PSU Midterm Grades

My, how quickly the time flies when we are having fun. This certainly is an appropriate way to describe the passing of the first half of the 2005 football season. With the Nittany Lions owning a 6-0 record, the time has been flying by, and a very happy Happy Valley has been having more fun than they have had in recent memory. With the second half of the season underway, it is time for the FOS staff to hand out midterm grades.

When the 2005 season began, the biggest question marks surrounding the Nittany Lions were on the offensive side of the ball. Could the offensive line, which had been suspect in 2003 and 2004, handle the opposing defenses? How would Michael Robinson perform as a full time quarterback? Would the influx of young and talented wide receivers result in an improvement in the passing game? We begin by taking a look at the Lion offense and grading the individual units.

Offensive Line: B

The performance of the offensive line has been one of the most positive surprises this year for the Nittany Lions. A weak line seemed to get even weaker when center E.Z. Smith found himself in the doghouse during the off season, and off the depth chart for the beginning of the year. The much maligned offensive line has hung together, and turned in a solid performance through the first six games of the year, allowing just one sack, the lowest total in the Big Ten. Tony Hunt and Michael Robinson have found room to run behind the line, which most recently held its own against a very strong Ohio State defense. Andrew Richardson has stepped in and performed well for the injured John Wilson, and E.Z. Smith has worked his way back into the rotation.

Quarterback: B+

Michael Robinson has answered a lot of questions during the first half of the season, and more than anything else, he has proven to be a leader, and to have the heart of a champion. Troubled by turnovers during the first several games, including a string of fumbles and interceptions that nearly cost the Lions the game at Northwestern, Robinson has worked tirelessly to correct the problem, and he has been responsible for zero turnovers in Penn State's last two games against Minnesota and Ohio State. Robinson has looked sharp in finding receivers downfield, and was on the money in finding Isaac Smolko over the middle on a critical fourth down situation during the Lions' game winning drive at Northwestern.

Running Back: B+

Tony Hunt or Austin Scott? This was the question in the minds of most Nittany Lion fans prior to the opening kickoff. Tony Hunt has silenced the critics and laid claim to the starting role. Hunt has made the most of his opportunity, picking up critical short yardage gains, and bursting through the line for larger chunks of real estate. Through six games, the Lions have rolled up 1,240 yards on the ground for an average of more than 200 yards per game. BranDon Snow and Matt Hahn have emerged as strong blockers, leading the way for Hunt, and occasionally Scott or Derrick Williams who give the Lions an occasional different look in the backfield.

Wide Receiver: A

Without question, this is the most improved area of the Penn State offense in 2005. Derrick Williams and Justin King have given the Nittany Lions a whole new feeling on the offensive side of the ball, and former walkon Deon Butler has emerged as a go-to receiver. With so many deep threat options, Lion opponents can no longer simply load up against the run, and the young Lion receiving corps has made its presence felt as Penn State is averaging 14.3 yards per catch on the year and more than 200 yards per game through the air.

Tight End: C+

The tight end position remains the most underutilized part of the Penn State offense, and has not been spectacular in blocking or in receiving so far in 2005. Isaac Smolko is responsible, however, for what may well be remembered as the most important reception of the year, when he hauled in Michael Robinson's fourth down pass to keep the game winning drive alive in Evanston, Illinois against the Northwestern Wildcats.

Overall Offensive Grade: B

Defensive Line: A-

Returning a wealth of talent, the defensive line was expected to be a force in 2005, and they are living up to the billing. Despite losing Lavon Chisley to academic issues before the season, Tamba Hali, Jay Alford, and Matt Rice have stepped up to lead a fearsome front four that has led a defense that has recorded 20 sacks through six games, including five against Ohio State.

Linebackers: A

The Nittany Lion linebacking corps has quietly been making a statement that Penn State is once again to be known as Linebacker U. Despite the early season suspension of Dan Connor, Tyrell Sales and Tim Shaw stepped in to help the unit hold its own. With Connor's return, a good unit became just plain scary. Paul Posluszny is the first player in Big Ten history to be named player of the week in any category for three consecutive weeks, and the play of Poz, Connor, Shaw, Sales, and the rest of the Lion linebackers makes a statement on every down.

Secondary: B

Although the secondary has given up yards, and a few more scores than last season, the talented Lion secondary led by Alan Zemeitis and Anwar Philips continues to deliver solid performances. Frequently playing in "prevent" situations, the secondary has largely been responsible for allowing just ten opponent touchdowns through the first half of the season, and just seven points in the third quarter of all games. The third quarter has been the Lions dominant quarter this year, as PSU has outscored the opposition 44-7 in the third quarter thanks to a hungry defense which emerges from the halftime locker room ready to pounce.

Overall Defense Grade: A-

Placekicking: A-

True freshman Kevin Kelly has brought a breath of fresh air to a Penn State kicking game that was unreliable at best during 2004. Through the first half of 2005, Kelly has drilled 9 of 11 field goal attempts while connectiong on 23 of 25 PAT attempts. Kelly also reaches the end zone with regularity on kickoffs, although he is not always consistent with the big, deep kickoffs.

Punting: B+

Punter Jeremy Kapinos has been one of the Nittany Lions' most consistent weapons. This year has been no exception, however a shorter than usual punting game against the Ohio State Buckeyes, including a rare 11 yard shank have dropped his net punt average to 38.4 yards. Kapinos' big leg has not been required as frequently this year, since the Lions have discovered an offense that can score points, but averaging four punts per game, Kapinos remains an unheralded strength for Penn State.

Overall Special Teams: B

Despite the disappointment of many Penn State fans, Calvin Lowry has averaged 9.2 yards per punt return, while the coverage team has limited opponents to just 3.8 yards per return. The kickoff and punt coverage teams have not given up the big play nor have the Lions turned the ball over on posession changes, adding up to a solid performance by the PSU Special Teams.

Coaching: A

"Joe Must Go," was almost a deafening roar after the Lions struggled through the 2004 season, despite Paterno's repeated expression that Penn State was just a playmaker or two away. Indeed, Joe did go - on the recruiting trail to land exactly what he was looking for, then back to reflect on the season and to reinvent himself once again. 2005 has seen the Lions take on a brand new look on offense, and a confidence and swagger restored in the team that has been noticibly absent for several years. Suddenly, a suspect offensive line appears solid, defensive player development is not in question, and the Nittany Lions are making plays and scoring points on offense, and doing so with confidence.

The Lions' surprising start has prompted several FOS Staff members to revisit their preseason predictions and to create a revised "Midseason Outlook." These revisions will be incorporated into our weekly Staff Predictions, but here they are for your enjoyment.

Tom McLaughlin

The Nittany Lions answered every question I posed going into the 2005 season, and have emerged as a re-energized team. The Big Ten schedule is tough, and I still can't see an undefeated season, but the Lions are well above my projections. Look for Wisconsin and Michigan State to be the biggest challenges to these Lions.

Mark Harrington

In a word, wow! This team has shown leadership, heart, innovation and above all else talent. I admit I had my doubts, but the Nittany Lions have turned a corner and could be headed for some great things. The road ahead is a tough one with very few slouches in the home-stretch. Although they have the ability to run out, this may be too much of a challenge for a young offense to shoulder.

Scott Neal

This MIDTERM revision is only here so the rest of the FOS staff can feel a little better about themselves. Did you see all those 6 and 7 win predictions? I'm sticking to 9-2 but there's nothing stopping a 10+ win season from a group that's getting better each week.

Scott Cole

Almost every question mark about this team heading into the season has been answered in a positive way. Michael Robinson is making plays with his arm and his legs, and his leadership is invaluable for the offense. The offensive line has gotten their act together and is keeping Robinson's jersey clean and opening gaping holes for Tony Hunt. The freshmen receivers have exceeded the wildest expectations.

The defense has been downright nasty and has an attitude that has been missing since 1999 at minimum. Even the special teams have been excellent. Kevin Kelly has ice water in his veins and could become one of the best kickers Penn State has ever had.

I expect the state of Michigan to provide the two losses on the schedule, but the Lions will still play in a January bowl game for the first time in 3 years.

Nirav Dalal

Somewhere between now and the end of the line, the Lions will stumble. My's that Michigan State game. The Spartans will want to give the Lions some payback for last year and PSU always seems to struggle in East Lansing. Capital One Bowl...looks like the Lions will be your Big Ten representative yet again.

Bob Lichtenfels

I have not seen anyone in the Big Ten that is unbeatable this year. I tend to think that they could lose one down the road, and Michigan State could be that game. However, Penn State has as much talent then anyone and a better defense then everybody.

Rob Riva

Again, leadership. Its why teams like Michigan have struggled, and Penn State have elevated. I did not think that the leaders on this team would step up like they have, but they have far exceeded my expectations. The best thing that this team will likely have going for them for the rest of the season is that they will be considered underdogs and doubted by the media/opponents. To underestimate this team, to not take Penn State seriously, will be to the utter detriment of any remaining opponents.

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FOS Staff Members Mark Harrington, Nirav Dalal, Scott Cole, Scott Neal, Rob Riva and Bob Lichtenfels contributed to this report.

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