Take Your Marks: The Gauntlet

Harrington and Brennan tackle Penn State's recent wins over Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, a stretch that is likely to define the team's 2008 season.

Welcome to the latest edition of Take Your Marks, the occasional FOS feature where staffers Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan discuss and debate issues surrounding the Penn State football program.

In this installment, they tackle the Nittany Lions' performance during their recent running of the gauntlet — beating perennial Big Ten powers Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State back-to-back-to-back, with two games on the road.

For me this is a unit award that goes to the entire defense. Tom Bradley's crew allowed a grand total of 30 points in the gauntlet run, with more than half of them (17) coming in a 10-minute window when things got out of whack against the Wolverines. In the other 170 minutes of the gauntlet run, the defense gave up exactly 13 points. Amazing stuff.

Harrington: Great call. I am going to go with the big hog-mollies on the other side of the ball — the offensive line. Sure they had their hands full with Ohio State. But when it counted they opened up holes for Royster and Devlin to get the win. In the end they took over the trenches from some impressive defensive lines and managed to pave the way for 107 points in the gauntlet run.

It's hard not to go with Evan Royster here. He came through with an average 104 yards per game in the gauntlet stretch and was clutch when the Nittany Lions needed him to be. As an aside, Royster still leads the Big Ten with 7.2 yards per carry.

Brennan: As you noted, when games were on the line — with PSU trailing in the first half against Michigan and then late in the evening against Ohio State — Royster got it done. With a big assist from the offensive line, he ran hard, moved the chains and outperformed P.J. Hill, John Clay and Beanie Wells. But we'd be remiss if we didn't also give a tip of the cap to Daryll Clark and his receivers.

Linebacker Navorro Bowman is not only the best defender at Penn State this year, he is also the best in the Big Ten. In the gauntlet run he had 29 tackles, three tackles behind the line and a huge fumble recovery against Ohio State. He was instrumental in shutting down the power rushing attacks of the Badgers and Buckeyes.

Harrington: Bowman is a great pick, but I am going with Aaron Maybin. Maybin disrupted the pockets of all three teams and continually fought through bear-hugs and pull-downs (which I guess are not classified as holds) to put Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor on edge. Maybin leads the Big Ten in sacks with 11, four more than the second-place spot.

I think Kevin Kelly deserves the nod here. Sure he had the miscue against Ohio State. But, on the whole, he has been big on kickoffs, extra points and field goals. He's averaging 9.6 points per game and is 100 percent on extra points (44 of 44) and 82 percent on field goals (14 of 17) on the year.

Brennan: I'll cop out and go with another unit award. In the three games we are discussing here, Penn State dominated the special teams' battle each time. Kicking, punting, coverage and returns were all generally terrific. Redshirt freshman linebacker Nate Stupar, who has been a terror on the coverage units and blocked a punt against Michigan, has come to personify this group.

The defensive tackles, particularly the main rotation of Jared Odrick, Ollie Ogbu and Abe Koroma, exceeded my expectations. I knew all three of them were talented, but I did not expect them to dominate big, physical offensive fronts like the ones Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State brought to the table. Getting rid of negative influences Chris Baker and Phil Taylor was obviously a case of addition by subtraction.

Harrington: I am going with the linebackers. The unit not only lost Dan Connor to graduation but then saw Sean Lee sidelined with an ACL injury. Most units would be decimated, but Ron Vanderlinden got his rotation together and has seen production from Bowman, Josh Hull, Tyrell Sales, Bani Gbadyu and Michael Mauti. Linebacker U. indeed!

I may take my shots for this, but I am going to give some love to Jay Paterno, a guy who was raked over the coals over the past couple of years. First he took a risk on recruiting Clark, which now looks borderline genius. Second, both Clark and Pat Devlin have looked strong when called upon.

Brennan: I talked up the defense earlier. What else does Tom Bradley have to do to be named associate head coach of this program?


Brennan: I never have and suppose never will get all of the hype over Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis. Here is something to chew on regarding the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus winner: Against Penn State, he had a dozen tackles — TWO solos and TEN assists. Think the Buckeyes' stat crew was being a bit generous for the All-American (and his teammates)? Lion safety Mark Rubin had 11 tackles in the same game — NINE solos and TWO assists. Rubin's nine solo stops were as many as the top SIX Buckeye tacklers combined. Meanwhile, they combined for 37 assists. The point here is that Laurinaitis leads the Big Ten in total tackles with 90, but 55 of them — or 18 more than the next closest player — are assists. His 35 solo stops don't even rank in the top 10 of the league. And he has three tackles for loss, which isn't even among the top four of his own team. The fact that he has not had more solo stops than assists in any home game this year (but was credited with more solos than assists at USC and Wisconsin) is a pretty good indicator that his home numbers are being padded.

Harrington: Hopefully he's paying the stat intern's meal plan this semester. I am looking at the other side of the ball for Ohio State in Beanie Wells. Granted, he was injured early on, but in his six games this season he's boasting a 5.4 yards-per-carry average. Remember, Royster averages 7.2. Wells also has four touchdowns on the year, 0.7 per game. Royster has 1.1 touchdowns per game. For all the hype of how Wells was a better back than Royster, the numbers sure do not illustrate that. Wells is a solid player, but I suspect the OSU fans who were piping he's the best the Buckeyes have fielded in the last few decades are probably not old enough to remember Eddie George.

I liked what I saw of Michigan junior running back Brandon Minor. Though not the biggest guy, his powerful running style gave the Nittany Lions fits until they adjusted (23 carries, 117 yards, two TDs). Unreal to think he was not even on the two-deep heading into the game against Penn State.

Harrington: Wisconsin's Travis Beckum impressed me. He grabbed five catches for 79 yards with a big 42-yard pickup. But what got me is how sharp he was on routes and how he created separation in the flat.


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