tailback with speed who is just rounding back into form after an early season ankle injury. Another kind of new face is power running back Zach Zwinak, whose bruising style can take a toll on opponents in the second half of a game.
3. Teams are finding it tough to score on Penn State right now. What's working for the Nittany Lions' defense at the moment?
MB: All of the key players from what was expected to be a strong front seven stayed after the sanctions came down. And that's been the key to PSU's defensive success. Opponents have found it difficult to run the ball consistently against the Lions, which should make this week's game against a strong rushing team like Ohio State very interesting.
The rebuilt secondary was a real liability early in the season but has gotten progressively better.
New coordinator Ted Roof's unit is more aggressive than previous Penn State defenses when it comes to blitzing and playing press coverage. The style appears to be working as the Lions have yet to allow a point in the first quarter this season and have allowed opponents to score only 10 TDs on 20 red-zone chances.
4. What stands out about Penn State's outstanding linebacker group?
MB: Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges are both very good players and even better leaders. As a group, the LBs are flexible. Mauti and Hodges are every-down guys who are just as strong against the run as they are against the pass.
Middle man Glenn Carson is a run-stuffer and gives way to speedy Mike Hull in obvious passing situations. With a lack of bodies in the secondary, Penn State has played no nickel this year, and instead relies on the 'backers to get it down even in obvious passing situations.
5. It has been tough, I'm sure, for Penn State fans to get back into football mode after the offseason everyone went through. But are people starting to embrace this team now that it is playing well?
MB: I respectfully disagree with the premise of the question. After everything that went on from last November through August, I think it was actually therapeutic for Penn State fans to turn their attention back to football. And there was never any indication that they stopped embracing the players, who had nothing to do with the whole mess that unfolded.
And a big part of that was the way the players (and new coaching staff) handled everything. Whatever happens through the rest of this season and the term of the NCAA sanctions, the players who stayed will be remembered as Nittany Lion legends for being first in line when the rebuilding process began.
The fact that the team has won five straight and is actually pretty fun to watch has only made this crew more likeable.
You've no doubt heard that there have been empty seats at Beaver Stadium this season (though I doubt there will be any this week). That stems more from the pocketbook-strapping seat licensing plan the athletic department unveiled before the 2011 season than any fallout from the Sandusky scandal or NCAA sanctions.