I watched the Penn State-Temple game on Saturday afternoon, to see if my prediction of Nittany Lions to the Rose Bowl (assuming Ohio State would win the Big Ten and make the Playoff) had any chance of bearing fruit. After the Owls put a 27-10 beatdown on PSU, it’s time to ask not only if I should be backing away from this pick, but turning and running full-bore in the opposite direction.
Let’s begin with the indictment. I’m looking for the right verbiage to use to describe the Penn State offensive line, because I don’t like to get too harsh when discussing college kids. How about we go with “they have grave problems up front”. This was a unit that struggled a year ago, giving up 44 sacks. I was looking for signs of improvement and saw none.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenburg was sacked ten times and if this weren’t bad enough, it came in spite of Temple dropping its linebackers into coverage. A midmajor program was basically telling Penn State that they (the Owls) were the superior team in the trenches and would simply whip the Lions. And Temple was right. The domination hit its apex on a fourth quarter play when Temple dropped nine, rushed two and sacked Hackenburg almost immediately after the snap.
The running game was no better. Penn State ran the ball 27 times for 77 yards, a 2.9 yards-per-carry average. The Lion defense hung in there gamely, but with all the pressure on them, broke down the stretch.
That brings us to the question of how bad this is in State College. I don’t like to run from preseason predictions after one game, but this performance is enough to leave me tempted. But there are two good arguments for restraint.
The first is the quality of the opponent. This is not the Temple program we’re used to. I was impressed by how physical they played and the quality of their athletes. This is a team that was already a preseason favorite in the American conference and after watching on Saturday, I think we have to put them in the conversation with Boise State as the top non-Power 5 team, status that would be good for a major bowl bid at season’s end.
Temple is not only a good football team, but they were hungry for their first win over Penn State in over seventy years. The combination of talent and emotion would have made them a tough out for a lot of good teams on Saturday.
The other thing to point out is that getting to the Rose Bowl as a conference runner-up is not some impossibly high bar. Last year, Arizona was the runner-up in the Pac-12, they went to a major bowl (the Fiesta, as the Rose was a national semifinal that Oregon went to) and played a high-quality midmajor in Boise State. Arizona got waxed. If Temple of this year is as good as Boise was last year, it means getting beat up by them doesn’t preclude being major bowl quality.
We should also note that the non-Ohio State part of the Big Ten is filled with question marks. Michigan State’s defense wasn’t very good against Western Michigan. Nebraska lost at home to BYU. Michigan lost at Utah. While Wisconsin’s loss to Alabama was expected, the way the Badgers were dominated up front tells us that Wisconsin has some work to do of their own. The only real high point for the conference was Northwestern beating Stanford.
So whomever is going to emerge as the Big Ten’s second-best team has some work to do. From that standpoint, it would be premature to write off Penn State. But boy, do they have work ahead.