2011 Season Preview: The Penn State Nittany Lions And Your Day In The Sun

COLUMBUS OH - NOVEMBER 13: Silas Redd #25 of the Penn State Nittany Lions stiff arms Jermale Hines #7 of the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on November 13 2010 in Columbus Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Penn State was young in all the wrong ways and took a predictable step backwards in 2010. Now, with more experience and a young up-and-comer named Joe Paterno calling more plays, the Nittany Lions could be in position for a rebound. And with a back-loaded schedule, they could work their way up the rankings before a couple of division-deciding games in late-November.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. As always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words. And be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

At Football Outsiders recently, guest columnist Kevin Haynes took a look at the role pure, unadulterated resources play in developing winning and losing college football programs. (Part I, Part II)

[A]re games being won and lost because of the makeup of the competing players, or because of the makeup of the competing universities? Is there something unique to the sport’s competitive structure that makes Alabama inherently more likely to be a powerhouse than Iowa State? If so, this finding could force us to reexamine the way we think about the sport, and provide us a new way to evaluate and explain outcomes: one that doesn’t rely on tear-filled speeches and journalistic half-truths. If we get really lucky, we might even finally understand how Penn State, with an 84-year-old head coach who doesn’t wear a headset on the sideline, still manages to be competitive while Indiana can’t field a quality team no matter how many times the Hoosiers redesign their uniforms.

It's an interesting premise, especially when you think about how, in the age of mercenary recruiting and ever-improving technology, Penn State has maintained its status as a Top 15 program with a coach who was born in the same year that the Lafayette Leopards claimed a share of the national title. We almost take for granted how amazing the Joe Paterno story is at this point, but ... this is an amazing story.

The players Joe Paterno coached in his first years as head man at Penn State are now entering their mid-60s and are, themselves, older than most of today's top-flight college coaches.

When Woody Hayes was reestablishing Ohio State's dominance and winning the 1968 national title, Paterno was grumbling about the disrespect for his undefeated Nittany Lions.

When Richard Nixon famously awarded Texas a "national champion" plaque after beating Arkansas in 1969, Paterno and his undefeated team were once again feeling disrespected. Nixon and Hayes passed away quite a while ago.

Paterno was already a bit of an old hand when his squad upset the No. 1 Miami Hurricanes for the 1986 national title ... and that was 25 years ago. But there he is, roaming the sidelines, getting ready to call the plays again ("Your day in the sun is over" might be my favorite quote of the year), learning Skype, and continuing to add to his absolutely ridiculous career win total (401 and counting).

So anyway, what was Haynes' conclusion regarding what matters to winning football?

The model declares that the outcomes of college football games can overwhelmingly be attributed to three fundamental and relatively fixed factors: the academic standards held by the universities at-large, the amount of money they dedicate to their football programs, and the quality of high school talent found in the universities’ respective states.

For years, Penn State served as the University of New England, and their success led to larger crowds, recruiting success, more success, etc. They both make and spend a lot of money on their football program, they are firmly in the middle of a large swath of at least semi-fertile recruiting grounds, and they have the most stable of stable leadership in place. They fell to just 7-6 last season, which is to be expected when your quarterbacks are a true freshman and a walk-on, but they once again have interesting, disciplined athletes ready to take the field this fall, and hey ... it sounds like they've got a young, up-and-comer calling the plays this year. Look out, world.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk**: 50
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Youngstown State
44-14 W 25.4 - 34.8 L
11-Sep at Alabama 3-24 L 27.5 - 29.1 L
18-Sep Kent State 24-0 W 40.5 - 11.2 W
25-Sep Temple 22-13 W 28.1 - 18.1 W
2-Oct at Iowa 3-24 L 20.2 - 26.9 L
9-Oct Illinois 13-33 L 16.4 - 29.6 L
23-Oct at Minnesota 33-21 W 22.3 - 26.9 L
30-Oct Michigan 41-31 W 30.6 - 28.1 W
6-Nov Northwestern 35-21 W 34.0 - 29.1 W
13-Nov at Ohio State 14-38 L 26.7 - 32.8 L
20-Nov vs Indiana 41-24 W 27.0 - 32.6 L
27-Nov Michigan State 22-28 L 32.0 - 30.6 W
1-Jan vs Florida 24-37 L 25.9 - 16.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 24.5 81 23.7 50
Adj. Points Per Game 27.4 59 26.6 55

The 2010 season for Penn State was mediocre no matter how you slice it. Joe Paterno did the rarest of rare things and started true freshman Rob Bolden at quarterback to begin the season, and after a decent month or so, he hit a rather predictable brick wall. In stepped Matt McGloin after Bolden suffered a mild concussion against Minnesota, and he boosted the Nittany Lions slightly above average but hit a wall himself in the Outback Bowl, a wall named "five interceptions."

In all, the offensive ebbs and flows are rather easy to spot.

Penn State Offense, First Four Games (with Bolden): 30.4 Adj. PPG
Penn State Offense, Next 2.5 Games (with Bolden): 19.1 Adj. PPG
Penn State Offense, Final 6.5 Games (with McGloin): 28.8 Adj. PPG

After barely seeing the field, even in the Outback Bowl, a frustrated Bolden attempted to transfer this offseason but was denied (JoePa is old-school enough to have only caught some hell for this and not a lot of hell), but now he's "a completely different guy" and is back aboard the JoePa train. He and McGloin will duke it out for the starting job this month, and honestly, one probably shouldn't completely count out veteran Kevin Newsome either. Three-way quarterback races are entertaining for a few days, but somebody will need to actually take the lead at some point. The smart money is probably on Bolden, but the money isn't that smart.

The quarterback situation created an easy narrative for the season, and it served as a distraction from the fact that Penn State's defense was quite mediocre. They 'allowed' between 26.9 and 32.8 Adj. Points in each conference game, oscillating between extremely average and less than average. With the shaky offense, the D needed to step forward, but it did not. That might be as big a worry heading into 2011 as the quarterback race.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 62 58 57
RUSHING 68 64 70 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 54 59 51 30
Standard Downs 37 38 40 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 56 64 52 13
Redzone 37 35 40
Q1 Rk 35 1st Down Rk 16
Q2 Rk 65 2nd Down Rk 79
Q3 Rk 51 3rd Down Rk 54
Q4 Rk 40

Penn State's offensive ups and down resulted in an almost perfectly average offense in 2010. They were mediocre running and mediocre passing, solid on standard downs, below standard on passing downs. This is an offense that will run on you as long as you let them, but few defenses actually let them in 2010. Instead, they forced either Young Quarterback A or Limited Quarterback B to beat them through the air.

Honestly, neither Matt McGloin (1,548 yards, 7.2 per pass, 55% completion rate, 14 TD, 9 INT) nor Rob Bolden (1,360 yards, 7.0 per pass, 58% completion rate, 5 TD, 7 INT) were that bad in 2010. They got themselves into trouble with interceptions against good defenses -- Bolden with two against Alabama, McGloin with two against Ohio State and the aforementioned five against Florida -- but their passing lines weren't terrible. This was due, at least in part, to receiver Derek Moye (885 yards, 16.7 per catch, 55% catch rate, 8 TD), an underrated big-play threat.

Both Moye and Justin Brown (452 yards, 13.7 per catch, 54% catch rate, 1 TD) were all-or-nothing guys in 2010, with solid per-target and per-catch averages but low catch rates. If an efficient possession man were to step forward in 2011, it could do wonders for the offense as a whole. Be it fullback Joe Suhey (154 yards, 10.3 per catch, 83% catch rate), receiver Devon Smith (363 yards, 13.4 per catch, 61% catch rate), sophomore tight end Kevin Haplea or incoming, four-star slot receiver Bill Belton, the winner of the quarterback chase will need to know he has a reliable third-and-5 option. Bolden and McGloin did not have one last year.

Other tidbits:

  • The offense's best unit last year had to be the line, and it quite possibly could be again this year. Guard (and second-round draft pick) Stefan Wisniewski is gone, as is center Doug Klopacz, but six players with starting experience return. Tackle Quinn Barham was an honorable mention all-conference performer in his first year of starting last year, and Chima Okoli looks like a keeper at the other slot; a line that was damn strong in pass protection shouldn't be much different this year. There are options on the interior of the line, but the starting lineup there still seems to be a work in progress.
  • Bolden is the most well-known sophomore in this year's lineup, but the best might be lining up behind, or beside, him. Running back Silas Redd (437 yards, 5.7 per carry, -0.5 Adj. POE, 2 TD) outperformed the school's all-time leading rusher Evan Royster (1,014 yards, 4.9 per carry, -9.1 Adj. POE, 6 TD) on a per-carry basis last year as a true freshman (though Royster provided much more value in the passing game), and the former four-star signee has some potentially outstanding upside. An unreliable running game put pressure on a couple of not-quite-ready quarterbacks, but there's a chance both the running game and the quarterbacks are ready this year.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 38 46 33
RUSHING 34 68 21 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 34 30 42 39
Standard Downs 45 84 38 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 20 11 32 98
Redzone 61 85 56
Q1 Rk 58 1st Down Rk 41
Q2 Rk 36 2nd Down Rk 52
Q3 Rk 34 3rd Down Rk 23
Q4 Rk 44

Penn State's defense last year was far from terrible, and it was still better than the PSU offense, but it certainly took a step backwards overall. The Nittany Lions ranked 11th in Def. F/+ in 2009 but fell to 40th last year. The drop was fueled mostly by a tumble in efficiency measures -- they fell from 28th to 68th in Rushing Success Rate, from eighth to 30th in Passing Success Rate, and from 33rd to 84th in Standard Downs Success Rate. They were still strong on passing downs, but they were not able to force nearly as many passing downs as in previous seasons -- they ranked 83rd overall in Leverage Rate, the ratio of standard downs to passing downs.

The main problem in 2010? This unit was extremely passive. They didn't get to the quarterback, they didn't get after the ball -- few forced fumbles, interceptions, passes broken up -- and they were not at all proactive. They tried the bend-don't-break routine, and while, again, they still put together a Top 40 effort, we've come to expect more from the PSU defense than that.

If a rebound is to occur -- certainly a possibility with all 11 projected starters being either juniors or seniors -- then one way or another, the front seven needs to get pressure on the quarterback. Facing so few passing downs is going to limit your sack opportunities, obviously, but PSU didn't generate pressure on passing downs either -- they ranked 94th in Standard Downs Adj. Sack Rate, 85th on Passing Downs.

The departure of inside linebacker Chris Colasanti (75.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks) and the loss of end Pete Massaro (28.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) to a spring ACL tear do not help in regard to improving the pass rush, but lord knows there's still quite a bit of potential here. End Jack Crawford (9.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks) could be ready for a nice year after an all-or-nothing-but-usually-nothing 2010, and outside linebacker Nate Stupar (54.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU) is strong, but some former blue-chippers need to step up on the edges. Lord knows there are enough candidates. At end, C.J. Olaniyan was a four-star signee who saw minimal playing time last fall, and three more four-star recruits enter the picture: Anthony Zettel, Deion Barnes and Shawn Oakman. It's the same story at outside linebacker. Gerald Hodges (23.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU in eight games) showed upside through injury issues last year, and two four-star guys from the class of 2010 -- Khiari Fortt (12.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks) and Mike Hull (redshirt freshman) -- will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves. No one here is guaranteed to step up, but at least there are options.

Other tidbits:

  • The interior of the front seven is more of a known quantity. Tackle Devon Still (27.5 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks) should be able to help PSU absorb the loss of run-stuffer Ollie Ogbu (32.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks); he is joined by Jordan Hill (24.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) and DaQuan Jones (4.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks as a freshman) up front. At inside linebacker, Michael Mauti (49.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks) moves from OLB to take over for Colasanti, and Glenn Carson (8.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks as a freshman) is yet another recent four-star recruit who could turn it on.
  • We always think of the front seven first when it comes to Penn State, but considering the sack rate, the secondary was possibly the strength of last year's defense, and with its top five players returning, the song could remain the same in 2011. Corners D'Anton Lynn (56.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 4 PBU) and Stephon Morris (33.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU) are solid, especially Lynn, though I'd love to see them put in a position to make more plays on the ball (tough to do when opposing quarterbacks are completely unconcerned with sacks). Meanwhile HERO back (a.k.a. strong safety) Drew Astorino (54.0 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PBU) and free safety Malcolm Willis (41.5 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PBU as a redshirt freshman) were solid as last lines of defense. The unit will get a boost from the return of Nick Sukay (20.5 tackles, 3 INT in 5.5 games) from a torn pectoral muscle. As I've said about 1,430 times in this preview series, injuries hurt in the present tense but are usually beneficial in the future tense.

Penn State's 2010 Season Set to Music

Let's see ... forgettable output from an immortal group ... The Who By Numbers? Radiohead's The King Of Limbs (yeah, I said it)? Every Stones album after Tattoo You? You get the idea.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 13
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 24
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -4 / -5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (7, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.5

Penn State has a proven recent track record, and they have recruited strong depth in areas of recent need (quarterback, defensive end, linebacker). That alone suggests a bounceback from last year's iffy season is likely. PSU was young in all the wrong ways last year, and it caused some rather predictable setbacks.

The 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac projections for the Nittany Lions are a bit conservative -- 30th overall, 8-4 projected record, 5-3 in the Big Ten -- but the way the schedule shapes up, PSU should find itself in the race for the Big Ten East Leaders crown for quite a while. Why? Because their two most likely conference losses are the final two games on the schedule: they visit Ohio State on November 19 and Wisconsin on November 26. If those are two of their three projected conference losses, they they are very likely looking at a situation where they take an 8-2 (or so) record into mid-November and get a good amount of "Look who bounced back!" press. Joe Paterno's 46th season on the sidelines should result in him reaching, or getting awfully close to, 410 career wins.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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