NCAA 2, Penn State 0. That's the real score through two weeks of the Nittany Lion football season.
While most were expecting the NCAA sanctions levied against the Penn State football program in the wake of the Sandusky scandal to have the most bite in the future, they’ve hit home immediately.
With running back Silas Redd and punter/placekicker Anthony Fera still in the program, the Nittany Lions would arguably be 2-0 heading into today’s game against Navy and certainly no worse than 1-1. But Redd (Southern Cal) and Fera (Texas), among others, are gone thanks to the NCAA’s sanctions that allowed players to leave without having to lose a year of eligibility.
Those defections, throw in wide receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma) if you want, have made an impact on the scoreboard. NCAA President Mark Emmert must be proud.
But as significant as the losses of those players are, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien and his players have more than a little soul-searching to do themselves. Even without Redd and Fera, they could be — and probably should be — 2-0.
The Nittany Lions led 14-3 at halftime against Ohio, a good Mid-American Conference team, but were dominated in the second half of a 24-14 loss.
And while many want to pin last week’s 17-16 loss solely on kicker Sam Ficken, who missed four field goals and had an extra point blocked, you can spread the blame in several other places.
O’Brien touched on some of it after the game and during his weekly pre-game news conference, shouldering the blame on himself and his staff instead of the players.
While hearing a coach take the hit for a loss is a little cliché, this time it has some merit. O’Brien calls the plays and while the Penn State offense has moved the ball this season, it has little to show for it.
The Nittany Lions had the ball in Virginia territory 11 times and scored just 16 points.
The defense gave the ball to the offense with four turnovers — each deep in Virginia territory — and Penn State produced just three points. Blame some of that on Ficken’s misses, but offenses are supposed to score touchdowns when they get the ball inside the 20.
“We've got to do a much better job on offense of turning those things into points, and that starts with me,” O’Brien said this week. “I’ve got to do a better job of calling plays there to get us in position to score touchdowns.”
And if you look at this season in a nutshell, the numbers do come down to the red zone. Penn State is dead last in the Big Ten — on offense and defense — inside the opponents’ 20.
Penn State has scored on just four of seven trips (three touchdowns) in seven possessions in the red zone. Five of those seven possessions came after turnovers and one on a blocked punt.
And the Nittany Lions are having to make it to paydirt through the air.
None of the team’s scores has come on the ground this season. Even the New England Patriots, where O’Brien coached last season, know that you have to be able to run the ball inside the 20.
Penn State’s 57.1 percent conversion rate in the red zone is the worst in the Big Ten, by more than 18 percentage points and is tied for 108th nationally.
But, the numbers don’t stop on offense. Opponents have scored all five times they’ve reach the red zone on Penn State.
Four of those five times have yielded touchdowns, including Virginia’s game-winning score last week.
That Cavalier touchdown came on a third-down play, which is highly appropriate this season. Penn State’s defense is last in the Big Ten and 118th in the nation, allowing opponents to convert on 22 of 36 third downs. The Nittany Lions have stopped opponents on third down just three times in 21 attempts during the second half.
You’re not going to win many games like that.
And Penn State is in dire need of a win. The program has had just one of those since the university fired Joe Paterno last November.
Excuse the pun, but Navy presents the opportunity to get the ship righted. The Midshipmen were throttled 50-10 by Notre Dame in Ireland on Week 1.
While Navy’s triple option offense is tricky — and could be tough on a team that is struggling to stop opponents on third down — this is a game Penn State should be putting in the win column.
Maybe that gives the Nittany Lions a little momentum headed toward a Big Ten schedule that certainly hasn’t produced any world-beaters thus far.
And maybe a couple of wins will help Nittany Nation forget about the score with the NCAA.
Walt Moody is sports editor at the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4630. Follow him on Twitter @wmoodycdt