Penn State Review: Lions Solid, Unspectacular in Opener

( – Penn State opened its 2006 season against the mighty Zips of Akron this past Saturday in a tune game before they showdown with the Irish this coming weekend. The Nitanny Lions looked solid in their 34-16, but have just as many questions heading into this weekends game to answer as the Irish if not more.

Most Penn State fans are down right giddy about the first start of Anthony Morelli’s career. The senior tossed three touchdown passes in his debut, but completed just 50% of his passes (16 of 32) against a MAC defense. Morelli did show a very strong arm, in fact at times too strong. It looked like he was trying to riffle everything to his receivers all the time and did not show very good touch. He did have a nice deep pass to Deon Butler from 42 yards out, but wasn’t showing very good accuracy in the 20-30 yard range.

Morelli showed pretty much what we all knew – he’s got a cannon for an arm but didn’t really show great accuracy. Talent has never been something Morelli has been sort on however. The knock on him since he arrived at Penn State was that he had trouble understanding the offense and was not accurate on a consistent basis and he really didn’t do much to answer either of those questions. It’s hard to really tell much however when the opponent is Akron.

In the running game, Penn State was average at best. On 27 attempts the Lions gained just 76 yards for an average of 2.8 yards a carry. These numbers aren’t really skewed much by any sack yardage either as only one rush from Morelli for (-5) yards is figured in. If anything, the numbers are skewed positively from a well executed reverse run by AJ Wallace for 42 yards.

Starting running back Tony Hunt ran the ball 14 times for just 36 yards (2.6 yards/carry). He looked solid, but the revamped Penn State offensive line didn’t create much room for him to run and he is not the kind of back who can make much on his own. He’s a strong runner who can run a defender over, but his speed is very average.

The most impressive part of the Penn State offense was their receivers. Their young, speedy receivers are very talented and will be a challenge for the Irish secondary. Jordan Norwood caught 7 balls for 61 yards as the leading receiver and Derrick Williams and Deon Butler added the deep threats.

The one stat that jumps out at me the most however is time of possession. Akron held onto the ball for 37:29 compared to just 22:31 for Penn State. One way to slow down a good defense is pound them and tire them out. We saw the Irish do this to Georgia Tech this past weekend and if Notre Dame holds a similar time of possession advantage as Akron did, Penn State won’t have a chance.

What the time of possession descripency tells us is that Penn State had some real trouble sustaining drives. The Lions gained just 14 first downs, but used big plays to score their 34 points such as the 42 yard reverse by Wallace and the 42 yard pass to Butler. Their ineffectiveness of the running game for Penn State stalled some drives and they survived on the vertical passing game.

On the defensive side of the ball Penn State was pretty good, but wasn’t overly dominate as they were a year ago. Their linebackers were the strength of the defense as expected. Akron was however able to move the ball some despite gaining just 225 yards. The Zips shot themselves in the foot over and over with penalties and mental mistakes.

A couple things stand out to me from this performance. Penn State led this one by just eight points midway through the third quarter. Akron lost to the likes of Central Michigan, Army, Ball State, and Memphis and they hung with Penn State for a large portion of the game.

The running statistics are also hard to ignore here. Penn State had major troubles running the ball. The Penn State offensive line should have been able to man handle the Akron defensive line so I don’t think this is a case of Penn State holding anything back. They may have held back some of their more complicated routes or trick plays, but in the running game you would expect Penn State to be able to run it up and down on a team like Akron.

Slow starts aren’t a new thing for Penn State however. Last year they opened the season with a 23-13 win over South Florida and hardly looked impressive in the process and they went on to an 11-1 season so anything we saw on Saturday should be taken with a grain of salt.

Overall, I wasn’t overly impressed with Penn State in their opener. They had some issues to deal with coming into the season – namely the offensive line and the secondary. The secondary responded with two picks, but the offensive line still looks like a big question mark for the Lions.

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