An Early Learning Experience for PSU

The Nittany Lions beat South Florida 23-13 in the 2005 opener at Beaver Stadium Saturday. In his first Sunday column for FightOnState.com, contributor Neil Rudel explains why the contest was very much like a baseball exhibition game.

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Penn State is 1-0 in the Grapefruit League portion of its schedule.

Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, Saturday's opponent was South Florida, the first of a trio of fill-in-the-black scores designed to get the Lions to 3-0 before they open Big Ten play.

Like most exhibition games, watching this nearly put the crowd — 99,235 (or nearly 8,000 short of a sellout) — to sleep.

Penn State jumped out to a 17-0 lead and then slipped into a malaise before settling for a 23-13 victory.

Other than appreciating another solid defensive effort, almost no one left impressed — including, by his own admission, Joe Paterno.

"In fairness, they gave us a couple easy ones," he said. "It was a closer game than maybe the score would indicate."

Michael Robinson took the blame for that. With two minutes left in the first half and the Lions at midfield, Robinson threw an awful interception on first down that seemed to sap the Lions of their decent start.

South Florida turned it into a touchdown and a 17-7 deficit moments before halftime, and PSU never fully recovered.

"I apologized to the defense and the offense for that," Robinson said. "I put those guys in a bad situation."

Instead of going into the half up 20-0 or 24-0, which would have given the staff a chance to play backup Anthony Morelli without fueling a quarterback controversy, Penn State went into a shell.

Its passing game managed just 90 yards and four first downs all day.

"It wasn't very good today, but we'll get better," Paterno said.

Aside from the interception, Robinson committed two of the Lions' four fumbles. The first came on the first of three South Florida sacks — another ominous sign — in which PSU's offensive line was devoured.

"Mike had to run for his life a couple times," Paterno said.

It contributed to the timing being a tad off. Freshman speed burner Derrick Williams blazed wide open on the game's first play, but Robinson overthrew him.

Robinson also had a potential touchdown go just off the hands of Ethan Kilmer in the second half.

Unlike the last couple of years, when their offense might as well have worn cement shoes, the Lions did deliver a few big plays such as Tony Hunt's 70-yard run and a 61-yard reverse to Justin King.

Penn State nearly sprung another big one, but Williams fumbled Robinson's option pitch.

"He was out in the open," Paterno said.

The big plays were a double-edged sword. On one hand, they showed the excitement this team has the potential to create. On the other, that they couldn't line up too often and blow South Florida off the ball is a red flag.

"They did some things we weren't expecting," Robinson said. "They did a lot of stunts and made some blitzes from where we didn't expect."

The offensive line seemed to improve in the second half when Tyler Reed's demotion suddenly ended and A.Q. Shipley got a few snaps.

"I think we'll improve in that area," Robinson said.

He hopes he will, too.

"I remind people I'm the older of the two quarterbacks, but this is still my first season," he said.

Robinson didn't mind when cornerback Alan Zemaitis popped his head into the offense huddle in the fourth quarter and challenged the unit.

"He's not a defensive captain — he's a captain," Robinson said. "We welcome that."

Paterno said afterward that a couple of his offensive coaches wanted to stay with a short-passing game. He nixed the idea.

As a result, Williams and Lydell Sargeant caught four passes between them. King and Deon Butler were shutout.

"We probably should have had more hitches to those kids, but you hate like the devil to just throw those short passes when you're trying to get a football team ready for the season," Paterno said.

"I don't think they wanted to show too much in this game," Robinson said. "We definitely have more wide-open things we like to do."

Isn't that the purpose of the exhibition season?

Neil Rudel covers Penn State for the Altoona Mirror. His postgame coverage will also appear on FightOnState.com.

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