By Neil Rudel
It's the halfway point. Six of the 12 games have been played with what was thought as a natural break -- Notre Dame and Michigan in the first semester, Wisconsin and Ohio State in the second.
No open date? No problem.
Here's the midseason report card ...
TIGHT END: Andrew Quarless has the potential be the one of the best tight ends Penn State has ever had. Right there with Ted Kwalick and Kyle Brady. His August underage drinking charge created a distraction, and he didn't come up with the catch in the end zone that could have helped beat Illinois. Other than than, he's been a surehanded receiver over the middle. Mickey Shuler is getting valuable backup time and, save his false start at the Iowa 1, looks good. Grade: B.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Has pass protected well, allowing ENTER sacks, and would be even better if Anthony Morelli had a better pcoket presence. First unit of Gerald Cadogan, Dennis Landolt, Rich Ohrnberger, Mike Lucian and A.Q. Shipley has played almost every meaningful down as subs have been used only in emergency. John Shaw could be back this week. Ran well against ND and especially Iowa, but hasn't been great in short yardage. Grade: C+.
WIDE RECEIVERS: More than any other, this position depends on the rest of the operation -- protection, accuracy, playcalling. There's enough quality here (Deon Butler, Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood, Terrell Golden) that the position hasn't featured a go-to player. They've all been OK. Everyone anticipated Chris Bell, but he's gotten so few opportunities that he pressured himself into the TD miss vs. Iowa. Brett Brackett was dusted off last week and made a key third-down catch with the offense struggling. Grade: B-.
RUNNING BACKS: Austin Scott, with an off-the-field indiscretion serious enough to remove him from the team and four fumbles, clearly has been one of the biggest disappointments ever -- maybe the biggest. Rodney Kinlaw has been a serviceable backup, but he's fumbled three times. In one game, against Iowa, Evan Royster showed the most with a tough, patient running style that finishes runs and protects the ball. Fullback Matt Hahn has blocked well but usually gives way to the three-receiver set. Grade: C.
QUARTERBACK: Morelli's stats aren't bad, and he's had some big drops. He hasn't been tough enough with the ball, fumbling four times, including key situations at Michigan and Illinois. There's no question about his arm strength, evidenced at times, but his ability to make clutch plays and his leadership create a significant second-half challenge that, if met, can still salvage a good season, individually and for the team. It's stunning the coaches haven't gotten either backup, Daryll Clark or Pat Devlin, even token experience when it was available without fueling a controversy vs. Notre Dame and Buffalo. Then again, this is Linebacker U., not Quarterback U. Grade: C.
OFFENSIVE COACHING: What an operation. Two coaches calling plays. The head coach constantly screaming at an assistant, who is then supposed to transfer that message. The head coach screaming for a spike (vs. Iowa) with the clock stopped (and the staff not doing it). And then there's the Michigan gameplan. Grade: F.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Another position working well by committee. First-year starters Ollie Ogbu and Jared Odrick have held up well, and Chris Baker, though still facing felony charges, is starting to become a bigger force. The best of the group has been end Maurice Evans, with ENTER sacks, and on the other side, can Josh Gaines have off Aaron Maybin much longer? Unit got understandably worn down trying to carry its offense and thus couldn't come up with key sack at Michigan, not that offense would have cashed it in.
LINEBACKERS: Wow -- what a group. Dan Connor is headed for the all-time tackles record and truly has grown up as a leader. Sean Lee is right behind him, the heir apparent to the captain's throne and a worthy successor to Paul Posluszny and Connor. Get the idea staff isn't totally enthralled with Tyrell Sales on the other side, though. He's been spelled by Navorro Bowman, who was extremely impressive before an ankle injury, and last week found time for former walk-on Josh Hull. Only dermerit (check spelling) was not defending the option early vs. Illinois. Grade: A.
SECONDARY: Can't be overly indicted -- whoops, bad word, with this program -- for letting down against Buffalo. Michigan alertly picked on Lydell Sargeant and exploited a height advantage with Adrian Arrington. Penn State is still moaning about the pass interference, as it always moans against Michigan. Kind of like Maryland used to maon against Penn State. Anthony Scirrotto has been solid at safety, but Tony Davis has lost some plays for missed tackles to Mark Rubin. Justin King, despite the billing, hasn't come up with the huge interception that could have changed the Michigan and maybe even the Illinois games. Grade: B+.
DEFENSIVE COACHING: Other than doing it in a game for No. 1 (PSU vs. Miami in 1986), Tom Bradley has matched and built on Jerry Sandusky's effectiveness as defensive coordinator. You see player development at all three positions -- line, linebackers, DBs. In addition to being outstanding position coaches, Larry Johnson, Ron Vanderlinden and Brian Norwood are also excellent recruiters. It's difficult to imagine a better defensive staff in the country -- especially given the dysfunction of its offensive counterparts. Grade: A.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kickers, Kevin Kelly and Jeremy Boone, have been excellent. Kelly improving his accuracy from inside 40 and Boone becoming the Big Ten's best punter in his first season. The return game and coverage haven't been quite as good. Derrick Williams brought back the punt to help blow open the Notre Dame game, but A.J. Wallace has been tentative on kick returns. The punt coverage, in part because of Boone's hang time, has been good, but the kickoff coverage, torched at Illinois and not so great against Iowa, can improve. Grade: B.
OVERALL: What's Penn State's best win? Between them, Iowa (2-4), Notre Dame (1-5), Buffalo (2-4) and Florida International (0-6) are a combined 5-19. The sum doesn't equal the parts, but there's plenty of season to redeem the two wins the Lions left on the field in Ann Arbor and Champaign. Grade: C.