What To Watch For (Game #2 – Virginia Cavaliers)


Like former head coach Joe Paterno used to say, you measure how good a team is or can be by the strides they make between game 1 and game 2.  Like many of the Nittany Nation faithful, we figured that we would face a stiff test against Ohio, but we would somehow find a way to prevail.  We didn’t.  Now we will see what Penn State is made of!

Originally I thought Penn State would have beaten Ohio and would still be riding high from the emotions and drama surrounding last week’s game.  So much so, that I thought Penn State might not be ready for the Cavaliers, a team coming off their first bowl game since 2007.  I still think that Virginia is a tough, dangerous team, and may perhaps have more weapons at the skill positions than Penn State, but this game has taken on a whole new demeanor for the Nittany Lions.

The importance of this game, even though it is still early in the season, can not be underestimated.  Another loss, especially of the blow out nature, could set this program back not only this year, but also for the remainder of the decade.  That’s how important this game is.  Am I being melodramatic -perhaps, but I really feel that in order for coach O’Brien to sell potential recruits on his brand of football at Penn State and what Penn State can do for them, he has to show them that he can win against relatively good competition.

Athletes go to Penn State for the education they receive first and foremost, but also to play against big-time schools on the biggest stage.  No one plays football at Penn State just to compete; that’s a line reserved for the Savannah State’s of the world.  Savannah State plays to compete, and, oh yea, to collect the $475,000 pay check after they get smoked.  That does not happen at Penn State!

So what does Penn State need to do in order to regain some of their swagger?  Read about some areas that I’ll be watching tomorrow:

Sep 1, 2012; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Bill O

Penn State’s Defensive Front Four

Most writers and bloggers have spent much of the week lambasting Ted Roof and his new defensive scheme at Penn State.  Let’s give the guy and his brand of defense a chance!  What I want to see is how the defensive front four responds to being called out.  They generated virtually no pass rush last week against Ohio.  What will they be able to generate against Virginia?

It all starts with the defensive front four.  If they give the QB time, a QB like Michael Rocco of Virginia or Tyler Tettleton of Ohio, they will pick you apart.  We saw that last weekend against Ohio.  Tettleton completed 31 of 41 passes, that’s a 75.6% completion percentage.  Last week Michael Rocco, playing against FCS Richmond, completed 25 of 37 passes for a 67.6% clip.  Both of these QB’s have poise in the pocket and will not be easily flustered by a hand in their face.

At times against Ohio, sophomore DE C.J. Olaniyan showed glimpses of the player that Penn Staters hope he can be.  He managed to get the teams only sack and he deflected a screen pass.  While taking DT Jordan Hill out of the picture is the primary focus for most teams, defensive players like Olaniyan, DT DaQuan Jones, and DE Sean Stanley absolutely must generate a pass rush against Cavalier QB, Michael Rocco.  Rocco, unlike Tettleton, is not very fleet-a-foot.  Forcing him to move around and scramble from the pocket may force him into some miscues.

3rd Down Conversion Rate

Once again I focus on the Penn State defense.  With 9:37 to go in the 4th quarter and Penn State trailing by 3 points, Ohio took possession of the ball at their own 7 yard line.  In years past, this is where the Penn State defense would step up, force a 3-and-out, and get the ball back to the offense for at least a tying score.  Not last week!  Time and time again Tettleton would complete a 3rd down pass to keep drives alive.  This is how is went for Penn State in the second half.  Ohio converted 11 of 12 their 3rd down plays in the second half and 13 of 21 (61.9%) for the game.  Teams getting that type of production on 3rd down are going to have an excellent chance of winning, especially when they don’t turn the ball over for the game.

How can Penn State change this pattern?  First, generate a pass rush to force quick decisions from the quarterback.  Second, get off blocks and make tackles.  The DBs can not keep getting jammed and blocked by WRs or TEs on quick passes and screens and then not be able to get off blocks.  Finally, strip the ball, intercept a pass; any type of turnover will do.  From what I have been hearing out of State College this week, coach Roof has been practicing stripping the ball techniques with his players.

Penn State Special Teams

Most everyone has been focusing on the failed Bill O’Brien experiment of placing Gerald Hodges deep as a kickoff/punt returner.  Prior to the game everyone was speculating as to who would return kicks and punts, but I’ll bet no one had Hodges in their office pool.  And, after the performance he gave last week, no one will be in a hurry to request his presence back there again any time soon!  Instead of looking at how bad the decision was to put Hodges back there, I want to congratulate coach O’Brien for at least stepping outside the proverbial box and trying something new.  OK…it didn’t work, but at least he tried it.

Personally, I think Penn State fans should be more concerned over their inept and downright offensive kicking game!  Paterno always stressed defense and special teams as usually determining who won or lost.  Well, the Penn State kicking game certainly did not help matters.  Sophomore FG kicker Sam Ficken was not given a chance to kick any field goals even though they got to the Ohio 27 yard line part way through the 3rd quarter.  For coach O’Brien to eschew a FG of 44 yards, especially when it could have tied the game, tells you all you need to know about his confidence in the kicking game.  Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I think P/K Anthony Fera will be Penn State’s biggest loss due to sanctions.  Penn State better find out soon what they have in young Ficken or else they are going to have to bring in another kicker for next year.

The punting situation may be as dire as it has been in recent memory.  Junior Alex Butterworth handled the duties last Saturday, but only managed a 35.8 yard average on 5 punts.  He never really turned the field position in the Nittany Lions favor.  This isn’t Butterworth’s first punting foray either.  He has seen spot duty since 2010 when Fera went out with an appendectomy.

On Saturday, watch closely to see how coach O’Brien handles his kicking duties.  Does he stick with Butterworth, especially if he shanks one or two or doesn’t drive Virginia back?  Does O’Brien show some confidence in Ficken?  Somewhere this season, Penn State is going to need Ficken to come through, how much confidence will he have.

Perry Jones

Penn State needs to keep a close watch on the Virginia senior RB Perry Jones.  Last week, Jones had a pedestrian performance going off for 52 yards and 1 score.  He also caught 1 pass for 24 yards.  Last year Jones rushed for 915 yards and 5 scores, and he  caught 48 passes for 506 yards and 3 scores.  Those numbers suggest that Rocco will have no problems checking down and throwing outlet passes to Jones.  He can be just as dangerous as Beau Blankenship was for Ohio.  It would behoove Penn State to keep a spy close by when he comes out of the backfield.

Watch to see how Penn State tries to limit what Jones can do in the open field.  He will get his touches, as he is Virginia’s most experienced running back, but he will also be one of Rocco’s receiving weapons.  If he gets time to maneuver then it could be a long day for Lions defense.

Penn State Offensive Play-calling

During his weekly press conference this week coach O’Brien stressed that he needed to do a better job of providing balance for the Nittany Lions offense.  Against Ohio, Penn State threw the ball 48 times while only rushing it 22 times.  It’s one thing to call more running plays, its another to do so when your starting tailback, Bill Belton, is highly questionable to play.  If he is unable to go, the rushing load will fall to senior Derek Day who has a total of 15 career carries, over half of them coming in last week’s game.

Watch to see how many rushing attempts coach O’Brien gives Day, he has junior Curtis Dukes waiting in the wings.  Dukes rushed for 237 yards and 1 score last year.  While coach O’Brien wants to even out his run-pass ratio, putting that to the test this week is going to be awfully difficult considering the injury status of his starting tailback.  If Penn State can get to 40 or more rushing attempts, you shuold feel good that Penn State will come out on top in this game.

As always, enjoy the game, and I would love to get your comments!  WE ARE…PENN STATE

Folow Corey Hunter on Twitter!