Penn State

Beat writer Donnie Collins keeps you posted with in-depth analysis and commentary

Bowl Projections (Nov. 16 edition): Will Penn State be in a major bowl?

Bowl Projections (Nov. 16 edition): Will Penn State be in a major bowl?

Two things I really do like about the current bowl structure with the College Football Playoff:

  1. It’s no muss, no fuss, once the final rankings are announced. You go where your ranking says you should go, according to the formula. You can argue the ranking, but not the destination.
  2. You still have to predict the final rankings to predict the major bowls, so it keeps fun discussions like this in play. And, that’s important to college football.

Anyway, this in many ways is as much a prediction of what the final CFP rankings will look like as it will be a prediction of bowl matchups, considering Penn State is firmly in the running for a New Year’s Six bowl game. It wound up ranked No. 10 in this week’s CFP committee rankings, which of course puts it on the cusp of that practically guaranteed area for a trip to the Fiesta, Cotton, Orange or Peach.

Penn State, for what it’s worth, is going to be a difficult team to gauge for those of us outside the committee down the stretch, which is why I doubt there is going to be very much consensus on where this team will play its bowl game before the final rankings are released on Dec. 3. Right now, the Nittany Lions are ranked essentially as the fourth-best two-loss team, and it would be totally on them if they lost one of their final two games, to slumping Nebraska at Beaver Stadium on Saturday or at lowly Maryland next weekend. But, I don’t know if even two blowout wins guarantee them very much, especially considering USC is right behind them in the rankings and has UCLA and the Pac-12 title game (coming off a bye, mind you) to play. The Trojans can easily vault PSU, which then has ???? paths to possibly rise significantly in the standings.

  • Auburn losing once, which would give it three losses. It would seem strange, in a year when the SEC is down, to give a three-loss team from that conference a ranking ahead of Penn State, which has lost twice in the Big Ten*, on the road, by a combined four points, to two teams that are ranked.
  • Wisconsin losing big, to either Michigan or Ohio State in the conference title game.
  • Georgia losing big in the SEC title game, which would give it two lopsided losses.
  • Notre Dame losing to either Navy or Stanford.
  • Ohio State losing one of its final three.

*And whether you like it or not, losing twice in the Big Ten is not going to be a terrible thing in the eyes of the committee. After all, it ranks four Big Ten teams in the top 17. Only the SEC has as many. And the Big Ten has six teams in the top 25. No other conference has that many. … In the committee’s eyes, the Big Ten is a pretty competitive conference, even in a year when it seems to be down. But as always, you can debate whether it’s down because everybody seems to be losing a couple of games, or up because anybody near the top of the standings legitimately can beat anybody else.

From purely a Penn State perspective, those are the most likely scenarios to move up, without a team near the top of the rankings completely falling apart. (I guess it’s conceivable Miami can lose two out of three, but who would predict that at this point?)

That said, here is my prediction for the top 15 of the final CFP committee rankings:

  1. Alabama
  2. Miami
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Ohio State
  5. Clemson
  6. Notre Dame
  7. USC
  8. Penn State
  9. Georgia
  10. Wisconsin
  11. Auburn
  12. TCU
  13. Oklahoma State
  14. Washington
  15. Michigan State

How do I come to this? I’ll try to explain briefly.

Alabama – Wins out.

Miami – Beats Clemson in ACC title game. But essentially, that game decides the 2 and 5 seeds.

Georgia – Loses to Alabama in SEC title game, handily.

Wisconsin – Loses to Michigan and Ohio State.

USC – Beats UCLA and wins the Pac-12 title game

Ohio State – Climbs the rankings with wins over Michigan and Wisconsin. Gets in as a 2-loss team because it wins a conference title and Clemson and Notre Dame don’t. Essentially, a year after conference championship didn’t matter to Buckeyes, it will be all that matters now.

This is the part that is going to change the most as we go through this exercise week by week, obviously. But, as we sit here today, that’s where I can see this going. And once you figure that out, it’s simple to figure out the rest of it, because it’s just following the formula.

CFP No. 1

Sugar Bowl

CFP No. 4

CFP No. 2

Rose Bowl

CFP No. 3

The next game in line this season to get filled would be the Orange Bowl.

This is a unique season when two of the three bowls with tie-ins to conferences are both hosting national semifinals, which leaves the Orange as the only bowl with a conference tie-in to fill.

Only, the ACC champion in my projection — Miami — is already going to Pasadena.

So, the bowl would fill that spot with the highest-ranked ACC team, which in this scenario is simple: Clemson is No. 5 and the last team out of the playoff. So, they are in.

So, too, is the highest-ranked non champion out of the Big Ten or SEC, or Notre Dame (if the Irish rank higher than the highest-ranked Big Ten or SEC team). So, that should yield a rare fortuitous matchup for the Orange.

ACC

Orange Bowl

Highest-ranked Big Ten/SEC non-champ OR Notre Dame

The next three bowls are going to be a crapshoot, because it’s pretty much the committee’s job to furnish the best matchups possible out of what remains.

Geography is always a big deal — it’s supposed to be, anyway — with the committee, and there are two geographical locales that make sense for two teams that are going to wind up earning top bids.

USC will be the Pac-12 champion in this scenario, and the Fiesta Bowl is at least in Los Angeles’ backyard. The Peach Bowl is played in Atlanta, and Georgia at No. 9 would be a big draw there. It makes more than a little sense for the committee to slot these programs close to home.

Penn State, of course, can fit in either of those games. But, only one problem there: Georgia and USC happen to be the last two bowl opponents for Penn State, and the committee is supposed to take that into consideration, too. So, I doubt Penn State slots anywhere at this point but the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex.

The question is, who would PSU’s opponent be?

Well, that might be pretty easy, too.

The three other teams in line for spots are No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 11 Auburn and the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion (if there is one). And, I’m projecting there will be — Central Florida, even if it loses to a game to Temple, South Florida or even Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game).

Obviously, the committee isn’t going to pair Penn State against Wisconsin. And, if I were the Cotton Bowl committee, I’d be making a frantic pitch to keep UCF out of a matchup with Penn State.

Penn State is carrying that matchup from an interest perspective, frankly. And the bottom line is, Penn State fans might not pay en masse to go to Dallas over the holidays to see the Nittany Lions play a team they just paid to see play in Dublin, Ireland, in 2014 at the Croke Park Classic. It would also be the third time in five seasons the Nittany Lions and Golden Knights have met.

The Cotton Bowl hosted the forgettable Wisconsin-Western Michigan tilt last year, which drew a few more than 59,000 fans into a 100,000-seat stadium. If ever there was a bowl that would ask for a favor, it’s this one, and they might get it.

So, here are my projections:

At-large

Cotton Bowl

At-large

At-large

Peach Bowl

At-large

At-large

Fiesta Bowl

At-large

It’s not exactly a dream matchup for Penn State fans, who are undoubtedly pining for Notre Dame at this point. Plus, if you really want to see Penn State play Auburn, you’ll be able to in three years at Beaver Stadium. So…as it stands now, not the type of game I can see Penn State fans jamming the travel agencies to get to. But, we’ll see.

If you’re interested in where the rest of the Big Ten is heading, I have these predictions, too:

Citrus Bowl: Michigan State
Outback Bowl: Michigan
Holiday Bowl: Northwestern
TaxSlayer Bowl: Minnesota
Pinstripe Bowl: Iowa
Foster Farms Bowl: Indiana (assuming it beats Rutgers and Purdue to win out)

Everyone else falls short of the six wins, I believe.

A deeper look at PSU’s rushing issues

A deeper look at PSU’s rushing issues

Running room has been difficult to come by lately for Penn State’s star running back, Saquon Barkley. ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO

Once, a few years ago, I spoke to a group of young students looking to break into sports journalism, and one asked me a questions I really loved:: “What’s the one thing about your job that you didn’t know about before you got it, and that nobody outside of the business could ever understand about it until they are in it?”

I had a lot of answers, most of which I won’t get into here. But, I will mention one, because it pertains. I told her this: The amount of research I do for stories that doesn’t actually get into a stories would surprise a lot of people.

I wrote a story for today’s Times Shamrock newspaper editions on James Franklin’s assertion that the Penn State offense — most specifically, its offensive line — has been “too finesse” this season, and what you’re going to find is the brilliant research I did that I figured would pound the point home about the running game’s struggles with a windmill slam dunk. Penn State has struggled in short-yardage situations recently, and maybe to a certain degree all season, I figured.

Get some info on what plays Penn State has been calling in short-yardage and goal-to-go situations on third and fourth downs — when you’re most likely to benefit most by being physical up front. Let that tell the story of the struggles.

Turns out, they’re struggling just as badly on first and second down as they are on third and fourth, statistically. So, difficult to make the assertion I was thinking I could make. But, there’s no question after looking at these numbers, that it goes beyond just being an inconsistent running team for Penn State.

It is, frankly, an unconfident running team. read more…

My predictions: The first CFP rankings

My predictions: The first CFP rankings

Well, tonight is the night, and while it doesn’t hold quite the joyous air of possibility that it seemed like it would most of Saturday afternoon for Penn State fans, the release of the first College Football Playoff rankings by the CFP committee tonight does still have significance for the Nittany Lions.

After all, one loss, on the road, to a top-notch program coming off a bye week, isn’t going to fare all that poorly in comparison with many of the other one-loss teams the committee will be considering in its initial top 15.

To prepare, I’ll be offering my guesses as to who will be ranked in the top 10. But, disclaimer: They’re only guesses. The beauty of a night like this is, you get to see the beginnings of what the committee values, how it will operate moving forward. These initial rankings are hardly predictors of who will finish in the top-4Β  come December — in fact, they’ve never come closer than halfway to a correct guess — but they do show what the past has meant.

Before we get to my prediction, though, let’s talk a little about where Penn State is going to land.

read more…

KEY MATCHUP: How can kick coverage be the difference for PSU, Ohio State?

I’m trying something a bit different this week, and hopefully, most of you read my weekly preview in either the Times-Tribune, Citizens Voice or another Times Shamrock newspaper, so you’ll understand where I’m coming with this. But, every week, I go in depth for the print edition on the one area I think can make the biggest difference in the upcoming game. This week, I broke down the kicking games for both teams, especially when it comes to the field position battle, which can be especially crucial if the weather forecast for rain at Ohio Stadium holds true.

I asked coach James Franklin at his press conference this week about the importance of field position for his team, which has actually become dominant in this regard. It has consistently won those battles over the last year, and when you do that, teams are having to gain an extra first down or two per drive if they want to score a touchdown. It’s not exciting stuff statistically, but it wins football games, and Franklin tended to agree that it isn’t getting enough publicity.

“It’s something that we tried to emphasize as much as we possibly could, and we’ve got really good team speed right now,” Franklin said of his coverage teams. “We’ve got a punter (Blake Gillikin) that does a great job in the three things that we ask him to do, which is hang time, which is distance, and which is location. Right now he’s doing really good job in all three of those, which isn’t easy to do.
“Then we’ve got guys that are taking a lot of pride in their role in terms of covering kicks and it’s the same thing on kick off. Tyler (Davis) has been excellent in kickoff. I know there’s been talk about we have missed a few field goals or had a few field goals blocked but he’s been excellent in kickoff and I think before the end of the season he’ll be viewed the same way on field goals.”

For the purpose of this exercise, let’s focus a bit more on Davis and the role kickoffs can play.

Gillikin has been a great punter for Penn State, and Ohio State’s Drue Chrisman has been really good, too. He’s averaging 42.6 yards per punt this season, and if Penn State’s DeAndre Thompkins gets a chance to return one this weekend, he might want to keep the ball. Amazingly, not one of Chrisman’s 20 punts have been returned this season. Not one!

There are some outside factors that affect punts, though. Punters can kick the ball out of bounds, and sometimes, it’s good strategy to do so. Punters can kick the ball higher to avoid returns, or kick them lower to invite them. They can spin the ball to get it to bounce away from returners. They can pooch kick or go rugby style or…you get the point.

Kickoff guys can’t. They can angle the ball one way or another, or get a bit more hangtime. But typically, a guy like Davis’ best play is to just kick the ball as far as he can and hope it’s deep enough to discourage a return. Do that every time, and opponents will start every one of their drives at their own 25-yard line. That’s acceptable field position for the defense.

So, does Davis do a good job discouraging enough returns — or, at least, encouraging returns into the best of his coverage — that he becomes a weapon in the field position game.

Let’s look at it statistically:

Penn State Opponent Avg. start, after KO Drives started > 30 Touchbacks
Akron 24.6 1 of 9 4
Pittsburgh 24.3 1 of 6 3
Georgia State 24.4 1 of 9 6
Iowa 24.0 1 of 4 1
Indiana 23.5 0 of 8 6
Northwestern 23.2 0 of 6 3
Michigan 25.9 1 of 7 2

That’s…pretty good. Penn State has only allowed a kickoff to get returned past the 30 once in the last three games. And, really, it has allowed just two all season. Three of the five opposing drives that started past the 30 began at the 35, because the kickoff went out of bounds. And two of those three times, backup kicker Alex Barbir was doing the kicking, in garbage time.

In all, when the ball is kicked off by Penn State, opponents are averaging a start at the 24.3-yard line, just 10 percent of drives are starting past the 30, and 51.1 percent of the kickoffs (and 56.8 percent for Davis) are going for touchbacks.

Davis’ kickoffs are traveling, on average, 63.9 yards in the air. Again, that’s a number skewed, perhaps, by the fact that his coaches might be asking him to keep some kicks out of the end zone. But, it’s still a good number.

And, keep in mind, nobody would argue Tyler Davis is the strongest-legged kickoff man in the nation.

OK, we can infer this from that data:

  • Davis has been consistent.
  • He can get some touchbacks when he needs them.
  • His teammates have been really good on coverage when he has not secured the touchback.

Now, let’s look at the same data for Ohio State’s kickoff men, freshman Blake Haubeil and Sean Nuernberger:

Ohio State Opponent

Avg. start, after KO

Drives started > 30

Touchbacks

Indiana

22.8

1 of 9

1

Oklahoma

32.4

2 of 5

0

Army

28.3

3 of 7

1

UNLV

20.9

0 of 9

1

Rutgers

19.4

0 of 9

0

Maryland

31.3

5 of 10

1

Nebraska

24.6

3 of 9

2

That’s…not the best.

The Buckeyes have allowed eight of their last 19 kickoffs to get returned past the 30. That’s field position Penn State will sign up for Saturday. Also, factor this in: Like Penn State, Ohio State has kicked the ball out of bounds three times this season. But, those kickoffs have come relatively recently, and from the kickoff man (Haubeil) they’ll likely use against Penn State.

When the ball has been kicked off by the Buckeyes this season, opponents are averaging a start at their own 25.7-yard line, with 24.6 percent of drives starting beyond the 30. It’s a testament to how good their coverage guys are, considering this fact: Just 10.5 percent of their kickoffs are being downed for touchbacks.

That’s almost unthinkable in the modern game. Haubeil is averaging 59.4 yards in the air on his kickoffs. Nuernberger, who has kicked off just seven times this season, is a full yard behind that.

That might not matter against Rutgers or UNLV or even Nebraska. But, it very well could matter against Penn State, because it’s Saquon Barkley that you’re kicking the ball to.

If Penn State can hold Ohio State to field goals, and the Buckeyes can’t consistently find the end zone on their kickoffs, Barkley is going to get some chances not only to flip field position in the Nittany Lions’ favor, but maybe even to score.

Ohio State is going to have to find a way to either get better in a hurry on its kickoffs, or devise some sort of coverage strategy to limit what Barkley can do once he gets going.

Other Penn State opponents have simply tried to muscle up on kicks to limit his chances. Ohio State might not be able to do that to Barkley as well as Penn State will against Parris Campbell. And that’s a big advantage for the Nittany Lions.

Clotheslined: Penn State takes umbrage with Ohio State unis, per report

Clotheslined: Penn State takes umbrage with Ohio State unis, per report

These are the alternate jerseys Ohio State will wear on Saturday night in Columbus when it faces Penn State. Did the Nittany Lions alert the fashion police?

You can take this for what it’s worth, and honestly…who knows what it’s worth? But it’s out there, and once I got my first look at the uniforms Ohio State plans to wear for Saturday’s titanic tilt against No. 2 Penn State at Ohio Stadium, I figured this might become a little bit of an issue.

So, here it is: There’s a report that surfaced from a reporter at WTOL-11, a CBS television affiliates in Toledo, that indicates Penn State protested the uniforms, trying to prevent the Buckeyes from wearing them this weekend.

read more…

Barkley, Cabinda earn Player of the Week honors

Not surprisingly, Penn State is reaping some of the benefits of its trouncing of Michigan on Saturday.

RB Saquon Barkley was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for the fourth time in his career for his performance in the 42-13 win over the Wolverines. MLB Jason Cabinda earned the Defensive Player of the Week honor from the conference for the first time in his career (which is kind of surprising, I’d say).

Here’s the announcement from Penn State:

read more…

Trace McSorley, again, comes up huge in the clutch

Trace McSorley, again, comes up huge in the clutch

When it matters most, Trace McSorley has been one of the most clutch players in recent memory for Penn State, as he was Saturday night against Michigan. The numbers back that up. ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO.

There are a million things you can take away if you watched Penn State dismantle Michigan on Saturday night, a million ways to look at how the offense took apart the Wolverines, to look at how the defense swarmed the overpowered Michigan offense with speed and power and tenacity, to look at how the coaching staff gameplanned to near perfection, to marvel at Saquon Barkley’s generational greatness and DaeSean Hamilton’s relentless pursuit of improvement and the offensive line’s resilience and Mike Gesicki’s athleticism.

But, here’s what I took away from that 42-13 win, and what Penn State fans need to remember next time he turns their Saturday into an emotional roller coaster: When it matters most, in the biggest moments of the biggest games this Penn State team has played, Trace McSorley has been the best performer on the field. He has been the most important cog in the offense, in the clutch, when being clutch matters.

Excluding nobody.

read more…

A Saturday in Iowa: The night Barkley became a national phenomenon

A Saturday in Iowa: The night Barkley became a national phenomenon

Penn State fans have know, for a long while, just how gifted Saquon Barkley is.

It started to set in on the national college football scene earlier this year in the Rose Bowl, when Barkley did this:

And it has continued through the early stages of the 2017 season until Saturday, when he went from merely being an impressive, dominant force to a surreal one. A force that has made the nation take notice.

Barkley should be firmly atop the Heisman Trophy race as September winds down, after his 28-carry, 211-yard, 12-catch, 94-yard dismantling of Iowa’s stout defense. A game in which he ran around, through, past and over — literally, all of those things — the Hawkeyes.

Personally, it’s the best football game I’ve ever seen anybody play. Ever. At any level. From the best player I’ve ever seen, at any level. And, I’m thinking hard about today, the best player I’ve ever covered, in any sport.

Don’t care about my opinion?

OK. But the most amazing thing about last night was how many professional athletes were evidently watching on ABC. And, how many of them were amazed enough by Barkley’s performance that they felt compelled to Tweet about it. I don’t know how Saquon Barkley can stay humble after he reads some of these. But, here’s guessing he’ll find a way to do that too:

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Lake-Lehman’s Eury gets his chance, by popular demand

Lake-Lehman’s Eury gets his chance, by popular demand

Former Lake-Lehman running back Nick Eury looks for running room against Lakeland back in his high school days with Lake-Lehman. On Saturday night, he got his first chance to carry the ball for Penn State. STAFF PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER DOLAN

One carry.

Four yards.

In the grand scheme of Penn State’s 56-0 thrashing of Georgia State in the nonconference finale, it’s a play and a handful of yards that might already be largely forgotten around Happy Valley. But for Nick Eury, they officially make him a Nittany Lion.

The redshirt freshman from Lake-Lehman got his first career carry in the fourth quarter of the Lions’ victory, and he’ll certainly hope it won’t be the last chance he gets to help his team on the field. But there’s a pretty cool story behind his first carry.

Saquon Barkley, it appears, pretty much demanded it happen.

Head coach James Franklin confirmed that much during his postgame press conference, saying Barkley was instrumental in Eury getting on the field.

Barkley, who had a dominant first half, smiled broadly when asked about that one carry for four yards after the game.

“That was awesome, Nick Eury getting into that game, seeing all those young guys get into the game,” Barkley said. “I know I’m not just speaking for myself here, but everybody on the team, every starter, you guys don’t know what those guys do for us during the week.

“On the scout team, they give us the looks that enable us to go out there and do what we’re doing. They might not be starting, but they’ve been with us since the offseason, winter workouts, spring ball. All the hard work we put in, they put in. You see them get in the game, it’s an exciting feeling.”

Penn State emptied its bench in the fourth quarter, giving more than a handful of young scholarship players and walk-ons like Eury the chance to see their first action.

Franklin said that’s something that not only helps the players, but improves the chemistry in the locker room.

“I talk about it not just from a player development perspective, but having a healthy locker room,” he said. “I preach it all the time, the importance of every single person in our program. It doesn’t matter what their role is; their role is critical to our success.

Urban Meyer says something all coaches should understand

Urban Meyer says something all coaches should understand

Urban Meyer has a valuable message for coaches: Just coach. AP PHOTO

This is something that has always bothered me, and you don’t just see it in college football. You see it in baseball and in basketball and in just about every team sport. I’ve seen it, sad to say, at the YOUTH level.

A team loses? A new coach blames the players. Says he can only work with what he’s got. The implication being, “Wait until I get MY players in here. Then everyone else will see.”

Tom Herman said something to that effect on Saturday, after the new Texas coach with the $28.85 million contract (not counting the incentives) watched his Longhorns get lambasted by Maryland — at home — in his debut.

“If we all thought that we were going to come in here and in nine months sprinkle some fairy dust on this team and think that we’ve arrived then we’re wrong,” Herman said.

This is the kind of thing that doesn’t just bother someone on the outside like me. it bothers a legend like Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, too. Drives him, as he puts it, “insane.”

“It’s like a new generation of excuse,” Meyer told CBSSports.com.

Read the entire article here. Because, it’s good perspective on an issue the media and fans have kind of allowed to slide. Meyer pulls no punches, and it’s worth remembering that Herman served as Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Ohio State before he went on to take the head coaching job at Houston (where, incidentally, he went 13-1 in his first season in 2015 with a roster almost exclusively recruited by his predecessor, Tony Levine).

If you’re a coach, coach. Take the kids you’ve got, and make them better. If you’re a professional coach, understand you aren’t just assuming a title. You’re assuming a program and everything that goes along with it. You can’t rip it. You just deal with it and find the positives.

Penn State fans wondered why the Nittany Lions were mediocre in their first two seasons under James Franklin. It’s because they didn’t have the players, the talent top to bottom that Meyer had at Ohio State. Bottom line. But you never heard Franklin complain publicly about it. Never heard him say, “Wait ’til I get some real recruits in here.” He could have, and he didn’t — probably at times to his own detriment.

Why? Because it was his job to make Penn State what it could be with what it had. Just like it’s Tom Herman’s job to make Texas what it could be, and your 7-year-old daughter’s youth soccer coach’s job to make that team what it can be. This whole “Just wait ’til…” routine is getting old.