By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 4, 2011
On one side of the field is a coach who has been at his school more than 60 years. The uniforms are basic blue and white, something out of a Sears catalog for the pee-wee set. Thick natural grass coats the field while large blue-collar types lumber across it, looking to smash whatever is in their way.
On the other side of the field is a younger man with a more contemporary pedigree, especially in the field of defense, where his tactical brain has more or less set the standard in college defenses over the last decade. His players are faster, more lithe, more aggressive. But his team also takes more chances, which can lead to more mistakes.
This is Alabama-Penn State at its historical finest, Joe Paterno against Nick Saban, old-style school vs. old-style school. The Nittany Lions would very much like to make amends for last year’s disappointing performance in Tuscaloosa, a game in which Penn State never really felt competitive.
The condition of the field itself will come into play this week as well, if Happy Valley gets as much rain as is expected. The PSU field is a thick mixture of bluegrass and other varieties, and if it’s wet and thick, much of Alabama’s speed advantage will be cut.
Penn State’s offense may not be widely known anymore as the “Spread HD,” but that’s basically what it is. The Nittany Lion base set is a three-wide, one-back spread that looks to open up running lanes by spreading the defense out, although there are fullbacks on the roster and they do get carries when in the game. It’s a conservative philosophy at heart, in keeping with Paterno’s preferences. Like Alabama, Penn State is still auditioning quarterbacks, but has good depth at the running back position. Alabama counters with its multiple offense that is based mostly around two tight ends and a single running back. Look for Alabama to have a more equal run-pass mix ratio.
Rob Bolden had a turbulent 2010, throwing for 1,360 yards on 112-of-193 passing (58.0%) before being replaced by Matt McGloin. Bolden tried to transfer over the offseason but wasn’t granted a release by the PSU coaching staff. He responded by coming back to the team and winning the starting job, although McGloin (118-of-215, 54.9%, 1,548 yads, 14 TD, 9 INT) will continue to split time with him. Bolden is the more athletic of the two QBs, while McGloin is considered the better pure passer, but it’s not by much. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims, although many believe McCarron got some separation for himself as a result of his performance against Kent State. Both of Alabama’s quarterbacks have more pure skills than either Penn State quarterback, but lack in experience. With this being a road game in a hostile environment, take experience for now. Advantage: Penn State
Both teams have deep units with a lot of ability. Penn State’s Silas Redd had a good opening game against Indiana State, but wasn’t used much in 2010. Curtis Dukes and Brandon Beachum are the primary backups. All have good size, with Redd being the smallest runner at 5’10”, 210 pounds. Joe Suhey and Mike Zordich split time at fullback, and both are effective blockers, receivers and runners. Alabama counters with Trent Richardson at tailback, backed up by Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler. Lacy and Fowler were both impressive against Kent State. They are both relatively the size of Penn State’s Beachum. Richardson scored three times against Kent State, but rushed for less than 3 yards per carry and never got going. Assuming he plays to potential, though, he’ll be the best back on the field by a far shot. Alabama has no true fullback, although Fowler played some there against the Golden Flashes and H-backs Brad Smelley and Chris Underwood sometimes slide into that position. Blake Sims adds depth to the tailback position. Penn State has better depth, but most of the Nittany Lion tailbacks are untested against top competition. Richardson’s experience wins out. Advantage: Alabama
Penn State’s Derek Moye is the closest thing either team has to a Julio Jones-type player. Moye will be involved not only in the passing game, but also on end-arounds in the running game. He caught 53 passes for 885 yards (16.7 avg.) and 8 touchdowns in 2010 and had an impressive opening to his 2011 season as well. Most importantly, he’s 6’5” and more than 210 pounds, making him a matchup problem for most cornerbacks. Justin Brown and Shawney Kersey will start alongside, and both of them have good size as well. Depth is in decent shape with Brandon Moseby-Felder, Devon Smith and Ryan Scherer, along with Christian Kuntz. Andrew Szczerba and Kevin Haplea will split the tight end position. Alabama counters with Marquis Maze and DeAndrew White as its starting duo. Maze toasted Kent State for more than 100 yards receiving and more than 250 total yards of offense last week, but he’ll see a much better secondary this time around. White is playing in his second college game. Darius Hanks will sit out the game, so depth will have to come from Brandon Gibson, Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell. There’s a chance Duron Carter sees action this week, although he would be limited given how much camp time he missed prior to being admitted into school. Michael Bowman and Christion Jones are also available. Michael Williams will start at one tight end spot, with Brad Smelley as the H-back. Chris Underwood will back up both positions with help from Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones. In a comparison between both teams’ top players, Moye comes out ahead of Maze. Although Alabama probably wins the tight end battle, Penn State has superior depth at the other receiver slots. Advantage: Penn State
Alabama’s defense had little trouble with Penn State’s offensive line in 2010, and this year’s group isn’t much better. Tackles Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli are decent but not as quick as most SEC tackles. Johnnie Troutman started at left guard in 2010, but John Urschel may have the position now. Neither player is considered a difference-maker. The center and right guard slots are also of concern. Matt Stankiewitch will start at center with DeOn’tae Pannell next to him. This is a veteran group, but it was one that couldn’t handle quick defensive lines last year. Alabama’s line started out with a rough-around-the-edges performance against Kent State. Heading into this week, Alabama knows D.J. Fluker will start at right tackle and William Vlachos at center, but the other positions are up in the air. Barrett Jones will start somewhere, likely left tackle but possibly left guard. If he starts at tackle, Chance Warmack will start again at left guard and Anthony Steen at right guard. If Jones moves inside, Warmack and Steen will battle for the other guard slot along with Alfred McCullough, while Cyrus Kouandjio gets left tackle. Both teams still have questions, but Alabama has better ability, size and depth. Advantage: Alabama
Penn State employs a 4-3 scheme that has been around seemingly as long as Paterno has. Good against the pass in 2010, the Nittany Lions were just OK against the run. Graduation and injuries have affected the front seven, but every starter on this unit is an upperclassman. Getting a consistent pass rush was a challenge in 2010. Alabama counters with a 3-4 base defense led by one of the best linebacker groups and secondaries in college football. Like Penn State, Alabama’s question marks are at defensive line, where newcomers dot the two-deep. In general, Alabama is a lot faster on this side of the ball than Penn State, but Penn State gives away nothing in terms of size.
Presuming Jack Crawford is healthy, Penn State might actually have a pass rush. If he’s not, there is little hope for it. Crawford starts at end across from Eric Latimore, while Devon Still and Jordan Hill man the tackles. Depth is not an issue at tackle, as DaQuan Jones and James Terry give Penn State plenty of experience off the bench inside, while freshmen Luke Graham and Anthony Alosi add to it. At end, Sean Stanley is the only non-freshman available, however. C.J. Olaniyan and Kyle Baublitz will be asked to help carry the load. Alabama counters with Josh Chapman inside and Damion Square and Jesse Williams at end. Alabama’s rotation against Kent State suggested quite a bit of depth, as Quinton Dial and Undra Billingsley played well, along with Nick Gentry. Ed Stinson and Brandon Ivory are also available. Despite Penn State having a slight edge in terms of experience, Alabama seems to have better athletes and the potential to make more plays. Advantage: Alabama
Penn State has been known as “Linebacker U.” in recent years, but it’s Alabama that has the better linebackers this time. Penn State middle linebacker Michael Mauti is as good as any, but he can’t do it alone, and the other players at this position were disappointing in 2010. Mauti is the only returning starter. Gerald Hodges will start on the weakside while Glenn Carson gets the assignment on the strongside. Nate Stupar gives Penn State at least one experienced reserve, while sophomore Khari Fortt and freshman Mike Hull should also see time. Alabama counters with a strong inside combination of Dont’a Hightower and the Nico Johnson/C.J. Mosley duo, along with Jerrell Harris at strongside backer and Courtney Upshaw at Jack. This unit performed as expected against Kent State, routinely blowing up plays. Were it not for an interception returned inside Alabama’s 5-yard line, the Tide defense would probably have pitched a shutout. Depth is strong, with Alex Watkins and Adrian Hubbard outside and Trey DePriest and Chris Jordan inside. The real difference between the two teams is in the speed, as Alabama’s linebackers can all cover receivers. This one really isn’t very close. Advantage: Alabama
The undisputed strength of the Penn State defense is this group, which was tough in 2010 and returns mostly intact for 2011. The only new starter is at free safety, where senior Nick Sukay steps up into the position. Drew Astorino returns at strong safety, while D’Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris are back at cornerback. Chaz Powell is practically a starter himself at cornerback, and is physical. Mike Wallace and Derek Thomas add to the depth at corner, while Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong back up the safety slots. Alabama’s defensive backfield routed the Kent State offense Saturday, as expected, and is finally healthy after a frustrating 2010. Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner form a good combo at corner, while Mark Barron and Robert Lester supply the power at safety. Will Lowery will provide depth there along with Jarrick Williams, while Phelon Jones adds to the mix at cornerback. While Penn State’s secondary is very good at what it does, it’s just not quite up to the level of Alabama’s. Advantage: Alabama
Penn State has a complete mess at kicker and punter at the moment. Anthony Fera was supposed to be the starting punter and kickoff specialist, but was suspended prior to Indiana State for a team rule violation and all heck broke loose. Evan Lewis – who played at receiver in 2010 – missed two field goals and an extra point against ISU. Sam Ficken, a freshman, might have the placekicker’s job this week. Neither Ficken nor Lewis looked competent kicking off last week. Alex Butterworth will punt, but he has leg strength issues. No word yet on whether Fera will be back on the team this week. At least Penn State came out of Week 1 leading the nation in kickoff returns, mostly on the strength of a 97-yarder returned for a touchdown. Alabama counters with Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster at kicker and Cody Mandell at punter. Mandell had a solid start to his season against Kent State, while Shelley and Foster are proven commodities, even if Foster is a bit wild at times from long distance. Marquis Maze proved himself to be a competent kick and punt returner. Given the situation at kicker for Penn State, this one is an easy call. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Penn State in two. Quarterback and defensive back are fairly close, however.
As for line matchups, Alabama should lead both. They absolutely lead in a battle of Bama DL vs. Penn State OL. The opposite should also be true, but most expected Alabama’s line to play better against Kent State and it didn’t happen. Once Alabama figures out where Barrett Jones will eventually play, this should calm itself down.
The weather could be the biggest factor. A lot depends on where Hurricane Katia ends up or where the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee eventually land. A rainy track would negate a lot of Alabama’s advantages, especially if Penn State allows the grass to thicken.
If that doesn’t happen, however, look for Alabama’s speed to be too much. Alabama will need to keep Derek Moye reasonably under control and, most of all, keep turnovers to a minimum. If that happens, Look for a close game but one the Tide should control the pace of throughout.
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