For a team who shared in an extremely draining summer emotionally, the Penn St. Nittany Lions have risen to the challenge through the first six games of their 2012 season. With NCAA penalties allowing players to transfer and be immediately eligible to play elsewhere, the Nittany Lions lost a few key components to their team. The most notable of these was running back Silas Redd transferring to the USC Trojans. When the preseason speculation and analysis began, all of the penalties and transfers added up to the Nittany Lions beginning a long period of suffering on the football field this year. So far, it hasn’t quite happened.
The Nittany Lions are currently 4-2 and 2-0 in Big Ten play. That in itself may come as a surprise to many. And in many ways it should. This was a Nittany Lions team that showed itself to have a clear glass ceiling last season when they lost their final two conference games, games against their strongest conference competition, and lost them ugly. Redd ended up being one of the only standouts from last year’s team and his loss, to me, guaranteed that this season would be ugly for the Nittany Lions’ offense. Their defense has shown over the last two seasons which teams they play great defense against and which teams they don’t. Spoiler alert: there’s a vast difference in quality.
A real surprise to me has been the play of Nittany Lions quarterback Matthew McGloin. McGloin seems to have fully embraced the role of field general this season. Currently, McGloin has a 134.6 passer rating with twelve touchdowns and only two interceptions. He also has a completion percentage just above 60% and his accuracy has been getting better as the season has progressed.
But it’s not just through the air that McGloin has been contributing to the Nittany Lions’ success. Running the ball, McGloin has five touchdowns in the last three games; he has been a short yardage runner at best, but that seems to be the perfect time to have the man run. The quarterback is generally considered the leader of a team. In plenty of cases, especially in college football, it’s a player playing a different position that takes that leadership role. If there were any doubt whether McGloin was or wanted to be the leader of this football team, it’s been answered.
Going back to the Nittany Lions’ record, if you look at their two losses, in their first two games of the season, it’s seems to me that people (including myself) may have written off this team based on less evidence than would be needed with other teams.
In the season opener against the Ohio Bobcats, it was a second half collapse on offense that helped the Nittany Lions blow a 14-3 halftime lead. McGloin and the offense were stopped at every turn, punting twice, turning the ball over on downs, and just turning the ball over on their second half possessions. The defense did an admirable job, but couldn’t hold strong forever and gave up 21 points in the second half that gave the Bobcats the win. Currently, the Bobcats are still undefeated at 7-0.
The next week was even more heartbreaking as the Nittany Lions ventured on the road and lost to the Virginia Cavaliers. In this case, the defense played very well against an easier offense to defend against while the offense played good, but the problem was putting the ball in the hands of their sophomore kicker Sam Ficken.
Ficken had only attempted two field-goals in the 2011 season and didn’t attempt one the previous week against the Bobcats. Ficken made one, but missed four field-goals in the game. His misses came from 40, 38, 20, and 42 yards. Ficken had a miss in each quarter of the game, and the 42-yard kick was on the game’s final play and would have given the Nittany Lions the win instead of a 17-16 loss. The kick was positioned straight up, but Ficken hooked it left pretty badly.
Like last year, the toughest part of the Nittany Lions schedule comes at the end. With games left against the Iowa Hawkeyes (road game), Ohio St. Buckeyes, Purdue Boilermakers (road game), Nebraska Cornhuskers (road game), Indiana Hoosiers, and Wisconsin Badgers, it seems too likely that the bliss of performing well through the first half of the year will give way to another disappointing end.
Nevertheless, the fans and faithful in Happy Valley, as well as the players and coaches of the team, should be proud of what they’ve done thus far. For a team that was written off the moment the NCAA laid the hammer down earlier this summer, they haven’t played like a team that was written off. For a team that is ineligible for post-season play, they certainly have been playing as if they are. And that may be one of the most soothing things of all for a community in the midst of healing.