UNIVERSITY PARK - According to Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti, whose father and older brother both played for Joe Paterno before he did, the Nittany Lions legendary head coach has a maxim.
"He'll tell you five plays will make the game, whether you win it or lose it,'' Mauti said. "You don't know what plays those are going to be before the game but, after the game, you'll know.''
In Saturday's 27-11 Alabama win over the Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium, it seemed like the Crimson Tide made all five of those plays. It's about the only way you could explain a Tide team whose outstanding defense, quarterback uncertainty and offensive line question marks mirrored Penn State's could go on the road and pretty much dominate the last 3 quarters of play.
"We turned the ball over, dropped the football. I think we had a couple of chances to make big plays and didn't make them,'' Paterno said. "I was disappointed. We didn't do a couple things in the clutch we did do in practice.''
Lack of playmaking has been a major thorn in Penn State's side for much of the last decade, especially in its biggest games. Several Lions voiced loud and clear in the preseason that this was a point of emphasis for 2011.
Yet, before Derek Moye's terrific one-hand grab for 27 yards late in the third quarter with the Lions down by 17, Penn State did next to nothing in terms of turning in big plays.
n Its longest gainer was a 15-yard pass from Rob Bolden to Justin Brown.
n The Nittany Lion defense had no sacks, no interceptions and no fumbles forced.
n Penn State's best starting field position was its own 37, and the Lions got no farther than the 23 on a kickoff return.
In just his second start, Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron trumped that by himself on the second drive. He pulled back Lion defensive end Jack Crawford to prevent a possible interception deep in Alabama territory after Crawford batted a pass up into the air on the second play. Then, given a new lease on life, he completed a touchdown drive by threading the needle between Lion linebackers Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson to Michael Williams from 5 yards away to quash the momentum Penn State enjoyed to that point and give Alabama a 7-3 lead.
"We've got to be a step quicker,'' defensive tackle Devon Still said. "We were missing stuff by about a second.''
Had McCarron not had the presence of mind to pick off Crawford before Crawford picked off the deflection, Penn State might have had a 10-0 first-quarter lead in front of a raucous home crowd.
"That would have been an interception had he not grabbed my collar,'' Crawford said. "That was tough.''
Also on that tide-turning - no pun intended - drive, Marquis Maze made an outstanding catch for 29 yards on third-and-6 down to the Lion 26 with safety Nick Sukay draped all over him.
Contrast that with what Penn State did - or didn't - do. An all-Big Ten wideout, Moye had a high but very catchable Bolden pass downfield go through his hands with no defenders nearby and almost get intercepted in the third quarter. Brown dropped a fourth-quarter Bolden pass in the open field with room to run that would have given Penn State a first down inside the Tide 35. Tight end Andrew Szczerba had a catch and a first down in Alabama territory but fumbled at the end of the play.
The defense, while playing fairly well, wasn't immune from an apparent allergy to making big plays. Reserve linebacker Mike Hull could have intercepted McCarron in the corner of the end zone late in the second quarter but didn't; Trent Richardson bulled in from the 3 two plays later to make it 17-3 with 35 seconds left in the half.
"We can play defense with anyone. What we have to do is create turnovers,'' Mauti said.
Knowing might be half the battle, but actually doing is the bigger half, and it's what makes the difference between a good team and a great one. When asked how the Lions could improve in that area, Mauti shrugged.
"Catch the ball. Catch the ball. Instead of tipping the ball, maybe going up with two hands and catching it. Make the strip or something,'' Mauti said. "It's a matter of execution.''
This wasn't the first time the Lions defense has been maligned by these issues. Last season, Penn State only had 17 turnover takeaways and 17 sacks.
Not being able to secure the ball itself is becoming a glaring issue for Penn State receivers. Considered a strength of the team heading into the season, Lion wideouts like Moye and Brown have dropped several balls in the first two games - some tough catches, some not so much so, but the kind big-time receivers are expected to make, especially when they are proven commodities.
"We've got to try to make those catches,'' Brown said. "In big games, you've got to make big plays, and we probably didn't do too much of that today. We have to do more of that.''
It was a sobering outcome, and several of Penn State players took it especially hard. Usually energetic and positive running back Silas Redd was quiet and reserved. Brown and safety Drew Astorino chuckled at a couple of questions, seemingly irritated.
"We're not as good of a team,'' Still said, "as we thought we were.''