Plenty of Room For Improvement

Penn State opened the 2005 season against a South Florida outfit that stumbled to 4-7 in Conference USA a year ago. And it was a good thing for the Nittany Lions, whose sloppy offensive performance would have cost them a loss against an opponent of superior pedigree.

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For the record, the Bulls ranked 94th nationally in scoring defense in 2004, allowing 31.9 points per game. But the Lion offense managed just 17 against USF in a 23-13 victory at Beaver Stadium Saturday.

”We've got to do a better job, and we will,” said starting quarterback Michael Robinson, a fifth-year senior.

Added senior center Lance Antolick: “We had some mistakes that we really need to clean up.”

Though he spent the entire off-season at his preferred position of quarterback, at times Robinson hardly looked the part of a key veteran on State's rebuilt offense. He lost two fumbles and tossed an interception.

He was sacked twice in the first 30 minutes, including one where he was so zoned in on his receiver that he missed a defender bearing down right into his face. His pick near the end of the first half led to a USF touchdown that kept the game from becoming a laugher.

“I apologized to the defense and offense,” Robinson said of his reaction to the play. “I put those guys in a bad situation. It's something I can't take back, but I wish I could.”

Not that Robinson was alone among the veterans in struggling. Fifth-year senior tight end Isaac Smolko missed a block in the first quarter, allowing Robinson to be blind-sided by linebacker Stephen Nicholas. The right side of the offensive line, junior guard Robert Price and senior tackle John Wilson, had its hands full. Price was replaced in both halves by veteran Tyler Reed.

“We have a lot of new stuff we're doing and it is the first game,” Wilson said, referring to the more wide-open offense State is using this season. “We look forward to getting better.”

Junior running back Tony Hunt, who has had issues holding onto the ball throughout his career, put another one on the carpet in the third quarter of this one. Fortunately for the Lions, they recovered. Which was kind of the story of the game. After bumbling along for most of the first three quarters, their persistence paid off.

Following a pep talk by senior cornerback Alan Zemaitis early in the final stanza, the offense finally exploded in the form of a 70-yard breakaway run by Hunt. It put the ball at the USF 4, and on the next play Robinson ran into the end zone for a 23-7 lead that was never seriously threatened.

To a man, the offensive players who met the media after the game credited Robinson with keeping things cool in the huddle even as the offense was having its issues.

“I could have done a better job for the team,” said Robinson, who hit on 9 of 15 passes for 90 yards and rushed for a net of 39 yards. “I made some mistakes, but I hung in there with the offense and tried to stay positive.”

Though the offense was not exactly explosive against USF, it did help the team do something it has not done very often in recent years: Win.

“We might have started off slow, but it's the first game and you expect to make some mistakes,” Hunt said. “As long as you get it sorted out by next week, it's all cool.”

It is also worth considering that PSU coach Joe Paterno admitted his offense could have dinked and dunked the Bulls to death with short passes to its speedy new wideouts, but with a semi-comfortable lead for most of the game, he felt he had the luxury of working on parts of the offense that must be functional when the Big Ten portion of the season arrives.

Asked how much of the offense fans saw Saturday, Antolick laughed and said to ask Paterno. Asked what fans can expect when Cincinnati comes calling next week, he was happy to answer.

”They can expect more than what they saw today,” Antolick said. “We have a lot of improving to do.”

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