Despite an outstanding first 28 minutes of football and going up 21-0, the Wildcats collapsed spectacularly in Happy Valley today — losing 35-21, earning their third loss and gifting Joe Paterno his 400th career win. Despite the colossal effort of Pennsylvania-native and quarterback Dan Persa, who attempted to vindicate his recruiting snub a few years ago, the Wildcats were unable to even muster a whimper against the Nittany Lions in the second half. There was plenty of blame to go around, but it starts with our beloved head coach.
Who is this head coach and what has he done with Pat Fitzgerald?
Big penalties keeping opposing drives alive. A stubborn refusal to change a failing game plan. A team coming out flat at halftime despite a 14-point lead. Inability to close out the game.
These are the things that quality coaches simply don’t allow. Whether it’s a lack of discipline or simply playing as inferior athletes, the Wildcats continue to dig themselves into deep holes with costly penalties. While this week’s four flags for 40 yards don’t add up to much, they came in key situations, especially the pass interference flag on 3rd and 12 during the 3rd quarter as the Nittany Lions were driving to take the lead. The players are to blame to a certain extent, but these mistakes start in practice.
And then there is the play calling. Whether it’s the long third down conversions or the irrational commitment to his running backs, there simply are no aggressive plays in Fitz’s repertoire right now. Two straight runs in the red zone with the ‘Cats needing a score embody this absurd approach to drawing up a game plan. The Wildcats ran the ball 43 times and passed only 25. Those numbers should speak for themselves.
The defensive play was equally frustrating; while tackling was shoddy, the inability to change up the pressure and force turnovers were truly the most frustrating elements of the game. Sure, offensive coordinator Mick McCall and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz should bear part of this scrutiny, but this problem starts with the man on top, and he’s going to have to finally make an adjustment. It’s time to stop asking when Coach Fitzgerald is going to fix this miserable play and start asking if he can.
The ‘Cats are getting killed in the trenches on both sides.
With the special teams and penalty problems receiving most of the attention, the Wildcats’ inadequacy on both the offensive and defensive lines has largely gone unnoticed. That won’t last after the epic collapse this week against Penn State.
Dan Persa was sacked 4 times, and when he wasn’t sacked, he spent his time running for his life. Considering the lackluster play of the five in front of him, Persa’s day of rushing looks even more tremendous: a career-high 111 yards with 2 touchdowns, many of which coming on broken plays.
On the other side of the ball, it was a tale of two halves. In the first half the ‘Cats roughed up quarterback Rob Bolden to the tune of 2 sacks and a forced fumble (the only turnover of the game), but in the second half there was zero pressure on the Nittany Lions. Matt McGloin was never sacked on his way to a four-TD game, besting the Wildcats time and time again with screen passes to running back Evan Royster, who also added 134 yards on the ground. Royster was one of two 100-yard rushers for Penn State alongside Silas Redd (11 carries for 131). Penn State scored touchdowns on five straight drives; while that clearly represents a complete defensive breakdown, the misery began with the poor play of the Wildcats’ D-line.
Don’t plan on a Florida winter break now.
This loss did a huge amount of damage to the Wildcats’ postseason plans as well. With the win, Penn State leapfrogged Northwestern in the Big Ten standings, putting the ‘Cats at the conference’s eighth spot. Barring what would be a colossal upset win against Iowa or Wisconsin, this really brings the stakes of the Nov. 20 game against Illinois at Wrigley Field to a new high: after Illinois’ loss today, they too will likely be playing their hearts out at Wrigley for a decent bowl. Even with a (doubtful) 2-1 finish, the Wildcats have played their way from the swamps of Florida to the desert of Arizona or Texas. After a promising 5-0 start, this has to be a heartbreaking turn of events for Fitz & Co.