Take Your Marks: What Went Wrong?

Welcome to Take Your Marks, the occasional series where FightOnState.com staffers Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan discuss and debate issues relating to the Penn State football program. In this installment, they hash out the Nittany Lions' 14-9 loss to Michigan.

I just listened to Joe Paterno's Tuesday press conference. If I heard correctly, he seemed to imply that he was generally OK with the way his team played at Michigan. Is he delusional?

Mark Brennan: No. He just is not very forthright at his Tuesday press conferences. Joe Paterno may be stubborn. But he's not stupid. He knows quarterback Anthony Morelli's inability to hit open receivers was a significant problem against the Wolverines. Morelli connected on less than 50 percent of his throws against a defense whose linebackers and secondary simply were not athletic enough to stick with Penn State's receivers. Pryor … uh … I mean prior to Saturday's action, opposing QBs had hit on 47 of 71 throws (66 percent) against U-M.

Mark Harrington: “Delusional” may be harsh, but I think Paterno is proud enough to feel that the game plan he put in place should have worked. A lot of fingers are being pointed at the execution of the scheme, but I am still scratching my head as to why PSU came out running. And then punting from the 31-yard line? Did he think the end zone was 25 yards wide in Michigan Stadium? I guess my perspective is that PSU has faced these offensive woes previously, yet have we ever really seen a change in scheme or personnel? I would bet that despite Morelli's lackluster performance and sideline/locker room tirade, that Paterno is wondering how he could bench a team captain.

Brennan Again: Given the words being used in our forums, I'd suggest “delusional” is mild. As or the scheme, we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves because we address that later. From the fans' perspective, though, that's an area where folks should be very afraid.

Harrington's Final Word: If there aren't any significant changes and a “wait-and-see” approach is taken, then fasten your seat belt because the Delusional Express will start picking up speed. Would you like “Status Quo” seating or an upgrade to “Grin and Bear It”?

SO WHAT REALLY WENT WRONG AT MICHIGAN?

Mark Harrington: Paterno shut down the offense, hoping that the talent was good enough to overcome the anemic scheme. Unfortunately, this was enough to keep the game close. Toss in a couple of critical fumbles, a few three-and-outs, a punt from the 31 and viola, you get a Penn State loss. I'm wondering why Paterno appears to be flat-out scared of the big games. He locks things down, effectively turning his fear (a loss) into reality. Personally, I'd be shocked to see a Paterno team ever beat Michigan again. That is perhaps harsh, but true. What's worse is that there is evidence pointing to Paterno changing the offensive scheme at the 11th hour from what the team practiced all week. So you're not only dealing with an anemic scheme, you now have an anemic scheme the team hasn't worked on.

Mark Brennan: Yeah, this one is easy: Penn State played not to lose rather than to win. Paterno admitted that late in his PC Tuesday, when he said he doesn't like to take offensive chances when his team is in a tight game with a tough opponent and/or when the Lions have poor field position. I thought that was one off the rare moments when he was genuine in the press conference. Unfortunately, opponents know the PSU offensive brain trust tightens up in close contests. It explains why in its last five “big games” -- against Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Tennessee in 2006, and Michigan again this year -- the Lion offense has scored a grand total of two touchdowns (along with a handful of field goals). It hardly takes an expert to realize that Penn State's 1-4 record in those games is evidence that Paterno's playing-not-to-lose philosophy is outdated. That worked great in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. But Penn State was facing a team with superior talent that night. And it was more than two decades ago. The average winning score in the last three BCS championship games was nearly 46 points. The average losing score was about 24 points. Starting at the top, Penn State's offensive staff simply is not wired to keep pace with teams that score at that level.

Harrington Again: What concerns me the most is that, according to one well-placed source, Paterno saw an uphill battle after losing the coin toss. The coin toss? This was explained as a disadvantage in the field-position battle, leading to the vanilla offense to be dumped for a selection of ice for dessert. Mmmmm, what flavor.

Brennan's Final Word: One last note here. In his Tuesday PC, Paterno repeatedly pointed out that Penn State threw 31 passes while running 29 times against the Wolverines -- pretty much a 50-50 split. But that's spinning numbers to support his argument that the Lions were balanced. They weren't, at least not for the vast majority of the game. Before U-M took a 14-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter, State had 26 runs and 22 pass attempts. After what proved to be the game-winning score, the Lions threw nine passes against only three runs. A more shocking stat: on 9 of 11 first-down runs, PSU gained two yards or fewer. Think Lloyd Carr knew what was coming?

DID ANYTHING GO RIGHT IN ANN ARBOR?

Mark Brennan: Yes. The Penn State defense did well overall and the special teams were terrific. Both performed effectively enough that, even with an average offense, the Lions would have won. So much for the theory that programs should prioritize defense and special teams over offense. Rewind to my stat on the last three BCS title games for more evidence of that.

Mark Harrington: The defense has been carrying the offense since 2000, more often than not. I am continually impressed with the tolerance the defense staff has holding teams down only to lose regularly. Personally, I would not be surprised to see a defensive staff member bolt at some point. The frustration must be intolerable.

Brennan Again: And if you think the staff is ticked, imagine how the defensive players feel. Guys like Dan Connor, Sean Lee and Justin King are all saying the right things. But deep down inside, they have to be wondering why they have to play a perfect game to beat a decent opponent. As an aside, how about Paterno reportedly using a squad meeting to lay down the threat that if anyone starts pointing fingers after the Michigan loss -- players or coaches -- they'll be booted from the team? That's laughable since, as you pointed out, Tom Bradley and his crew have been biting their collective tongue for at least the past two seasons.

Harrington's Final Word: The defense is in for another smackdown with Illinois, so no more than six points guys or this whole season could unravel. Tighten those chin straps and grab an extra cup of Gatorade.

WHAT IS THE TEAM'S BIGGEST CONCERN AS IT MOVES FORWARD?

Mark Harrington: Leadership. With Morelli screaming at Michigan fans and having a tantrum in the locker room, I am not only wondering if the team captain has the leadership ability, but also the fortitude and maturity to handle this game and the pressure that comes with it. Snapping back at the media is one thing, but yelling at opposing fans … during a game?! Holy meltdown, Batman. On the other side you have Dan Connor, but he's not the vocal leader you need to handle this sort of adversity. Paging Mr. Lee, Mr. Sean Lee. Please report to the locker room. There is a guy who will tear into his teammates for not getting the job done.

Mark Brennan: Does Penn State have a quarterback capable of making the quick post-snap decisions needed to take advantage of the team's fleet of talented receivers? And will the staff make the move to that quarterback if it turns out not to be Morelli? I'm all for having strong leaders. But they won't make any difference if the offense continues to be dysfunctional is big games.

Harrington Again: That dysfunction is certainly not helped when your quarterback is arguing with opposing fans … DURING THE GAME. I am not sold that Daryll Clark or Pat Devlin can do any better, but at this point you might as well get them reps and plan for the future.

Brennan's Final Word: The thing is, I get Morelli's frustration. I'm not saying he acted properly. But as a senior quarterback, it has to hurt when the offensive staff shows so little confidence in you -- especially when the TRUE FRESHMAN on the other sideline is airing it out 19 times in the first half compared to your 12 attempts.

DOES AUSTIN SCOTT START VS. ILLINOIS?

Mark Brennan: Yes. This figures to be his last chance, let's see if he makes the most of it.

Mark Harrington: Yes. Why? Because Paterno said so. Let's hope he figures out how to correctly hold onto the ball -- and whether or not to wear gloves this week, since he keeps changing.

Brennan Again: Because Paterno said so? Hmmm. Thanks for opening my eyes. Given the amount of you know what he shovels at his press conferences, I'm changing my answer to a near-certain, semi-definitive “no.” Get ready for Rodney Kinlaw, ladies and gentlemen.

Harrington's Final Word: Semi-definitive? You can't go out on the limb when you lash yourself to the tree trunk. To me you need to get Royster some reps at some point. I don't see Scott or Kinlaw serving as the workhorse through the rest of the season. Plan for the future.

WHAT KIND OF SCHEME DO WE SEE THIS WEEK?

Mark Harrington: I think it's a bit more open, but not by much. The defense will have to win this one for the team -- that means the secondary better sharpen up its hands and pull in one or two of those interception opportunities. Illinois is not stellar, but the Illini are a lot better than last year and they are poised for an upset.

Mark Brennan: You see, this is the exact type of game where Paterno will open things up. The stadium is small. The opponent unranked and with next to no tradition. The game is on the Big Ten Network, so only about 50 people will be watching. Besides, it makes sense from a strategic perspective: Illinois has the third-best run defense in the conference and the third-worst pass defense.

Harrington Again: Paterno doesn't have faith in Morelli, so that will preclude him from opening it up. Weak pass defense or not, I still expect some miscues in the passing game, which could result in more panic.

Brennan's Final Word: Which brings us back to my “semi-definitive” statement above. In a piece where we've spent so much time hashing out the ineffective Penn State passing game, there is no more fitting way to end than noting that my tongue-in-cheek comment sailed … you guessed it … completely over your head.


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