Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On Location: Penn St. @ Wisconsin

Penn State quarterback Daryl Clark is still feeling like his team is the underdog or the worst-of-the-best of the country’s elite, despite his team continuing to pounce on the opposition. He said Quarterback Coach Jay Paterno uses internet fodder downplaying Penn State’s strong start to keep his team focused. Saturday’s convincing 48-7 victory against Wisconsin solidifies that not only are the Nittany Lions the class of the Big Ten but may be the best all-around team in America.

The offensive statistics were far from gaudy (377 total yards) compared to previous weeks, but big yardage was unnecessary after jumping on Wisconsin early 17-0 and converting scores in short-field situations. Clark (16-25, 244 yards, one touchdown, one interception, two rushing touchdowns) passed his toughest litmus test of the year by making smart decisions consistently against a conference foe on the road (his only misfire was a 4th quarter interception after, which came after Penn State had cushioned their lead at 41-7). He distributed the ball well by connecting with seven Nittany Lion receivers.

What was probably most surprising was the aerial assault Penn State deployed starting the third quarter, already up 24-7. The opening drive started with five of the first six plays as passes, punctuated by a Clark sneak up the middle for his second rushing score of the night. During the post-game interviews the Penn State signal caller stated that the gameplan in the second half was to come out passing and to keep pushing offensively. Coach Joe Paterno echoed these sentiments in his interview by reminding us of many games he has coached that looked in control and was suddenly lost when letting up.

Defensively, the Badgers were contained to 313 yards total offense and turned the ball over four times. Wisconsin’s first pass completion did not come until almost halfway through the second quarter. The defensive front for Penn State was causing fits for Wisconsin’s scheme, meeting Badger runners or quarterback Allan Evridge in the backfield on several occasions. Defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu ended a Wisconsin drive with a third down sack and defensive end Aaron Maybin and linebacker Navorro Bownman notched tackles-for-loss in the second quarter alone. The defensive play in the second quarter really stalled Wisconsin’s momentum, driving a wedge between the teams’ scoring opportunities.

On special teams, Kevin Kelly started the scoring for Penn State with a 50-yard field goal (finished 2-2 on attempts) and Derrick Williams rattled off a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown. Punter Jeremy Boone rounded out the clean special teams play with solid punting, averaging just under 45 yards per boot. Kick and punt coverage was strong as well, surrendering on average less than 20 yards per kickoff.

What is left for Penn State now is control of their post-season destiny, facing the only other undefeated teams left in the conference [Ohio State (6-1, 3-0) in two weeks and Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) to close the season]. Outside of those two weeks, Michigan (2-4), Iowa (4-3) and Indiana (2-4) are all that are left standing in the way of potential national championship contention. Is the team looking ahead of Michigan with their eminent clash against Ohio State proceeding? No indication from the players or coaches. Paterno, Clark and wide receiver Deon Butler stressed the importance of beating Michigan in their own right – Penn State has not won in their last seven chances against the Wolverines, and by extension, Butler recognized that no one on their current team has beaten Michigan period.

We oftentimes hear that teams who play-up the “no one believed in us” mantra tend to overcome their perceived odds and end up winning the big game (see: New York Giants, 2007). Penn State continues to bill itself as the school that no one believes in and they are responding accordingly. It looks like Jay Paterno’s tactic is working well.