For our preview for the battle of THE MOST IMPORTANT TROPHY IN SPORTS, THE LAND GRANT TROPHY, I interviewed Devon Edwards from Black Shoe Diaries about Penn State's defense, the mood around State College, PA, and what the Land Grant Trophy means to him. Thanks to Devon, and if you want to see my answers to his questions, you can find them here.
1. As everybody knows, the Land Grant Trophy is the premier trophy in not just college football, but all sports across the world. Describe in 100 words (or so) the effect The Land Grant Trophy has had on your life.
Before I enrolled at Penn State, I'd never been to a Division-I college football game before. Now, my freshman year was 2008, which ended up being a pretty terrific year for the Nittany Lions, and, of course, we went into the final game of the season, a home matchup with Michigan State, with a trip to the Rose Bowl and a Big Ten Championship on the line. But none of that mattered as soon as I gazed across the sideline and laid eyes on the most beautiful sight in the world: The Land Grant Trophy. Suddenly, nothing else mattered. We could go 1-11 each year, but as long as that Trophy stayed in her rightful place at Penn State, oh--it would be worth it.
2. Kidding aside, Penn State has looked a lot like early-2013 Michigan State: smothering defense with an offense that makes you want to sob. Let's discuss the offense first. How much are the sanctions to blame, and how much of it is due to other factors?
The sanctions are, to no small degree, blameworthy--if only because we weren't able to bring in enough bodies along the offensive line to create any semblance of depth there--and when Miles Dieffenbach went down in the preseason, we knew we were in for a long year. But really, that's the only place the sanctions have hurt: We returned a quarterback who looked ready to burst through in a big way, a trio of running backs that had been together for two seasons, and a solid group of tight ends and receivers bolstered by promising freshmen. The only loss, among skill players, was Allen Robinson, and he was great, but that's the kind of thing a team should be able to overcome by the last week of the regular season. I really put most of the blame at the feet of offensive coordinator John Donovan (and QB coach Ricky Rahne), for trying to install their scheme--a quick-passing spread offense--on a group not remotely suited for it. Hackenberg's regressed, outside the tutelage of Bill O'Brien and Charlie Fisher, and as much as he's been knocked down this season, he's taken a mental beating just as heavy. This group has the pieces to be competent offense, they just aren't remotely being put in a position to succeed.
3. More on offense -- let's take a look at Christian Hackenberg. He seems to have regressed this season. How much of it is his fault, and how much of it is due to his offensive line?
I touched on it briefly above, but it is difficult to evaluate Hack, given how much, especially early on, he was running for his life. But the drop-off even from early in the season to now is stunning: Against the likes of UCF, this was practically an air-raid offense--Hack was taking sacks, but he was also hanging in the pocket and throwing for 450 yards. Now, it seems like not only has he lost confidence in himself, but the coaching staff's lost all faith in him. Against Illinois last week, Penn State ran 47 times and threw it 15. Hack's a rhythm quarterback, who excels in up-tempo situations, and instead he's being treated like a freshman they're trying to protect. He's been making some bad decisions, and some worse throws--he's still not great moving around in the pocket, and needs to put his head down and scramble more--but this is still the future of the program we're talking about, and it's been incredible disheartening to see what this year has wrought upon him.
4. OK, enough negatives, let's take a look at the defense now. It's been great for Penn State. What's been the most important factor?
The defense is pretty spectacular, and it owes most of its success to Bob Shoop. The personnel is very solid, but it's been Shoop's almost unhinged aggressiveness that's been the key. Shoop reminds me of Rex Ryan, in the frequency and complexity of his blitzes--we've seen more pressures by defensive backs and interceptions by linemen this year than any in recent memory. Of course, it helps to have the kind of personnel Penn State does, led by a very veteran front four that's especially stout up the middle: Austin Johnson is a prototypical run-stuffing nosetackle while Anthony Zettel is an undersized but ridiculously athletic disruptive force. Mike Hull's burst out in his senior year to the point where he's almost undoubtedly the best linebacker in the conference. The secondary is more cromulent than dominant, but Jordan Lucas hasn't been beat much, and the safeties--senior Adrian Amos and true freshman Marcus Allen--are both comfortable attacking the line and in coverage. If there's a weakness to this group, it's that when the blitzes don't get home, there can tend to be space over the middle--Penn State's been beat more often this year by slot receivers and tight ends down the seam than by anything else. But it's going to be tough sledding, even for Langford, against the front seven.
5. The sanctions were lifted against Penn State this season. What's the mood around the program right now? How are Penn State fans anticipating their first bowl game in a few seasons?
This has been such an unbelievably schizophrenic year for Penn State, and Penn State fans, that it might take 1000 words to answer that question. Anyway, spirits have been, at times, incredibly high--the sanctions were removed following a 4-0 start that had some suggesting that Penn State was a darkhorse contender for the Big Ten. Then we started playing bad football against bad teams, with a final-seconds loss to Maryland bringing the frustration to a head. Rebounding against the likes of Temple and Indiana to gain bowl eligibility (and those crucial 15 practices) stopped the bleeding for a bit. But some scars reopened last week, with that loss to Illinois. Now, there's an embarrassingly large proportion of the fanbase that wants to fire James Franklin and the message boards are even derpier than usual. But if Penn State can even hang with Michigan State, it'll create some excitement and momentum heading into the bowl game. A blowout loss, and the bowl game will be considered a barely-useful appendange--nice for the players, but I'm not sure how much more Penn State football us fans will really want to see.
6. Lastly, law mandates that you give a prediction on what you think will happen in the game here.
Penn State has had a habit for pulling strong last-game performances out of their hat, and even this year, they've played up to opponents (though, to be fair, Ohio State's the only good team we've played). Penn State's best hope is to keep this a low-scoring game, and though I'm the biggest cheerleader Bob Shoop's got, Penn State hasn't faced a quarterback as comfortable in the pocket as Connor Cook all season. I think this one has a similar script to the Ohio State game: Michigan State goes up early, Penn State mounts a comeback as the defense finds its footing, but then Michigan State pulls away late. Let's call it 24-13.