Entering the 2009 season, one of the biggest question marks for Penn State was the team’s secondary. Entering the season, Penn State lost significant experience from the 2008 roster, with players such as Anthony Scirrotto, Tony Davis, and Lydell Sargeant all moving on.
Left was a talented yet inexperienced bunch, featuring only a handful of returning starts—all from two players, in senior A.J. Wallace and sophomore free safety Drew Astorino.
Midway through the season, this group of Lions has held its own, but it goes without saying that the Penn State secondary has barely been tested to date.
Until this weekend, that is, when a more consistent Minnesota offense comes to town, led by the Big Ten’s leading receiver Eric Decker (46 receptions for 689 yards and five TDs).
Ignore the fact that Minnesota is ranked 75th in passing (205.2 yds/game) and Penn State is 25th in pass defense. These numbers don’t reflect the truth.
Decker is the real deal, and Penn State’s first true test.
When asked about the star receiver, Penn State head coach Joe Paterno reiterated the same point.
“Decker is a great football player,” Paterno said. “You've got to know where he is all the time. If you don't, he'll catch seven, eight, 10 passes for a lot of yards and a couple scores.”
As the Nittany Lion faithful get ready to have a big party for Homecoming this weekend, the Golden Gophers look to be party-crashers—much like that painful Homecoming day for Penn State a short decade ago. Just hearing the number 1999 sends a chill down every Penn Stater’s spine.
In order to prevent another Homecoming nightmare, the Nittany Lions will certainly need more improvement from the offensive line and more consistency in the red zone by the offense. But most importantly, they need a solid performance from the young secondary.
While Paterno dropped his usual wit with lines such as, “ae may put four corners on him” (regarding Decker), the 82-year old head coach—as always—showed he has the game and opponent in perspective.
“In the clutch, it's a one-man show maybe, but it's not a one-man show the entire game," he said. "You can go overboard trying to cover Decker. They can hurt you other ways.”
While this may be true, in the end Penn State’s success will start with containing Decker as much as possible.
What would make the most sense is for the Nittany Lions—who have yet to face many major offensive tests—to focus on playing zone while doubling up on Decker, adding timely blitzes to make Minnesota QB Adam Weber uncomfortable in the pocket.
And the blitzing aspect is key, considering that the Golden Gophers are 101st in the nation in sacks allowed. Keep in mind Penn State has had success in sacking opponents (tied for fourth in the nation), though the Nittany Lions faced a number of cupcakes during the early weeks of the season.
These facts alone point to the reason Adam Weber has more interceptions than touchdowns so far this season (eight vs. six). Teams have been disrupting him while attempting to focus their attention on Decker.
All in all, it should be an interesting game in Happy Valley this Saturday—and likely a much closer game than many prognosticators may expect. Minnesota has talent on both sides of the ball, and this is a team that gave Cal all it could handle for three-plus quarters.
In the end, though, it all comes down to a Penn State secondary that will need to be playing with a full deck—not one that’s full of Decker.
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