Penn State had already dropped 2 games entering Saturday’s blow out loss to Ohio State. After both, first year defensive coordinator John Butler came under fire, with some of the more, shall we say, extreme factions of the PSU fan base calling for his firing. To take a glance at message boards, Twitter, and various comment threads in the aftermath of the 63 point, 686 yard performance by the PSU defense, those factions are certainly more vocal, and probably a tad larger in number. There weren’t enough adjustments, there was not enough blitzing, there was too much space given OSU’s receivers off the line. In short, it was coaching, plain and simple.
Before I go any further, let me just say this. John Butler, or really any of the Penn State coaches, are far from blameless. When you get blown out by 49 points, there are questions that may be asked. You can rest assured those questions are being asked the loudest, and most frequently, inside the walls of the Lasch football building. But, I will also say that this staff, especially on the defensive side of the ball, are limited by the personnel they have. Whether you want to admit it or not, PSU has 61 recruited scholarship players on its roster. With injuries and other players not traveling to Columbus, that number was in the fifties on Saturday. That matters, period.
That has had both a direct and indirect impact on the Lions, and most of that has been on the defensive side of the ball. When this staff took over in January of 2012, the depth in the secondary was laughable. They were left with a bare cupboard by the previous staff who had struggled to replenish their talent in the defensive backfield. In O’Brien’s first class, he was of course limited to just 15 scholarships, not to mention a situation that wasn’t exactly begging to attract high profile prospects. Ross Douglas, a 4 star prospect decommited shortly before the sanctions were announced, and the staff was left to increase their secondary depth with lower profile players, several of whom were going to be ready to play immediately.
Again in the 2014 class, the secondary has been a big focus, securing commitments from both Troy Vincent Jr., and Daquan Worley, both of whom seem destined for the defensive backfield. They also targeted high end players such as Dravon Henry, Montae Nicholson, and Jabril Peppers. Peppers was very high on PSU, but the NCAA situation was a huge factor in his decision to commit to Michigan. Henry and Nicholson both seem to have moved on from PSU. But the emphasis the staff has put on that position in particular should tell you a lot about the talent they feel they have, or don’t have, in the secondary.
Perhaps just as troubling to many fans, myself included, has been the lack of improvement from many along the defensive line, notably Deion Barnes. Last year’s B1G freshman of the year has been practically invisible in PSU’s 3 losses, as has the Lions other star, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. First of all, Ohio State deserves a ton of credit for neutralizing Penn State’s line on Saturday. They have flown under the radar, but the Buckeye’s offensive line is one of the most dominant units in the nation, and a huge reason for the big numbers the OSU offense has put up to date. But the issues on the line go much deeper than what we saw against Ohio State. With Jordan Hill gone to the Seahawks, it was expected Barnes and Jones would emerge as stars. Instead, they have taken a step back this season as defenses focus on them. With that focus, guys like Anthony Zettel, C.J. Olaniyan, and Austin Johnson have not emerged with favorable matchups. If there’s one coach PSU fans should have faith in figuring it out, it’s Larry Johnson.
Ron Vanderlinden has much of the same to deal with at linebacker. Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges were among the best in the Big 10, and nation, at their positions last year. Nyeem Wartman and Mike Hull have stepped into their spots, but much like their teammates on the line, they have not risen to the level of their predecessors. Compounding the issue is the total lack of depth behind the starters. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has been forced into duty at linebacker on multiple occasions this season simply to provide an experienced body. That not only shows the issue at linebacker, but is also taking an experienced player out of a young secondary.
One of the more popular arguments has been PSU’s lack of blitzing, or press coverage on opposing receivers. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was a common argument against Tom Bradley’s defense. First of all, PSU has blitzed significantly more in the last 2 seasons than they had under Scrap, regardless of what the comments on our Facebook page say. The issue has been the blitzes have not gotten to the quarterback. Or, as we saw on numerous occasions Saturday, they don’t get the quarterback on the ground when they do get there. As for the lack of press coverage, have you seen PSU’s corners? They aren’t nearly physical enough to play tight, especially against the type of receivers UCF and Ohio State threw at them in 2 losses.
I am not looking to absolve Butler, or anyone on the staff of blame. But, I am trying to point out the reality of the situation. Plenty of Penn State fans grossly overestimated this team. I had them at 8-4, and at this point, would be thrilled with 7-5. I understand the high standards Nittany Lion fans hold their football program to. It’s one of the many reasons that on an even playing field, PSU can be one of the top programs in the nation. But through a number of factors, not the least of which is the NCAA sanction issue, and other fallout from “it”, this team is limited, especially on defense. Those realities are also going to be there for at least the next couple of years. PSU will be able to begin taking a full class in 2015, but even the most highly rated recruits will need time to adjust to the college game. John Butler may not be the man for the job, but I don’t believe you can fail him based on 7 games. If anything, his grade is incomplete.
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