Contenders or Pretenders?

With all the other parts seemingly in place to contend for a national championship, the Nittany Lions' fate will rest — once again — with the offensive line.

During the preparation for Saturday's rite of spring in State College, please feel free to smile because happy days are here again. Now that the silly little basketball season is over, emergence from hibernation and a focus on the real game in town can begin. When and if Penn State ever fields a competitive basketball team, perhaps the sport will become more than the appetizer it has always been between the bowl game and Blue-White weekend. Every so often, as witnessed in 2001, the hoops squad can provide teriyaki chicken-on-a-stick. But most years, a cold plate of pigs in a blanket with a National LOI Day on the side must satisfy the stomach until April.

The optimistic forecast for every elite college football program that competes in an upper-tier bowl game with a junior quarterback who will return for his senior season is identical. Before and after Penn State's Outback Bowl win over Tennessee, the usual concepts were drawn upon.

"It's a great chance for (Anthony Morelli/Eric Ainge) to use this game as a launch point for a national title run next fall."

"These extra practices will be great for the younger players to build upon for the future."

"Ten days together in (Tampa) will be a great bonding experience for the team heading into winter workouts."

As these brilliant hypotheses regarding how a 20-10 win will shape the 2007 offense are dissected over the next few months, it would be wise to take a reasonable approach. First, don't get too excited about a 13-point performance against an average SEC defense. Then-cornerback Tony Davis scored seven of the 20 points Penn State accumulated against the Volunteers, so with all due respect to Collins, Engram, Carter and Brady, take a look at the bigger picture here. On the other hand, the entire starting 11 — especially Morelli — looked sharper, better coached and more disciplined than in any other game during the 2006 season.

The general consensus about Joe Paterno and the bowl season has always been that if given six weeks to prepare for an opponent, he'll usually win. His positive presence, even though he sat in the press box, was certainly imprinted when he called the play-action pass that resulted in Andrew Quarless' touchdown reception.

So with the off-season scrimmage at the forefront, the question regarding which Penn State team will appear in 2007 lingers. Will it be similar to the squad that could not move the football against Michigan? Or will it be akin to the one that appeared ready to jump into elite status on New Year's Day?

Last August, this space suggested that the success of the 2006 team was dependent upon the play of the offensive line and that the disappointing development of prominent linemen recruits over the recent past had to be addressed. While another full-fledged rant on this issue would be boring and perhaps unfair, a hint of bitterness remains due to a respectable 8-4 record that could have been better. Excluding the Notre Dame game in which the entire team was simply not prepared to play, last season's win total could have reached double digits if the entire offense was more focused in the biggest games.

Loyalty to longtime assistant coaches is a wonderful attribute. Paterno certainly deserves credit for keeping intact a very strong staff of assistant coaches, most of whom perform their jobs very well. But were you filled with a sense of pride regarding the lengthy tenures of Dick Anderson and Bill Kenney while watching Michigan's defense toss Robert Price like a rag doll and knock two quarterbacks out of the game? How much did it cost to replace that remote control that was shattered against your basement wall when Tony Hunt's 25-yard screen pass against (pick a team, any team) was nullified because of a holding penalty?

This problem will not go away. It was criticized before, it is being criticized now and it will be criticized in the future solely because of the fact that this program has been so good for so long.

Expectations for annual rosters loaded with extremely talented players are justifiably high, and Penn State Football v.2007 has a legitimate chance to play for a national championship. This is not a joke nor a test of your emergency broadcast system. This team seriously has a shot. The home schedule is very comfortable and the Michigan game (in Ann Arbor) is early enough in the season that a loss would not completely kill the hopes for a title game bid. (It may lead to other things being killed, but not that.)

The level of vigilance needed to compete for a Big Ten title compared to the efforts necessary to win a national title are quite different. Paterno said it best when questioned about Derrick Williams' comments following the Outback Bowl.

“We should be thinking about being pretty good, but when you start talking about being the national champion, you better make up your mind that you've got a lot of work ahead of you,” said Paterno after Williams claimed the squad expects nothing less than a national title in '07. “It's one thing to be up there. It's another to be the best.”

Focus, focus, focus. Every series, every snap. That is what it takes to be the best.

Don't kid yourself — Rich Ohrnberger's false start on the goal line at Ohio State was a season-changing penalty. On the play directly before, Brandon Snow needed about eight inches to bring State within 14-9 but was stopped for no gain. Against Wisconsin, Tony Hunt was tackled eight yards behind the line of scrimmage on a key fourth-and-1 play.

To be fair, the offense did perform well in certain games last season. That cannot be argued. But for this program, this iconic coach and this fan base, it all comes back to expectations. If you get offended when others don't place Penn State in the tier that you believe it belongs, then take a hard look at the offense. Go grab a tape of the 2006 PSU-Minnesota game and watch Gophers assistant coach David Lockwood (who was fired along with Glen Mason after the season) yelling to his defense the exact play that Penn State was about to run seconds before every snap. Be sure to relive that exciting first half against Illinois when State produced three points as well as the entire regular-season finale vs. the MSU Spartans, a four-win team which was playing on the road in frigid November weather for a lame duck coach and already had the buses running before the opening kickoff.

At critical moments last season, the offense failed to capitalize on turnovers created by yet another very strong defense. Referring back to the same two games, Dan Connor created excellent field position: his interception early in the second half against the Buckeyes resulted in a first down at the OSU 26-yard line and in Madison, he caused a fumble and Sean Lee's recovery set up a fresh series at the Badgers 23-yard line.

The total points scored as a result of those turnovers? Take zero and add zero to it.

Knowing how tough it is to produce points on the road in the Big Ten conference, scoring opportunities cannot be wasted. Smart observers inherently knew the doomed result when Penn State failed to produce points at those junctures of those games despite plenty of time remaining.

Maybe this is another rant after all.

Ultimately, Penn State's eligibility for and appearance in this most recent bowl game can mostly be credited to the genius of Tom Bradley, whose value to the program is as understated as it is vital. Discounting Morelli's two late interceptions that were converted into touchdowns against Ohio State, Bradley's defense held the Buckeyes, Michigan and Wisconsin to an average of 14.6 offensive points per game in the three conference losses.

Don't overlook the fact that Bradley lost seven starters from the 2005 team (including the entire secondary), plugged the holes with underclassmen and produced one of only four defenses in the nation that finished in the top 15 in all five major statistical categories.

Looking ahead, it doesn't matter how or where future success is credited. If this group can somehow go undefeated with a mundane offensive line, more power to them. But the point needs to be made -- once again -- that a top-notch line is the difference between 8-4 and 12-0. The defense will be outstanding, the wide receivers/tight ends and loaded for bear, the talented and well-rested tailback will enter the season dying to finally prove his worth and the quarterback is ready to shine. The only remaining entity needed to perform at the highest level is … a broken record?

The bottom line is this: just win, baby. Al Davis' logic is hard to argue with when surveying this roster. The talent is certainly available to win every game on the schedule, and a third national title would look very nice on Paterno's resume. The legend does not need another one to prove anything to anybody, but those that still hold anger over a drop from No. 1 to No. 2 in the polls after a 63-14 win over Ohio State 13 years ago might enjoy a trip to New Orleans in January.

Don't believe the hype?

The proof is in the pudding. Disregard the ridiculous preseason rankings that will enter the forefront in early August and think along the lines of the group generally considered to be the smartest sports analysts in America. Although it is only April, the odds-makers in Las Vegas currently list only six teams with a better chance to win the BCS Championship than Penn State.

This is real, and it all starts on Saturday. There won't be much exposed as far as the offense is concerned; after all, leading scorers of hallowed Blue-White past include Aric Heffelfinger, Titcus Pettigrew and Rashard Casey. The final statistics and the modified depth chart are not very important on this day. Rather, pay close attention to the attitude, the focus and the execution. A national title contender, even in its spring scrimmage five months prior to the season, usually displays a very noticeable swagger.

If Anderson, Kenney, the younger Paterno and all those with an involved hand and fist in the offensive line's development can produce a cohesive unit and Galen Hall is afforded more of the latitude he was in 2005, the answer to the question as to which team shows up in the fall might ultimately be summed up in one word: champions.

Just don't tell the photo editor of a certain weekly sports magazine.

Freelance writer David Pressman is an occasional contributor to FightOnState.com.

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