Saturday, November 28, 2009

What If the BCS Considered Graduation Rates in Bowl Selections?

Move over, Florida. Alabama is now #1, you’re #2. Sorry, Texas, Cincinnati and TCU are now ranked ahead of you and closer to a national championship pick. Sorry Iowa. Penn State is the best team for a BCS bowl. Why? As part of the BCS ranking formula, I gave some consideration in the final bowl selection picks to the NCAA reported graduation rates of college football players.

The NCAA report just came out, and a few days ago Tony Mancuso of Official Sports Reports published an article of how the AP Top 25 would stand in the graduation rankings. To see that article, click on the link on the right side of my blog (if you’re reading this in the CDT, go to the blog roll, click on see this blog with pictures then click on the link to the right). You will need to subscribe. But it’s free, and the reporting is quite good. The listings of the NCAA graduation success rates and federal graduation rates, and the rankings, can be found in an article published this week. Or you can go to and look at the graduation data for each school yourself.

So I thought I would take Tony Mancuso’s listings one step further and see what difference graduation rates would make in the overall BCS rankings. I made an adjustment to the BCS standing based on the difference between each school’s graduation rate and the average for the FBS subdvision. I looked at both the Graduation Success Rate (which tracks football players receiving financial support) and the federal graduation rate (which looks at all football players). Then I averaged the two differences.

So, for example, Alabama’s GSR is 67%, 0% difference from the FBS average of 67%. Their Federal Graduation Rate is 75%, 20 percentage points above the FBS average of 55%. I averaged those two percentages and came out with an adjustment of 10%. So I adjusted the Overall BCS Standing for Alabama by 10%. Whereas Texas’s GSR is 49%, 18 percentage points below the FBS average of 67%. And its Federal Graduation Rate is 48%, 7 percentage points below the FBS average of 55%. The mean is -13%, so I adjusted their BCS standings accordingly. I did these for all 25 teams included in the BCS standings.

What’s the new order?

RANK Team Revised BCS Points
1 Alabama 1.05754
2 Florida 0.985728
3 Cincinnati 0.8977595
4 TCU 0.895997
5 Texas 0.8105125
6 Ohio State 0.6946995
7 Boise State 0.693309
8 Pittsburgh 0.687033
9 Penn State 0.628992
10 Georgia Tech 0.597212
11 Oregon 0.584988
12 Iowa 0.5743275
13 Oklahoma State 0.500565
14 Virginia Tech 0.48667
15 LSU 0.352225
16 Miami (FL) 0.316578
17 Clemson 0.2828325
18 Oregon State 0.27789
19 USC 0.2498385
20 Brigham Young 0.238693
21 Utah 0.2247115
22 California 0.2165145
23 North Carolina 0.1623375
24 Houston 0.134412
25 Mississippi 0.08484

Looking at this order, the national championship picture would be very different. Cincinnati or TCU would be ahead of Texas to play Alabama or Florida. Penn State would be ahead of Iowa –a cool reward to Penn State achieving the #1 spot – the highest graduation rates among the BCS ranked teams. Georgia Tech would lose two spots in BCS rankings because their graduation rates are ranked #23 and #25 among the top 25 BCS teams.

Of course I’m sure there will be folks who will point out the flaws in such a reward system. Perhaps one of the NCAA graduation rates should be rated more than the other. Perhaps schools like Georgia Tech and Texas have tougher academic standards than other schools. Perhaps there should be a fine-tuning that also compares the football players’ graduation rates with the overall graduation rates of the school.

There are also anomalies in graduation rates. For example if a highly ranked football player (for example at Texas) decides to declare for the NFL draft early because they are projected to go in the 1st round rather than stay in college to finish their degree, the school takes a hit on their graduation rate. But who can blame the athlete for choosing not to stay in school when an injury could cause them to lose millions of dollars the following year?

Adding a graduation rate measure makes no less sense than some of the computer-based rankings that are a part of the BCS, and may make more sense. It at least gives some acknowledgment that academics matter in this increasingly commercial college football bowl scene.

What do you think?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Waiting Game for Bowls Is Full of Suspense

We are all waiting for the decision on which bowl Penn State will go to. The two most discussed are the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, and the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Florida. There is also a chance that we could wind up in the Fiesta Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, or even the Outback Bowl, depending on what happens in games this weekend and next, and how the BCS deals with the at-large berths.

Of course, the Orange Bowl is the preferred choice for Penn State, and Orange Bowl representatives were present at Michigan State observing the game and, from what I understand, singing Penn State’s praises. It’s a BCS bowl, and Penn State’s basic argument is that we finished strong with the same 10-2 record as Iowa, we have a legendary coach who will not be around forever, the last game played at the Orange Bowl was one of the best in bowl history (and also the longest!), and Penn Staters will show up in abundance and spend lots of money to bolster the economy. Especially in this economy, the Orange Bowl may go for a sure bet with Penn State, rather than take chances on Iowa, which is further away, even though the Iowa fans also have a great history of traveling well and spending lots of money.

In fact, Iowa has asked that people order tickets for the bowl game BEFORE the bowl announcements are made – by December 4. My guess is that Iowa wants to prove that their fans will be there - for whatever BCS bowl that they are selected for. I don’t blame them for wanting to make their case.

Personally I believe that Iowa deserves a BCS bowl more than Penn State does. We have the same 10-2 record, but they beat us head-to-head and are ranked ahead of us in the Big Ten and in the BCS. Also, when you consider each of our games against Ohio State, Iowa gave OSU all they could handle even though they were playing under the leadership of a backup quarterback – moving the game into overtime before losing. Penn State lost every aspect of the game against Ohio State. We were solidly beaten.

On the other hand, Penn State could argue that we’re a better team now than when we played Iowa at the end of September. Plus, we won every game on the road. At the end of the season, Penn State’s win against Michigan State was more impressive than Iowa’s win against Minnesota, at least in terms of the score. I haven’t watched the Iowa-Minnesota game, so I don’t know how the game was played. Plus, there’s nothing about the BCS that’s inherently fair. It’s about TV ratings and the best chance to have an economically winning event.

So I’ll much prefer the Orange Bowl if it’s offered to us, even though I believe it’s unfair to Iowa, or possibly other at-large candidates. Or the Fiesta Bowl, which is really our first choice for a bowl game. The Sugar Bowl will be fun, I love New Orleans and have never been to a Sugar Bowl (Terry has), but we will have to miss a wedding. The Capitol One Bowl will be decent – we love Disney and haven’t been there for a while. The one bowl I personally wish to avoid is the Outback Bowl. It’s actually a very decent bowl, one of our favorites, but I would prefer not to have to go to Tampa, Florida.

For most of our marriage, our holiday plans have evolved around bowl games. There were three locations that were particularly important for us. The first preferred location was California for the Rose Bowl (because that meant the Big Ten championship) or Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl. Terry’s son Bob and his family live in Arizona, and we also have very good friends near Phoenix.

So if we headed out west, we looked forward to holidays with family, especially our grandchildren Miranda and Mike, and our friends Janet and Herb. Last year also, my sister and her husband from Boston joined us for the Rose Bowl, and we also had a reunion with our nephew and his family who live in Los Angeles. It was a great deal of fun to convert my family to Penn State fans!

So for this year, being with family in Arizona is a reason for rooting for the Fiesta Bowl. It’s always fun to open presents with grandchildren! Even if it’s after the New Year!

My mother lived in Florida, near Clearwater, outside of Tampa, for over two decades. So any time Penn State was in the running for a Florida bowl it was always exciting for her. She always wanted Penn State to win their games (but not too many games) so we could spend the holidays with her. During the football season she would send me any articles from the St. Petersburg Times that discussed the Joe Paterno-Bobby Bowden rivalry. And she would watch every game she could get on TV and call us after every game and congratulate or console us.

Whenever Penn State was chosen for any Florida bowl, she was so delighted when I would call her and tell her we were coming. But if we were destined elsewhere, she nevertheless said she was very happy for us, even though we knew she was disappointed. She was a wonderful mom, and always wanted the best for us.

We spent many a Christmas, or New Year’s, or both, with her when Penn State was playing anywhere in Florida - in Tampa, or Orlando, or even Miami. A stop in Tampa was always part of those trips. But beginning in November of 2007, she started having serious health problems, and she died, ironically enough, on Mother’s Day in 2008. I guess she wanted to make sure we never forgot her! She was 89 years old, and for all but the last seven months of her life, she had a very good life. We miss her tremendously.

After spending some time in Florida managing her affairs after her death, we have not yet returned to Florida. And I’m truly not sure how I would handle it if we wound up in Tampa this year. Miami or Orlando will be difficult enough because there are associations with visiting her – but they’re different environments and far enough away.

But Tampa is so strongly associated with my mother. All the places we’ve stayed in that area, the things we’ve come to know and love about the Tampa Bay area, are associated with her presence.

So we will have a decision to make. Do we confront those memories of my mother head on by staying at our favorite places in the Clearwater area, near where she used to live, or do we try to make the trip very different from the past – away from our favorite hotels, restaurants, and beaches where we shared so many precious moments with my mom? I guess you can tell from my writing that I haven’t finished grieving her loss. And frankly I just hope that we avoid the Outback Bowl for now. I’m not sure I’m ready to go back quite yet.

Our third favorite destination is the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio Texas. That’s not even a consideration for Penn State this year. But my best friend Jeanne from high school lives there. So for the two Alamo Bowl appearances, we’ve enjoyed Christmas with her, treating her and her boys to the bowl game, and a wonderful time overall on the Riverwalk. It’s a great bowl game, and I’m sorry to see that the Big Ten connection will not be as strong as in the past.

Another complication with this year’s bowl choice is a wedding we’ve been invited to that will occur on New Year’s Eve this year in State College. It’s a black tie affair at the Nittany Lion Inn. We have a lot of affection for the bride, because as a teenager she took good care of our cats for many years while we traveled to Penn State games and elsewhere. Her father, our good friend and next-door neighbor, has told us that it will be the event of the year in State College. We do believe that is true! We hate to miss the celebration.

So, having said all that, our preferences are as follows:

1. Fiesta bowl January 4– we will see family and friends near the holidays AND we can go to the New Year’s Eve wedding in State College
2. Orange bowl January 5– Miami is warm and nice and it’s a BCS bowl after all AND we can go to the New Year’s Eve wedding in State College. PLUS a regular respondent to this blog has promised us that he will treat us to the best Mojito in Miami!
3. Sugar bowl January 1– it’s a BCS bowl and I have never been to a Sugar Bowl, and we love New Orleans, but we will have to miss the wedding
4. Capitol One Bowl January 1– Disney is always fun, but we will have to miss the wedding. But we still hope to share cocktails with the blog respondent mentioned above!
5. Outback Bowl January 1– Tampa/Clearwater area is always nice as well, but we will have to miss the wedding. And am not sure how I will handle such strong memories of my mother, whose presence was so important for so many years.

Wow! Is this complicated or what? Such is the life of Penn State fans that go to EVERY game and have to wait to know their fate for the holidays! Wherever Penn State goes, however, we will be there.

We will know on December 6 and then we can make some plans. We just hope that it’s not too late to rent a tuxedo in State College. And if anyone has two seats on a private plane from State College heading toward a bowl early on January 1, please let us know!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Will Penn State Season Ticket Holders STEP into the Future?

Penn State Athletics calls it the Seat Transfer and Equity Plan, or STEP.

The basic idea of STEP is to require a donation to the Nittany Lion Club based on the location of the seats in the stadium. Seats on the 50 yard line will cost more than seats on the 10 yard line or the end zone, for example.

There will also be a move of the entire student section to the South End Zone, and the installation of ADA seating in certain locations in the stadium. So some current season ticket holders will be forced out of their seats as a result and asked to select new seat preferences. The east stands will also have a lot of seats open up as a result of this student section move, and the propensity of students to stand throughout the game won't disrupt their view of the south end zone, which is the case right now.

There is also a transfer option where a season ticket holder can transfer current seats to a family member or any other individual (not a business). There will be a one-time transfer donation associated with each seat. That transfer donation also depends on the location in the stadium, and for any of the seats, it's quite expensive. The person to whom the tickets will be transferred will also be required to make annual Nittany Lion Club donations on the proposed per seat basis and agree to the new plan.

The plan can be found at the following url:

If you are a current Nittany Lion Club member who purchases Penn State season tickets, the plan is also being sent to your home. You will need to read this carefully and make some decisions based on your individual situation, paying careful attention to the time-lines.

At least Penn State is giving everyone time to think about it. It's a lot to absorb. You may want to have a lawyer sitting beside you when you read the plan! It's quite dense with some legal language included.

How severe the impact is depends on where a person's season tickets are currently located. For example, if I had four seats on the fifty-yard line, and had been paying only a minimum donation for those four seats for years (in 2010 it would be $400), then I will be facing a very steep price increase. I would have to donate $2400 per year to retain those four seats. I may as well donate $2500 per year and get a reserved parking space. And if I can't afford that and want to transfer those tickets to someone else, there will be a huge one-time donation for that transfer.

Or I can request a move to another section of the stadium where the donation level isn't as high. But I will have to wait in line behind the folks who want to keep their seats, the folks who are being displaced, and the folks who want to upgrade their tickets, in order to do so. And then the order of choosing those seats within those priority groupings will depend on my overall donation points.

We are lucky enough to have four seats in WBU, on about the 10-yard line, which in the new plan is in the blue zone (same as the end zone) and requires a seat donation of $100 per seat, no change from the minimum donation $400 required for 2010 for access to four tickets. They are great seats, (you can see the view in my banner at the top of this blog) and thankfully it looks like we will be able to keep them. One of the reasons we like those seats is that they are next to the railing that divides WBU and WCU. Nobody climbs over us to get in and out of the seats.

But our friends who have held seats next to us for nearly 30 years, who are on the other side of the railing in WCU and have only a slightly better view, between the 10- and 15-yard line, will have to pay $400 per ticket at a minimum to retain those seats. The donation for these friends will be at a minimum $1600.

I suppose there has to be a cutoff somewhere, but the value difference seems to be exacerbated in this situation. $400 per seat for only a slightly better change in view?

The idea of people paying more for better seats isn't necessarily a bad plan. It makes good business sense for an athletics department that is self-sufficient and has only two revenue-producing sports: football and men's basketball, and needs to support 27 other non-revenue-producing sports. The financial explanations on the web-site, though, are a bit vague. Some more transparency on the financial pressures that Penn State Athletics is facing would be helpful.

Also, Penn State merely refers us to the web-sites of other schools to show the trends. A comparison chart would have been very helpful to get some of us up to the reality of what's happening elsewhere.

It was inevitable that a plan like this would be proposed. The advent of legalized on-line scalping in Pennsylvania can be blamed for that. Penn State and the rest of us began to see how much the tickets between the 25-yard line are really worth, and how many of those tickets are for sale every week by season ticket holders. The brutal reality is that a lot of season ticket holders scalp many of their tickets to help pay for their donation or even make a profit, and attend only a few games each year.

I just wonder if Penn State went a bit too far as to where they drew the line in the sand on where the price increase per seat occurs. Especially in this economy.

And finally I also wonder what the value will be for this price increase in the form of better competition on the field at Beaver Stadium.

Penn State, give us something in exchange for this new plan! Promise us you'll give up an eighth home game to schedule a "home and home" with a non-conference team that's more competitive than Eastern Illinois. We understand that the seventh home game in a 12-game season is a real need to bring in revenues.

But an eighth home game? There's a limit to fans' willingness to put up with games that are not competitive, especially at these increased prices. And it does nothing to improve our BCS standings, either.

Will Penn State season ticket holders STEP into the future? The willingness of Penn State fans to renew their 2010 season tickets will be a strong indication of how much resistance there will be.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Four Road Wins Define A Great Season

Beating Michigan State was the most satisfying road win of all the away games this season. Especially the way we did it. We didn’t just squeak by and steal a win on the road. We beat them resoundingly. In a very solid second half performance. I wasn’t even bothered by the slow first half start because of the way the game was played.

The first half was primarily a defensive battle and a game of field position. It was played in the trenches, with the defense of each team stopping and containing each offense. We had expected a tight game, so a score of 7-7 at the half was not too bothersome.

About the only play that bothered us was Collin Wagner’s missed 38-yard field goal with 5:54 remaining. We were concerned that special teams might turn out to be the difference in this game. But our defense held Michigan State to a 3-and-out, and on our next possession we scored a touchdown, with 2:10 left in the half. Michigan State’s two-minute drill worked perfectly – an 8 play, 87-yard drive that resulted in their first touchdown. That drive reminded us that Michigan State has a potent offense. But it also confirmed to us the excellent job our defense had done of containing Michigan State’s offense to 7 points during the first half.

So as the team went into the half-time period with a tie score, we felt relatively okay, although certainly not comfortable. Penn State had made no major mistakes. It was simply a hard-fought game on both sides. This game was going to go to the team that made the best second-half adjustments, and we were hopeful that Penn State would succeed in that regard.

We were also in a very good mood. How could we not be? We were sitting in the nosebleed section of the stands – 7 long steep ramps to get up there – in light fleece jackets on November 21 in East Lansing. Our winter jackets were under our seats, and we would need them once the sun set, but it had been a delightfully mild and sunny day. There was no wind-chill to lower the 55-degree temperature. It was a perfect fall football day, and the Michigan State tailgating atmosphere was at its absolute best. It was certainly the best weather we had ever experienced at Michigan State. And the Michigan State fans were downright friendly toward us. We even crashed one of their tailgates when we observed the “Big Uglies” there doing the same. We were positively welcomed, and the good sportsmanship of Michigan State fans at that tailgate and elsewhere was truly appreciated.

The third quarter, of course, defined this football game. With Penn State scoring 28 points, the game turned into a rout. Clark’s trick pass play to Curtis Drake who then completed a touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless was a pleasure to watch! Two of the touchdowns were a result of interceptions by Nick Sukay and Sean Lee, leaving Penn State with a short field in both cases. Both the offense and the defense poured it on. Darryl Clark was perfect in passing during the second half. The rushing game also helped open up the passing. Evan Royster achieved yet another 100+ yards rushing (114 total). Overall Penn State rushed for 188 yards. Darryl Clark completed 19 of 27 attempts for 324 yards. We also had a chance to see the future. Kevin Newsome received some playing time, showing his exceptional running ability on the last touchdown drive.

Special teams turned out to not be a factor in the game. Except for this: the special teams did what they had to do. Due to the excellent directional punting of Jeremy Boone and a couple of Collin Wagner kicks that resulted in touchbacks, Michigan State’s dangerous punt and kick returner Keshawn Martin was neutralized. Martin’s longest kick return was 25 yards, on the opening kick of the game. His longest punt return was 1 yard! Michigan State’s longest kick return was 34 yards, by A.J. Zimmerman. Penn State’s speedy Stephon Green returned two kickoffs by Michigan State: one for 26 yards, and the other for 37 yards. So that was a tremendous improvement.

The travel this year has been always satisfying in the end. Why? We won every game on the road. When was the last time we did that? 1994! The last time we had an undefeated season. And because of those road wins, we’re 6-2 in the Big Ten, and 10-2 overall.

Many kudos to the Penn State road warriors who made this happen! It’s tough to win on the road in a Big Ten venue, and you did it in grand style each time. You came home bearing your shields. It’s so much better than coming home on your shields. Made all those layovers at Detroit airport worthwhile!

Congratulations on a great 10-2 season!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Buzz at Penn State Needs to Focus on Michigan State

The buzz in the corridors at Smeal College is all about which bowl Penn State will play in and major changes proposed for Beaver Stadium seating and ticket access in 2011. Hardly a word about the Spartans! It almost seems like everyone thinks we will of course win against a 6-5 team. Think again. With a 4-8 record at Spartan Stadium, a win there is hardly a guarantee. The Spartans are a better team than their record indicates. And after last Saturday’s sloppy start against Indiana, we have to fix some weaknesses in order to win.

It is sort of fun to speculate how Penn State might indeed qualify for a BCS bowl, if a little luck gets thrown our way. People are talking about who needs to lose in order for us to get to Glendale, New Orleans, or Miami. Everyone is hoping that Iowa will lose to Minnesota, and many of us will become Michigan fans this weekend. But I refuse to get into this discussion. I just keep telling people, “Hey - we need to win on Saturday. Period. I can’t worry about anything else.”

Then there’s the buzz about major changes to Beaver Stadium seating – moving the students to the South End Zone that appeared in full color on the front page of the Daily Collegian this week – and news reports from the Harrisburg Patriot News and the Daily Collegian that suggests that the level of donation to the Nittany Lion Club required in 2011 to acquire Penn State football tickets will be increased significantly, if not dramatically, depending on the location of your seats in the stadium.

This one is hard not to get engaged in. The students in my classes don’t like the fact that seniors would not get to sit on the 40-yard line, although they personally will be graduated before this happens. They seem to resent the fact that alumni will get priority over students for those prime seats. Until I remind them that they will be alumni themselves and might be able to buy seats there. But still, they don’t think it’s fair to future seniors.

The season ticket holders I know at Smeal College – many of whom have faculty/staff tickets and are usually only minor contributors to the Nittany Lion Club – are wondering how Penn State will accommodate this perceived benefit to employment and faculty recruitment at Penn State.

Then there are friends from out of town who participate in a pooled Nittany Lion Club membership with great seats who will probably be severely impacted by what appears to be a sharp increase in donations if the Patriot News report is true.

Terry and I wonder also what the impact will be for us. We already donate at the Honorary Coach level, so we’re not as concerned about the direct impact on our wallet. But we are VERY concerned about how all this will be implemented, especially since some of our tickets are in the proposed new student section. In addition there is a glaring inequity on parking for Honorary Coaches depending on when you started donating at that level. A fix is definitely needed for that.

Penn State Athletics needs to give us the fine print, tell us how they will manage this transition, and who we need to talk to, and then we’ll react. Right now I don’t have enough information to deal with it.

It’s also very mystifying to me how such communications could just be, sort of, “leaked” to the press first before the season ends rather than officially announced in a more coordinated manner by Penn State. Unless, of course, it’s a purposeful leak – a trial balloon of sorts - in order to gauge reaction. In any case, I’m sure the phones at the Nittany Lion Club and the Athletic Ticket Office are ringing off the hook this week with all sorts of questions based on partial information. Perhaps also phones are ringing elsewhere – at the Football office and the President’s office.

Do they really need this distraction when the season isn’t over? Coach Joe Paterno sure didn’t appreciate it in the press conference on Tuesday. He knew broadly about the plan, but if he knew the details he wasn’t about to get into it. He thought an announcement would be made after the football season was over.

Again, we have a game to play on Saturday! Against a tough football team with a 6-5 record that lost to Central Michigan by two points, to Notre Dame by three points, and to Iowa by two points. They are only 7 points from having the same 9-2 record as we do! Our overall record against Michigan State is 13-12-1.

We’re battling for the annual Land Grand Trophy, and Michigan State takes this rivalry seriously, as we should as well. Michigan State wants to even the score to 13-13-1 after an embarrassing 49-18 loss at Beaver Stadium last year, the game that clinched the Big Ten Championship for us. Penn State does not want to repeat the disastrous appearance it last had at Spartan Stadium when we had a 24-7 early lead in the game, but we couldn’t prevent Michigan State from scoring and wound up losing the game in 35-31. It was a heart-breaking loss, and kept Penn State out of a New Year’s Day Bowl (although the Alamo Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize! It’s one of our favorite bowl venues).

Both teams are playing for the best bowl bid possible this year. Michigan State is already bowl-eligible, but they will probably want to avoid the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl down the road in Detroit. They will play hard in order to get to Tempe or Orlando or possibly even San Antonio. Can’t blame them for that. We should be hungrier, with an outside chance at a BCS bowl in our grasp. Will our hunger allow us to be victorious? No. A solid four quarters of play will be necessary.

So on to East Lansing on our usual 6:15 a.m. flight for a tough battle.

Go Nittany Lions! Beat the Spartans!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

First Half Mistakes, Second Half Triumphs: A Sloppy 31-20 Win

As Indiana led 10-0 at the end of the first quarter, we were beginning to wonder if the Penn State team had given up on the season. Perhaps the loss to Ohio State was such a deflation that they just couldn’t get excited about this game. Or perhaps all the criticisms by fans after last week’s loss had gotten to them.

Perhaps the emptiest student section of the season was also discouraging – it was certainly embarrassing for Senior Day. Only the senior section was nearly full at the start of the game. This was their last home game, and the seniors were going to be there for Senior Day. My camera recorded that the student section never was full. With about 10 minutes remaining in the first half, it was only nearly full.

Perhaps the offense and special teams were also just trying too hard to make things happen. They took the brunt of last week’s loss. When a team tries too hard, mistakes happen. And we made plenty of mistakes.

Indiana’s first drive was a mistake-free series of run and pass plays that took five minutes off the clock. But our defense tightened up in the red zone and held them to a field goal. Their second drive was the result of a badly thrown pass by Darryl Clark, intercepted by Indiana’s Matt Mayberry. So they had a short field for their first touchdown, starting at the Penn State 43 yard line. 6 plays later, the score is 10-0.

On Penn State’s next possession, Darryl Clark leads the team 56 yards down the field only to throw another interception, this time caught by Indiana’s Nick Polk. Then Indiana goes three and out. Punts the ball. Drew Astorino returns the ball 4 yards but Indiana’s Chris Hagerup forces a fumble and Indiana recovers it.

Each team has a possession that stalls. Then Penn State gets a break when an Indiana player interferes with a punt, causing Penn State to take over at the PSU 39 yard line. 8 plays and 45 yards later, Penn State is able to make a field goal. Indiana's defense stopped us in the red zone. The score is now 10-3.

Indiana goes 3 and out. They punt it 38 yards to Graham Zug, who fumbles the ball. Indiana’s Trea Burgess recovers it on the PSU 29 yard line. But Indiana’s touchdown drive stalls, and the defense holds them to a 47-yard field goal attempt. Nick Freeland misses it.

The score is still 10-3 with 59 seconds left in the second half. Penn State has thrown two interceptions and lost two fumbles.

This has been a very ugly half of football. We are thinking at this point that we’re lucky to be down by only 7 points. That what Darryl Clark should do is end the half quickly, take two knees, go to the locker room, and talk it over. That the last thing we can afford is another mistake creating another opportunity for Indiana to score.

But the Penn State offense had other ideas. After two incomplete passes, Clark completes an 18-yard pass to Brett Brackett. We’re on the 48-yard line. Then backup freshman running back Curtis Drake scrambles for 26 yards to the Indiana 26. Add on a face-mask penalty by Indiana and we’re at the Indiana 13 yard-line.

Darryl Clark throws a touchdown pass to Evan Royster. The score is now 10-10 with 6 seconds left in the half.

Wow. What a strange half of football, probably the strangest we’ve ever seen. A miserable performance by Penn State's offense and special teams, but the score is tied. We had four turnovers but the game is even. How can that be?

Credit the defense. They were the only bright spot in the first half. Linebackers Sean Lee and Navarro Bowman in particular. They made a lot of stops. The defense made sure that Indiana couldn’t capitalize on all our mistakes. Credit also that critical face-mask penalty at the end of the second half. Without that mistake, Penn State’s touchdown drive might have stalled. We were running out of time.

Penn State had won the toss, so had the first possession of the second half. And it started out in a shaky way. Jerome Hayes returned the kickoff 35 yards to the PSU 45-yard line, but Indiana’s Matt Ernest forced a fumble. Fortunately this one was recovered by Penn State! Whew. We got lucky.

A ten-play, 38 yard drive wound up in a missed field goal. Now Terry and I were upset. Indiana was able to stop us in the red zone on our first drive of the second half, and we were still making mistakes. Not good.

Credit the defense again. On Indiana’s next possession, they drove to the Penn State 28-yard line. Ben Chappell throws a pass that is intercepted by Navorro Bowman, who runs 73 yards for a Penn State touchdown. It was certainly the play of the day! And with 6:50 remaining in the 3rd quarter, Penn State is finally ahead, 17-10.

The defense holds Indiana to a 3-and-out. Then the Penn State offense finally gets into a rhythm. Darryl Clark leads the offense on a 14-play, 73-yard drive for another touchdown. Indiana then has a 12-play, 54-yard drive but is held by our defense to a field goal. The score, with 10:37 left in the fourth quarter, is 24-13.

Penn State completes another long touchdown drive, the score is 31-13 with 4:08 to go in the game. Indiana manages one more touchdown before the game is over, with a final score of 31-20.

The Penn State-Indiana game was in some ways typical of our season. This Penn State team has found a way to win nine times. We’ve lost only twice. But against Big Ten competition, especially, our wins have been at times sloppy if not downright ugly wins.

Next week against Michigan State, Penn State can’t afford to be sloppy or ugly. Spartan Stadium is a tough environment on a chilly November late afternoon. Michigan State is now bowl-eligible and will be playing for the best spot they can get. Penn State will be as well.

Penn State has to play a solid four quarters. We can’t rely on a series of big plays in the second half to pull out the game. The offense can't afford again to wait until the middle of the third quarter to get its act together. It’s time for Penn State to play a solid first half and show from the beginning what the offense is capable of doing. And then not have a let down in the second half. It's November. Mistakes should be minimal. We need to execute consistently to win next week's game. Michigan State has a lot of stake in this game, and so do we.

Of course, even if it's an ugly win, I'll take it!

Go Penn State! Beat the Spartans!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

With a 37-13 Record So Far, Thank You Seniors For Your Commitment

Imagine this. You are a talented football player. Penn State is coming off a 3-9 season in 2003 and a 4-7 season in 2004. You have other options, other scholarships to other programs with much better records. But you believe (as did many others who graduated last year) that you can help turn the program around. You believe in Penn State and Coach Joe Paterno. So you decide to take a chance on a team that had a losing record 4 out of 5 seasons. That couldn't win on the road. That was hanging around at the bottom of the Big Ten league.

The following seniors made such a commitment to Penn State in early 2005 and started their freshman year at Penn State in the Fall of 2005: Jeremy Boone (punter), Darryl Clark (quarterback), Jerome Hayes (defensive end), Josh Hull (linebacker), Dennis Landolt (tackle), Sean Lee (linebacker), Patrick Mauti (wide receiver), Andrew Pitz (kicker), Mickey Shuler (tight end), Brennan Coakley (tight end), and Knowledge Timmons (cornerback).

Of these seniors, only one player – Sean Lee – saw action in the 2005 football season. The rest were redshirted. But they came here. They took a chance. Thank you so much for choosing Penn State when we were down!

Thank you also to the following graduating seniors who joined Penn State in 2006 as freshmen or who transferred into Penn State in 2007: Tom Golarz (defensive tackle), Nerraw McCormack (tackle), Shelton McCullough (cornerback), Jared Odrick (defensive tackle), Ako Poti (tackle), Andrew Quarless (tight end), and A. J. Wallace (cornerback).

Most of them are familiar names. Many of them saw significant playing time throughout their career at Penn State. Some of them are not as familiar. Perhaps they were injured and their playing potential was cut short. Perhaps they had limited playing time or they played on the scout team in practice helping the varsity prepare each week.

However they contributed to Penn State football, thanks are in order. Thank you also to the following seniors who contribute as senior managers or undergraduate coaches in behind the scenes roles: Ryan Gmerek, John Kuceyeski, Brett Robinson, and Andrew Shilling.

We watched these seniors play every down in the time they were here. They contributed to a lot of great memories. Since 2006 we’ve seen them win 37 times and lose 13 times. Favorite games were the 28-27 overtime win at Minnesota in 2006, the Penn State White Out Win against Notre Dame in 2007, the Homecoming win against Michigan in 2008, our first win as a Big Ten team at the Horseshoe against Ohio State in 2008. Our win at the Big House in 2009. They brought us to the Outback Bowl, the Alamo Bowl, and the Rose Bowl. They brought us the Big Ten Championship last year. They will bring us to a bowl game this year, hopefully with a 10-2 regular season.

If they win the next two games and the bowl game, their final record since 2006 will be 40-13. We have celebrated many more victories with them, some of them tough ones, than we have mourned losses. It’s been a pleasure watching them play and watching them develop as players. It’s been a pleasure also to watch them graduate with a Penn State degree.

Penn State fans and especially students, I know we lost a heart-breaker last week. I know it’s a twelve-noon game. I know that some of you think a game against Indiana won't be competitive (think again). But be there anyhow. Be there ON TIME to support our seniors and give them thanks.

They deserve our support!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

When You Bleed Blue and White, Sometimes All You Feel is the Blood

“College football – and Big Ten competition - doesn’t get much better than this,” I thought to myself as Northwestern’s 17-10 win against Iowa was announced at the beginning of yesterday’s game. The entire stadium – packed to maximum capacity – let out a collective roar. The stakes for the Penn State-Ohio State game had just gotten even bigger than they were before.

An outright Big Ten title was now possible for either team. All Ohio State needed to do was beat Penn State this week, then win against Iowa and Michigan. All Penn State needed to do was beat Ohio State, hope that Ohio State would beat Iowa at the Horseshoe, and win against Indiana and Michigan State.

The stadium was at its “Greatest Show” best. Most of the students did arrive on time, although there were still mystifying gaping holes in the student stands at kickoff. Regardless, the Penn State crowd was noisy and pumped, led by the boisterous students, who truly earned the label of the best student section in the country this week.

The weather for an early November game was nearly perfect. We wore just sweatshirts for most of the tailgating, a winter coat and hats when the sun went down, but clear skies for a change. We were all in a good mood. Happy Valley was happy indeed. It was a fine day of tailgating followed by a much-anticipated Big Ten battle between two good football teams with great traditions.

Most sports pundits had predicted a Penn State win in a close defensive battle. We were prepared for a tough game, but Penn State fans expected victory. After all, we had Darryl Clark leading an explosive offense, and the best Big Ten defense. Ohio State was ranked second in the Big Ten on defense, and Terrell Pryor had shown some inconsistencies in past games. Even our special teams were favored, because Ohio State’s kicker had been injured the week before. Besides, we had the home field advantage. With the student section there in force, noise would be a factor for Ohio State. Everything pointed to a Penn State win. We would prevail. Ohio State was beatable this year. It would be fun, for a change, to beat Ohio State twice in a row, something we haven’t accomplished yet in the Big Ten era.

Credit Ohio State for overcoming the odds. Credit their defense for rising to the occasion and dominating our offensive line. Darryl Clark didn’t have a chance to show how good he is. He could not get anything going against an Ohio State defense that was always in his face, causing him to rush into every play he made. Credit Ohio State’s offensive line as well for preventing big defensive plays by Penn State. This game was won by Ohio State on the line of scrimmage - both sides of the line of scrimmage. Credit also Ohio State’s special teams for making big plays and achieving huge field position advantages. They exposed all the weaknesses of our special teams that had been murmured about throughout the season.

They beat us, purely and simply. We didn’t beat ourselves. They were the best team on the field yesterday, and perhaps they will prove to be the best team in the Big Ten by the end of the season. The game yesterday also proves the old adage that offense may score points, but defense – and special teams – wins games. Blue and white blood gushed from major arteries as Ohio State dominated every aspect of the game.

So we saw an 11-1 regular season and a bid to a BCS bowl, possibly even the Rose Bowl, disappear before our eyes. Now it will be at best a 10-2 regular season, possibly worse than that if the team doesn’t bounce back from this tough loss and win the rest of its schedule. Orlando, Tampa, or San Antonio is the best we can do for a post-season trip. The best we can hope for is probably the Capital One Bowl. Not bad, but when your expectations are higher than that, it hurts.

At Penn State, we still have a good team this year. It’s just not as good as we had come to expect. I’m not going to get down on the team, though. I am sure that there is no fan out there that feels worse than the student-athlete football players at Penn State do about losing yesterday’s game. And it’s at times like these that we do have to remind ourselves that they are student-athletes out there on the field who are doing the best they can. They didn’t quit. They were just overwhelmed.

Before and after the game we tailgated behind the West Stands with our friends Charlie and Lindley, avid Penn State fans who live in Memphis Tennessee and come to only a few games each year. Their tailgates are always a lot of fun, and for the Penn State-Ohio State game, the tailgate included a number of their personal friends who are Ohio State fans.

So not only was the Blue and White blood pouring out all over the place as we licked our wounds from solid defeat, we also watched the Scarlet and Gray blood in these OSU fans swell them up with pride for what Ohio State had accomplished.

Good people, Ohio State fans. Although they were very happy – shall I say ecstatic? – they didn’t rub it in. Good people, Penn State fans. They swallowed their pride and hugged their Ohio State friends after they won. We shared some hot soup together, even some cute buckeye-shaped chocolate and peanut butter confections. And of course we shared a drink or two, either in celebration or to ease our pain.

We talked about each team’s prospects for the rest of the season, the key plays of the game, Terrell Pryor’s mistake free game. We had a good time with them, both before AND after the game. I even asked for a photo of one of the OSU fans lighting a victory cigar. Why not? May as well have some fun with photos.

College football doesn’t get much better than this, if you’re an Ohio State fan. As for us Penn State fans, it couldn’t be worse, because we lost the two biggest games of the season at home. We’ll have to wait for other chances in other seasons to experience the euphoria of a tough win against ranked competition at home.

That’s the mean reality right now, as we digest what happened and read all the criticisms of Penn State and its schedule, etc. during the coming week.

In the meantime, let’s hope that the Penn State team learns from its mistakes and rebounds from this very tough loss. They can’t quit now. Nor should us fans quit on them.

That’s what bleeding blue and white is all about. Support the team, win or lose.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Challenge to All Good Sports Fans for Saturday’s Ohio State Game

There is no question that Saturday’s Penn State-Ohio State game will be high stakes for each team. Both teams are vying for a potential share of the Big Ten Championship, that is, if Iowa loses one game before the end of the season. Both teams are hoping for at least a New Year’s weekend, even a BCS, bowl, if they win on Saturday and the rest of the season.

It’s also November. That means that both teams have improved since the beginning of the season, and early mistakes or inconsistencies are being corrected through regular practice and more experience through playing games. Both teams have impressive defenses. Both teams have potent offenses led by talented quarterbacks. Both teams are also well coached.

The rivalry itself is intense. We’re tied 12-12 in the series. But some of that is old history dating back to 1912, and is misleading. The series with Ohio State since we joined the Big Ten is 10-6 in favor of Ohio State. The longest series streak since we joined the Big Ten was 2002-2004, when Ohio State won three times in a row. We have played Ohio State eight times at Beaver Stadium. On our home field, we hold a slight 5-3 advantage. At Ohio Stadium, our record is 1-7. We finally won last year, in a tight 13-6 defensive battle that was a sweet victory. But as a result of all those losses in Columbus, Penn State has never beaten Ohio State twice in a row! This year could be different. At least I hope so!

Seven of the sixteen games played during the Big Ten era have been close – with a final score difference of 7 points or less. The biggest score differential was the 63-14 Penn State win (one of my favorites) in 1994, our last undefeated season. The tightest score differential was a 21-20 Ohio State win, in 2003, when Penn State had a losing season. An all-time favorite game for most Penn State fans was Penn State’s 17-10 win in 2005! Another favorite game was the 2001 Penn State win – 29-27 at Beaver Stadium. It was at that game that Joe Paterno achieved his 324th win and finally surpassed Bear Bryant for the most Division I-A college football wins by an active coach. A great celebration occurred after that game. Who knew at that time that Joe Paterno would still be coaching and still hold the record? That 2001 game was the highlight of an otherwise miserable losing season.

So Ohio State is always a big game, especially this year with our Big Ten and BCS chances riding on a win. It’s the only home game left this year that my students are excited about. Their enthusiasm for Penn State football this year has waxed and waned. Mostly waned. They have complained about the loss to Iowa, too many twelve noon games, too much bad weather, and lackluster home competition. If they’re not complaining about that, they are complaining about the new ticketing system or how long it takes to get in their seats.

But now that Ohio State is coming, and our record is 8-1, this somewhat fickle student body is excited again. They promise me they will be in their seats on time for kickoff. The 3:30 game will help that cause, that is, if they’re not caught up with playing beer pong at their tailgate parties. Even for the Iowa game, there were some empty seats at kickoff. This Saturday, I’m hoping for no empty seats! We need that student section noise to carry Penn State at the beginning of the game, not halfway through the second quarter.

With the intensity of Saturday’s game also comes a big concern: the treatment of Ohio State fans at Beaver Stadium and elsewhere on campus and in State College. Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to this because we travel to all away games each season. For the most part, Ohio State fans have been friendly to us. We have never had a seriously nasty encounter with an Ohio State fan, and have more often had an enjoyable time with them after a game at one of our favorite Columbus restaurants: the Buckeye Hall of Fame CafĂ©. Some other fans I’ve talked with, however, have had some bad harassing experiences in Columbus. I can’t speak to their experience, only our own.

Last year, the attitude of Ohio State fans towards Penn State fans was more friendly than usual. Even my students returned from Columbus last year gushing about how well they were treated by Ohio State students. They told me the student body was downright welcoming. We had the same experience. More Ohio State fans than normal greeted us and welcomed us to Ohio Stadium. It was a very noticeable change in fan atmosphere. As a result, Ohio Stadium is now #5 on our list of favorite college football atmospheres.

After that game, I emailed Joe Battista, former Executive Director of the Nittany Lion Club, Tim Curley, Penn State’s Director of Athletics, and Dr. Graham Spanier, Penn State’s President, describing our very positive experience at Columbus. The turnaround in fan behavior was due to an aggressive fan behavior social marketing campaign sponsored by the Ohio State Athletics Department. I suggested that perhaps it was time that Penn State should join Wisconsin and Ohio State in being more aggressive in promoting positive fan behavior at football games. For each of these schools, their fan behavior programs have been in existence for a few years now. It takes a while to have an impact!

Penn State’s appeal for good fan behavior is limited. There are standard announcements at Beaver Stadium – not the best time or place to reach fans. There are new appeals before the game through Nittany Lion Club emails, but not everyone who attends games is a Nittany Lion Club member, nor do we all read those emails. And a new initiative this year is students positioned at each entrance to Beaver Stadium who welcome each fan to the game. These are positive steps, but more could be done to encourage a safe and entertaining environment for all at the "Greatest Show in College Football".

Ultimately, though, the goal of any fan behavior program is to convince us fans to create a positive atmosphere for ourselves and for away team visitors. We’re not going to eliminate all the bad behavior that can happen among passionate sports fans at a big stakes game.

But each of us can help. We can help to offset any possible incidents that occur by being welcoming to those we meet who are in scarlet and gray. If each of us takes the responsibility to be good sports ambassadors, then the problem is reduced, if not solved.

The Nittany Lion Club uses the term “Common Courtesy and Mutual Respect.” If we all just applied the Golden Rule – treating opposing team fans in the same way we would hope to be treated if we all traveled to away games – then we will come a long way in creating a positive fan atmosphere for everyone.

Will you join us in doing that?

Go Nittany Lions! Beat the Buckeyes!
Then, after we win a close game – Go Buckeyes! Beat the Hawkeyes!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Fourth Quarter Scoring Blitz Saves An Otherwise Difficult Game

“Northwestern has very smart football players,” Brett Conway told us as we were discussing what we thought of Penn State’s chances at the Pep Rally yesterday. There was none smarter on Northwestern’s team than their starting quarterback, Mike Kafka. Kafka picked apart our defensive secondary in the first half, completing 14 of 18 passes for 128 yards and rushing 42 yards on 8 attempts. Kafka was Northwestern’s primary offensive threat in the first half of that game. He is a very talented quarterback with incredible vision and timing.

I don’t like to see players injured on either side of the ball, but in many ways, Penn State is lucky that Mike Kafka suffered a hamstring injury that caused him to leave the game with 8:15 left in the 2nd quarter. Yesterday’s game might have had a very different conclusion if Mike Kafka had remained in the game. Dan Persa, Northwestern’s backup quarterback, was able to move the ball quickly with 28 seconds left on the clock at the end of the first half to score 3 more points on a field goal. But it was a different team we played against once Kafka was out. Northwestern was not nearly as in sync.

The score was 13-10 in favor of Northwestern at the end of the second quarter. In the third quarter, Northwestern’s defense held Penn State to a Collin Wagner field goal with 5:38 remaining in the quarter.

So a tie at 13-13 started the 4th quarter. I turned to Terry and said, “Remind me why I like close games.” Terry’s response was, “I have no idea!” We weren’t very happy. In fact, I didn’t like this game at all. We had difficulty establishing the run, difficulty scoring touchdowns, and we had some dumb penalties (delay of game, 12 men on the field, an unnecessary personal foul) that caused our offense to stall or gave Northwestern first downs after we had stopped them on third down.

That all changed with 12:27 remaining in the 4th quarter. Darryl Clark engineered a 7-play, 58-yard touchdown drive. The score was 20-13. Northwestern went 3-and-out on the next possession.

Then on the first play from scrimmage with 10:25 on the clock, Darryl Clark threw a 53-yard pass to Derek Moye for a touchdown. It was a perfectly executed pass, and Derek Moye didn’t even break stride when he caught it and ran into the end-zone. That got us excited! The score was 27-13, and we began to feel more comfortable.

Penn State’s defense held Northwestern to 26 yards of offense on their next possession. With 8:58 left on the clock, Penn State started on their own 31-yard line. The handoff to Evan Royster resulted in a 69-yard scramble for a touchdown.

So a 53-yard pass play for a touchdown and a 69-yard rush for a touchdown were the final two scores. Two plays for two touchdowns. Wow.

Penn State’s defense had a much better second half. Sean Lee led the defense for the game, with 12 tackles. It was good to see him finally start again. The defense also recovered two fumbles during the game. Whatever difficulties they had in the first half were solved with adjustments in the second half.

But I keep going back to the fact that Kafka was injured. Northwestern was down 28-3 last week against Indiana and Kafka had led a comeback in the second half, winning the game 29-28.

So despite our quick strike offense and a win, there is reason to be concerned for next week. It was not what I would call a solid performance. The game was much closer than the final score indicated, and Penn State has plenty to work on to prepare for a solid game against Ohio State.

But, as they say, a win is a win! We’re happy. It’s nice to be 8-1 for the season!