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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 10, 2011
It was probably the last time Alabama will see Joe Paterno on an opposing sideline; it was fitting that Alabama gave Paterno a send-off worthy of the old-school, smashmouth style of football represented in the two teams’ distinctly not-modern-at-all uniforms.
Paterno was allowed to exorcise at least some of the demons that haunted him following the Tide’s Sugar Bowl goal-line stand of 30 years ago when the Tide couldn’t keep the Nittany Lions out of the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Paterno, the touchdown his team scored wasn’t the difference in the game, or anything close to it.
For the second week in a row, Alabama gave sportswriters little to write about. Again the Tide played from a script sent down by central casting: Control both lines of scrimmage, run the football and beat Penn State through a combination of superior depth and blazing speed.
And despite Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s disapproval of the late touchdown allowed – and there will be disapproval, count on it – for the second week in a row, Alabama’s defense wasn’t legitimately threatened.
Part of this is Penn State’s fault. A debate rages as to the actual degree of coaching the Nittany Lions still receive from Paterno, but it’s also clear that Paterno isn’t as active – or at least, isn’t as effective – on the recruiting trail. This is not the Penn State team of 1979, or even 1989. This was a Nittany Lion team with one-and-a-half offensive playmakers (WR Derek Moye, and the “half” being emerging RB Silas Redd) and no quarterback. Transplant either Rob Bolden or Matt McGloin into the SEC, and outside of Kentucky, Vanderbilt and maybe Ole Miss, neither player starts. Bolden at least gets praise for standing in against Alabama’s pass-rush pressure.
No, this is a different kind of Penn State team, a ho-hum, middle-of-the-road, solid-but-unspectacular outfit that is as blue-collar as the uniforms the Nittany Lions wore. In the SEC, this team would probably make a bowl game, but not much more than that. One of the team’s popular cheers might be “We are … Penn State,” but this really isn’t the Penn State most Alabama fans grew to respect.
This is, however, one of those Alabama teams. The defense was stifling. Linebackers swarmed, defensive backs blew up plays big and small, and the defensive line did its job well enough that Penn State was never able to establish anything that worked on a consistent basis. Offensively, Alabama ran the ball effectively with two different running backs and the offensive line, which was a sore spot against Kent State, played much better against a defensive line of similar quality.
The quarterback rotation – which will surely be back in some form next week, as Alabama hosts woeful North Texas – appears to be done as far as key games go. The coaches could do a 180 on their decision at any time, of course, but the fact that A.J. McCarron played with the poise of a veteran for the second straight week will make any decision to cut his playing time a difficult one, not to mention a decision difficult to defend with logic.
Alabama covered kicks well, and with DeAndrew White shut out of the passing game and Marquis Maze hampered by playing against one of the few parts of this Penn State team that was vintage PSU – the Nittany Lions’ defensive backfield – Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell and tight end Michael Williams emerged as reliable receiving threats.
The middle of the Tide offensive line still had a few “Ole’!” moments, but settled down considerably from the opener. To be honest, Penn State could have benefited from having a couple of Kent State’s interior linemen playing in Happy Valley today, but such things aren’t possible.
The experience of playing in Happy Valley, though, cannot be understated. As Bryant-Denny Stadium is a cathedral of Southern football, so is Penn State’s home among Northern sites. Alabama’s players might not fully appreciate it now, but in 10 years, having played against a Joe Paterno-coached team in Pennsylvania will have significant meaning.
Unfortunately for Penn State, those days will soon be days gone by, as Paterno surely does not have a long tenure still left ahead of him. And in some ways, things might get better once the inevitable happens. The Nittany Lions’ playcalling looked too rooted in the 1970s or 1980s, the fullback employed far too often against a defense much too quick to be damaged by it, and an atmosphere too defined by the echoes of the past to find its own voice in the present.
Alabama’s next opponent figures to offer little resistance; the coaches might try hard to keep Arkansas off the players’ minds, but they won’t succeed. To some extent, this is a good thing, as Alabama must continue to get better so as to be at its highest zenith when LSU comes calling later in the year. For now, Alabama can enjoy the feeling that comes with marked improvement from its first game to its second.
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