The Crimson Tide's exhibition season is officially over. Ready or not, let the real games begin. This will be the first true test of The Class of 2008. Today we're going to take an in-depth look at this huge matchup: the major storylines heading in, what players to watch, and what Alabama needs to do to win. I hope to make this a weekly feature, at least for the games that really matter (read: don't expect a write up for Georgia State). In our inaugural season here, I'm still in The Process of working out how I want the format to go and whether I want to break this up into separate posts or what, so bear with me. Work in progress.
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A Rivalry Renewed: For a decade around the 80's, this was one of the biggest rivalries in all of college football. The most famous meeting was, of course, the #1 vs. #2 game in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, when Bama made their immortal "Goal Line Stand" to secure the victory and their second consecutive national title, Bear Bryant's last. They would go on to meet 8 times over the next decade, playing the last game in the series in 1990, a 9-0 win for Penn State. Alabama currently holds the series lead 8-5, but the average score for those 13 games is Bama 12.4, Penn State 11.8. Nearly every game played thus far has been an intense, physical battle fought until the very end. That said, most of the players who'll be on the field this Saturday weren't even potty-trained in 1990, if they were alive at all. The last remnant of that era is Joe Paterno, who will surely draw a warm welcome from the 100,000+ tradition-loving Bama fans in attendance. History will loom large over this game, but in a lot of ways, it's a new beginning. For the sake of my heart, I hope it doesn't include a 12-11 final score.
The SEC vs. The Big 10: Aside from the endless debate over whether or not non-BCS schools deserve to play for the national championship, is there a more contentious debate among fans than this?
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SEC teams cheat!
Big 10 teams are slow!
The SEC uses low academic standards to get players that would never qualify at a Big 10 school!
You're so slow Northwestern is competitive in your conference!
The SEC gains an unfair advantage by oversigning!
Err...Big 10 teams are slow!
The SEC refuses to come play us in a driving November snowstorm!
Bear Bryant's corpse could beat Joe Paterno's corpse in a footrace!
You know how it goes. (Obviously, the Big 10 fans have spent a lot more time brooding on the myriad ways they are wronged than SEC fans. As is the loser's way.) So it's always a good time when schools from these conferences get together. Or a really LONG week of sports talk radio. Depends on your perspective, I guess. Regardless, you can bet the outcome of this game will fire up the debate anew. Overreactions and hyperbole will abound, and nothing will be settled until the next game, and the game after that, and the game after that...
Just for the record, Alabama is 13-9 against current Big 10 teams, though they've only played 5 games against the Big 10 over the last 20 years. Interestingly enough, this is Bama's first regular season game with a Big 10 team since that 1990 Penn State game. The Tide's last meeting with the Big 10 was against Minnesota in the 2004 Music City Bowl, an agonizing 20-16 loss. (However, I'm obliged to point out that was a Mike Shula team and move that it be stricken from the record.) The Tide's last win against a Big 10 team was in the 1997 Outback Bowl where they defeated Michigan 17-14 in Gene Stallings' last game.
The Internet tells me Penn State is 16-16 against current SEC teams, though they did win their last game against LSU in the Capital One Bowl, which may as well have been played in a slop pin.
Key Players Out for Bama: As of this writing, it appears the Tide will take the field against Penn State without their best offensive and defensive players. Marcell Dareus will definitely miss the game after the university elected not to appeal his 2 game suspension. Mark Ingram seems all but certain to be out, but I'm not ready to completely write him off. Every indication is that Ingram could be healthy enough to play on Saturday, it's just a matter of him not being able to fully participate in practice this week. The old "if you don't practice, you don't play" line. But, as Saban himself has admitted, if anybody is capable of playing without practicing, it's Ingram. If they're both out, it's a boon for the Nittany Lions.
After doing a bit of study on Penn State's offensive line, I remain convinced they don't have any one man who is capable of containing Dareus. He would almost certainly draw a double team all night. With him on the field, it was a distinct possibility the Lions wouldn't have sniffed the endzone. He is THAT imposing, and they are THAT undermanned. With him out, it frees them up to do some different things with their protection that should make life easier for their freshman quarterback.
On the surface, Ingram's loss seems less costly. Why worry when you can plug in Trent Richardson, right? Well, I'll say I feel a lot better about Trent stepping up after the San Jose State game. In limited action, he showed improvement in his ability to pick up the blitz and just his general knowledge of the game. That was my biggest concern. He still didn't show Ingram's vision, but I guess vision is overrated when you can shrug off defenders and move the pile like he can. NOW my concern has moved down the line. What happens in those points in the game when Ingram would sub out for Richardson? Not much of a drop off there. But now you're going from Richardson to Eddie Lacy. That's a drop off. As physically capable as he is, Lacy showed he still has a ways to go in terms of his intelligence this past Saturday. When the head coach goes out of his way to call you out to the world at halftime in a game where you're crushing the opponent, well, you know you've still got a ways to go. I won't be surprised if Lacy puts the ball on the ground again this Saturday, or if he fails to convert on 3rd down because he read his blocks wrong, or if McElroy eats a blitz on his watch.
Penn State's New Man In Charge of the Huddle: Over the course of his career, Joe Paterno (or whoever's been making these decisions at PSU lately) has consistently favored veteran stability over flashy, young talent, sometimes to the dismay of the Penn State fanbase. And yet, there Robert Bolden was, stepping in under center to start the 2010 season. Even more amazing, Bolden was not an early enrollee. He arrived on campus in June and made his case for the starting job in 2 short months. It remains to be seen whether this is more of an endorsement of Bolden or an indictment against his competition. He looked good in the opener against Youngstown State (20-29 for 2389 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT), but he was rarely pressured by the Penguin defensive line, and...well...I shouldn't even have to elaborate on what a step up in competition this is.
I'm honestly surprised the Penn State coaches are letting Bolden start this game. Even if the long term goal for the year was for Bolden to be The Guy, I would have held him back until next week under the guise of "bringing him along slowly." This has the distinct possibility to be one of those games that crushes a young quarterback's spirit and ruins him for life. That's how dominant this Bama defensive front can be (even sans Dareus). That's how crazy the atmosphere at Bryan-Denny Stadium is going to be. That's how maddening Nick Saban's defensive schemes can be (unless you only play 5 downs, in which case you've totally got it figured out. Just ask Colt!). And this is assuming a best case scenario where Dont'a Hightower doesn't just break an arm off and take it with him. (If you don't believe he's ANGRY about losing the 2009 season, just watch him.) The risk outweighs the reward of "experience," in my opinion.
Word of warning, though. I believe the Musburger/Herbstreit crew has the call on this one. Regardless of how he's actually playing, any time something good happens for Penn State that can even remotely be attributed to Bolden's play, Musburger will make like Billy Dee in Brian's Song. "He's got the heart of a giant!"
PLAYERS TO WATCH
In this section, I'll be highlighting a player from each team that must come up big if their team is going to maximize their potential in this game. If they distinguish themselves, odds are their team is doing well.
For Alabama - Julio Jones: Like most teams who line up against Bama's offense, the Nittany Lions' number one priority is going to be to stop the run. The Tide wants to be able to run the ball to play their kind of game. But if they allow Penn State to play this game with 8 guys within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, it becomes the sort of game the visitors can win. In order to break that up, Alabama needs to attack the fringes of the defense early and often, far left, far right, and deep. Bama has the caliber of athletes to win one-on-one battles with Penn State defenders in space. Beat them enough, and they'll have no choice but to move more bodies out there, out of the way of Trent Richardson's running lanes. A guy like Marquis Maze is more than capable of doing this, but it all starts with Julio. In the opener, he looked more explosive and dynamic than ever. He needs to keep that up this week and prove it wasn't just a case of being made to look great by an overmatched defense. More than anything, he definitely doesn't need to revert to 09 form, when he dropped every 3rd pass thrown his way. If that happens, Bama could be in trouble. But if he can routinely beat his man, make all the routine catches, and then shred the inevitable double coverage that will come his way, this game could end in an Alabama rout.
For Penn State - Evan Royster: Royster came out of the gates sluggish in the season opener against Youngstown State, rushing 11 times for just 40 yards and no TDs in a game where most players of his renown are padding stats with ease. You'd certainly expect more from a guy who appears to be a lock to become Penn State's all-time leading rusher. Well, the Lions will NEED him to show up and be that guy in Tuscaloosa. Paterno's teams are known for playing conservative on the road, which means a lot of carries coming his way, but the need to run the football becomes even more urgent with a true freshman at quarterback. Bama hasn't allowed a 100 yard rusher since Benjarvis Green-Ellis managed the feat for Ole Miss in 2007, so I'm not expecting him to have a big statistical day, either way. But he needs to at least be enough of a factor in the game to force the Tide linebackers to respect the run and create play-action opportunities for Bolden. If he can do that, it'll give the kid at QB some easier throws and perhaps open up some big play opportunities down the field when Bama's inexperienced secondary players bite on the fake. If he can't, State may turn to Stephfon Green for a spark, but I really think he's too slight to do the kind of running they need to do against Bama's beastly defensive front. You're not going to beat Bama running wide. That's what they WANT you to do. Penn State is going to need Royster to play up to all 6'1", 228 lbs of his frame to win.
Today I've got 5 thoughts on what Alabama needs to do to win on Saturday. For the sake of brevity, I will always assume that the Tide needs to run the ball, stop the run, and avoid turnovers in order to win, unless there is some special significance for that particular game. These should be understood as the basic tenets of the faith.
1. The Defense must get in Robert Bolden's head. With a freshman quarterback making his first road start, this seems obvious. But it's going to be about more than just blitzing the young guy, though there will be plenty of that I'm sure. In traditional Saban form, it will be about creating confusion with the looks, making him question where the next rusher is coming from. And when they don't send anybody, they need to be able to get to him with 3 or 4. It's vital that he never feels comfortable, never trusts what he sees when he takes his drop. If they can shake his confidence early, the game is all but won. As Yoda once said, "Confusion leads to doubt, doubt leads to fear, fear leads to making their asses quit."
Or maybe I'm thinking of another really short guy.
2. The Secondary must play sound assignment football. Look, the Penn State coaches aren't stupid. They know #1 is going to be foremost in Alabama's gameplan. If they didn't know it to begin with, they should after everybody in the media and every dude on the Internet has been talking about it. In anticipation, I expect them to try every trick in the book to keep Bolden from standing in the pocket with a bullseye on his chest all night. Roll-outs, bootlegs, screens, draws, play-action, anything to create as much doubt in the Alabama defense as they're trying to instill in Bolden. They want Bama to play a step slower and then have to chase a moving target. This will be an issue for the entire defense, but it will be of special concern in the secondary with all those young players out on their islands, just waiting to give up big plays. The DBs must play disciplined and not bail on their assignments the moment they think they see something else happening. I'm not overly impressed with Penn State's receivers as athletes, but they're big and experienced. They'll seize on any open spaces in the field and present a big, hard to miss target for Bolden. Stick to your man, stick to your zone. That has to be the mantra for Bama.
3. Bama needs to come out throwing. As eluded to in above, Penn State is going to be determined to stop the run. To beat that, Alabama is going to have to put the fear of the pass in them early, and they have all the personnel to do that. I'm as unimpressed with the athleticism of State's DBs as I am their receivers. Just last week, that unit gave up an 80 yard TD pass against Youngstown State. Julio and Maze can beat these guys. There's no reason not to let them. I think we're well past the point of being afraid that Greg McElroy will throw the game away. In fact, by now, we should have every confidence that he's capable of winning every game. I say, spread them out and let GMac sling it around a bit.
4. Bama must protect the right side of the offensive line. If there's a weak link in this Bama offense, it would have to be redshirt freshman DJ Fluker at right tackle. As physically imposing as he is (6'6", 340 lbs), he's still learning the position. He only began playing offensive tackle in his senior year of high school. Just two years later, here he is starting against Penn State. He was routinely, spectacularly abused by Marcell Dareus and Dont'a Hightower at A-Day, and don't think State didn't notice. By all accounts, Fluker has come a long way since then, but unfortunately for him, he's assured of being targeted by defensive coordinators for the foreseeable future. He may be capable of handling things on his own, he may not. This is not the game to take chances. It would be wise to give him help in obvious passing situations. Line up a tight end next to him, or an H-back or a running back behind him. If you're going to accomplish #3, then #4 must be a priority.
5. The Kickers must NOT screw things up. The dual freshmen kickers and punters played surprisingly well in the opener, but this game represents a significant increase in the amount of pressure they'll be under, both physically and mentally. Will they crack? They better not. While I like Bama to ultimately win this by a 2 TD-ish margin, it's likely going to be a tight game for the first 2 to 2 and a half quarters before Alabama's physicality and humidity wear them down. In that time frame, the kicking game will be critical. Think back to last year: How crucial were Leigh Tiffin and PJ Fitzgerald in all those close games? They weren't spectacular. They were just reliable. In a field position battle, you could always rely on Fitzgerald to give you a solid punt. Will we be able to say the same about Cody Mandell, or Jay Williams if he plays? A shank or a line drive kick at the wrong time could giftwrap points for Penn State. Same with Cade Foster, or Jeremy Shelley, taking over for Tiffin. Bama doesn't beat Tennessee last year without Tiffin's consistency. Even beyond that, think back to several other tight, low-scoring games that Bama had in 09 where Tiffin's ability to reliably tack on 3 when the offense was sputtering kept the Tide in it and at other times did an effective job of keeping the pressure on opposing offenses who were watching the game slip away three points at a time. The offense shouldn't struggle as much this season, but when they have to settle for 3, they need to get 3. When they have to give the ball back to State, they don't need to leave it on their doorstep. These situations will arise tomorrow. These young guys need to deliver.
Over in No Win Scenario, I predicted the final score to be Bama-31, PSU-16, and I think I'm going to stick with that. I was pretty close last week (projection: 48-9, actual: 48-3). I wouldn't be surprised if PSU only scored 10 or 13, but I do think they'll pop enough big plays to get in scoring position a few times. I just doubt Bolden will be able to make scoring throws when the windows get smaller closer to the goal line. Probably worth noting that State's kicker is a career 70%-er and only hit on 40% from 30 yards and beyond last season. Guess I'm giving someone the benefit of a doubt. But as I said in the preseason, close early, then Bama pulls away.
Enjoy the game. Here's hoping that subtitle doesn't come back to haunt me...