Weekly Preview: Penn State

Image Credit: Big Ten Network

Opponent: Penn State Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten Conference)
Location: Beaver Stadium (106,572)
Date: Saturday, November 1, 2014
Time: 12:00 PM ET
TV/Radio Broadcasts: ESPN2, Maryland Sports Radio Network

(Discuss this article on the BSL Message Board here.)

Opponent Preview

The Penn State Nittany Lions are in their first year of the James Franklin era, and the 2014 season has seen them experience some serious inconsistencies, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They started off their season in Dublin, Ireland, where they beat UCF by two points in a thriller of a game. They won their next three games vs. Akron, at Rutgers, and vs. Massachusetts. But the tides changed at that point for Penn State, as they lost vs. Northwestern, at Michigan, and vs. Ohio State. When the Nittany Lions have won, they’ve done it with their defense.

Penn State’s defense ranks 9th in the country in fewest points allowed per game. Bob Shoop is the team’s defensive coordinator, and had the same position at Vanderbilt when James Franklin was the head coach there. The defensive line talent in Happy Valley is outstanding. Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are the team’s starting defensive tackles, while Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan man the defensive end spots. Barnes and Zettel are tied for the team lead with 4 sacks each, and Zettel also leads the team in tackles for loss with 8.

Senior LB Mike Hull already has 83 tackles on the season, which comes to an average of over 11 tackles per game. He had his best game of the season last week against Ohio State, recording 19 tackles (2.5 for loss), and an interception. Penn State’s front seven is one of the most talented units in the country, led by their defensive line and their outstanding middle linebacker. Maryland’s offensive line will have their hands full on Saturday afternoon.

While the Nittany Lions’ defense has been incredibly fun to watch, the offense has not been for the fans in Happy Valley. There were extremely high hopes for QB Christian Hackenburg following his amazing freshman campaign. But he has experienced some inconsistencies this season, completing just under 60% of his passes and tossing 9 interceptions and just 6 touchdowns. However, the play around him has not helped out the young quarterback. He has already taken more sacks this season than he had all of last season, a testament to the play of the offensive line. He has also had to shoulder most of the offensive load, as the team’s running game has been invisible so far this season. Penn State’s rushing game ranks 123rd in the country this season, averaging just 82.1 yards per game. In their last game against Ohio State, starting RB Zach Zwinak injured his left leg and is done for the season. Maryland’s run defense has improved over the past few weeks, but it will be their pass defense that will be tested this week by Christian Hackenburg.

Maryland Preview

The Maryland Terrapins are coming off of a demoralizing loss in Madison, Wisconsin last week, which saw them lose to the Badgers by a score of 52-7. They were thoroughly dominated in every facet of the game, and were nearly shut out. There were very few positives about the game, but the Maryland defense was able to hold Melvin Gordon to his 2nd-lowest rushing total so far this season. The Terps hold a respectable 5-3 (2-2 Big Ten Conference) record, but the next few weeks will say a lot about this team. With games against Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Rutgers remaining, the goal must be to win 2-3 of their remaining games.

Penn State’s front seven will make it very difficult for the Terps to get anything going on the ground. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley will need to rely more heavily on misdirection runs and screen passes to take some pressure off of his offensive line. QB C.J. Brown will need to show poise and maturity in the face of the rowdy Penn State crowd. The coaching staff should try to get him into an early rhythm with short, easy passes to his receivers. His legs will likely be a key in this game as well, so getting him involved in the running game with a number of option plays has to be a priority.

Maryland’s defensive backfield will be tested by Christian Hackenburg in this game. DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis are the Nittany Lions’ top two receivers, and William Likely and Jeremiah Johnson need to be ready for plenty of man-to-man coverage. Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart will likely attempt to get Hackenburg off-rhythm by using plenty of blitzes. He loves to blitz no matter who the Terps are playing, but expect to see the pressure dialed up even further on Saturday. Hackenburg is not a threat to run, so the defense can simply pin their ears back and come after him.

Opponent Interview

This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Travis Johnson. Travis is a Penn State football beat reporter for the Centre Daily Times. I’d like to thank him for his participation and his insightful responses.

BSL: Penn State comes into this game with a record of 4-3 (1-3 Big Ten Conference) and have lost each of their last 3 games. They came close to beating Ohio State at home last week, but fell just short in two overtimes. What have been your overall impressions of the team’s season so far, and where do they need the most improvement?

Johnson: For the most part, Penn State’s been great on defense but wildly inconsistent on offense. The Nittany Lions cannot run the ball and have given up 25 sacks. People that have covered the team have seen Christian Hackenberg absorb even more hits after he’s thrown the ball.

There were some bright spots against Ohio State. Hackenberg actually had a pocket to step up into at times and there were holes to run through.

Defensively, Penn State is playing lights out. Linebacker Mike Hull and defensive tackle Anthony Zettel are making plays and adding plenty of swagger of Bob Shoop’s schemes each week.

Special teams haven’t done much to help the offense. A punting unit ranked dead last in FBS hasn’t moved the initial line of scrimmage and has set Hull and Co. up to defend short fields.

Penn State’s offense has to run the ball. The defense has to keep doing what it’s doing.

BSL: Christian Hackenberg was one of the best quarterbacks in the country last season, but has struggled with consistency in his sophomore campaign. He has thrown just 6 touchdowns and 9 interceptions to date, and has not passed for over 250 yards in any of the team’s last four games. What have been his biggest downfalls so far this season, and what must he do to be the quarterback that James Franklin needs him to be?

Johnson: Hackenberg is just not playing well. His mechanics are shaky – somewhat a result of taking 25 sacks already (he took 21 all of last season) – but he hasn’t much improved them. Two bad throws turned into Buckeye interceptions last week and he’s not checking down when he could be. You get the sense from talking with him he’s just not found his comfort zone yet with this new offense or the coaches and it is showing. He’s still got a ton of guts, is a team player – the youngest captain Penn State’s elected – and has a strong arm. Even when he isn’t paying well, Hackenberg has the ability to make big throws that can change games.

BSL: The Penn State running game has been one of the worst in the country, and took a big hit last week when Zach Zwinak suffered an injury to his left leg. How do you expect the team to try and jump-start what has been a stagnant rushing attack?

Johnson: Two words: Akeel Lynch. Now the No. 2 man on the depth chart, Lynch should see more carries with Zach Zwinak sidelined for the season. Lynch has shown he can get North with limited work and that’s what Penn State needs, more suddenness at the line of scrimmage.

BSL: While the offense has had its issues, the Penn State defense has been one of the best in the country so far this season. Who are the players that Terps fans should be on the lookout for when Maryland has the ball?

Johnson: Zettel is the play wrecker from the inside. But Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan have made devastating plays from the ends. Austin Johnson is also paying extremely well in the middle of the d line. All of their success has made it easier on the LBs to do their jobs and Mike Hull was going to be a playmaker either way. The fact that he’s had more room to work with has only made him that more effective. Really, the entire front seven needs to be watched as one.

BSL: Last but not least, what are your keys to the game for the Nittany Lions?

Johnson: Improve play calling and timeout management.

Example of both at once from last week:

– Penn State had a third down play and two timeouts with less than two minutes remaining in the second half. Ohio State showed blitz to Penn State’s empty backfield, no tight end look. Hackenberg took the snap, OSU blitzed and he had to throw it early. Incomplete. Gotta call a timeout there or audible into a formation with more blockers.

Run the ball.

Eliminate poor choices with the football.

Hackenberg can’t throw the passes he did against the Buckeyes.

Zack’s Keys to the Game

  • Pressure Hackenburg - When Christian Hackenburg is given time in the pocket, he can pick apart a defense. Brian Stewart has to dial up the pressure early and often in an attempt to get the young quarterback out of his rhythm.
  • Sustain your drives - Even if every drive doesn’t result in points, the Maryland offense needs to be able to play the field-position game right along with Penn State. This game will likely be won with defense.
  • Play smart - Penn State’s offense has been incredibly inconsistent. But if they get the ball in your territory after a turnover or another mistake, it’s a lot easier for them to find their rhythm. Avoid that by playing smart and protecting the football.
  • Remember VT? - Last season, the Terps made their way down to Blacksburg and beat what was an extremely good defensive team. It made a big impact on this team, and it should give them the confidence necessary to head up to Happy Valley and come away with a big road win.
  • Play around C.J. - C.J. Brown will be the key to this game for the Terps. He will need to be on top of his game, play smart with the football, and lead a clutch drive or two in order for Maryland to come away with a win.
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Dime Coverage: Ravens at Mid-Season

steve-smith-nfl-preseason-san-francisco-49ers-baltimore-ravens-850x560

It’s already Week Nine in the NFL.

I swear the pro football season seems to kick into high gear once we get past opening weekend and it never seems to let up until we get an extra chill in the air and the prospect of the playoffs. With that in mind I thought this week would be a good time to evaluate where the Ravens are at this stage of the year and where the second half of the season might take them.

Discuss your thoughts on this topic on our message board.

  • The Ravens are currently (5-3) and even though they blew a chance to take ahold of their division last week by dropping another close game to the Bengals. They are by no means out of the hunt for a return to the post-season. The division is still wide open with every team sporting a winning mark right now. The AFC North could be the league’s strongest division and putting all bias aside the facts speak for themselves. The division has the highest collective winning percentage in the league (.616), has the most wins (18), and is the only division without a losing team (or even one at .500). There’s still plenty of work to be done and they’ll have more opportunties to get a leg up on the competition starting with the hated Steelers in prime-time Sunday night.
  • The remaining schedule isn’t easy but it does appear more navigable than in past seasons. In Week Ten the team returns home to play a struggling Titans team and then gets a much needed rest in Week Eleven to gear up for the stretch run into December. The last six games are split evenly and cleanly alternate between road and home starting with traveling to New Orleans and finishing with the Browns at M & T, which could have important playoff implications.
  • Flacco Watch: The million dollar quarterback still is having his best season to date under the direction of coordinator Gary Kubiak. Flacco’s mechanics appear the cleanest of his pro career and he’s on pace to finish with highs in yardage and touchdowns. (173-249, 2049 yds., 14 TD, 7 INT, 90.6 RTG) He still has his occasional hiccups, and he always will at this point. The improved play of the line and running game have helped put him in a position where the Ravens can win with him under center and perhaps make a post-season run.
  • Justin Forsett. Like most I barely noticed when the Ravens made the move to sign the journeyman in April. It was a depth move, and one that wouldn’t make or break the season. Now it’s hard to imagine where the running game would be without him. Ray Rice suspended and released. Bernard Pierce continuing to fight injuries and underproduction was a healthy scratch last week. Forsett has been there to fill the void. He’s on his way to his first 1,000 yard season of  his career and it’s made fans wonder if the team should re-sign him after his one year deal expires. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro has steadily risen up the depth chart and is now the compliment to the shifty Forsett. He found the endzone twice last week and could be the long-term answer if the Ravens choose to let Forsett walk and maybe they add another runner from the next draft. Either way the once dismal ground attack is back and holding steady as 8th best (128.4 yds.) in the league.
  • Steve Smith Sr. The story sounds familiar to Ravens fans. A veteran offensive player who wants to prove the doubters that he can still produce at a high level is signed and makes an impact in Baltimore. The fiesty Smith has been a big part of why the Ravens pass attack is in the top half of the league. He leads the team in targets (68), receiving yards (675) and is tied for touchdowns (4). The big question for me is can the 35-year old Smith keep healthy the rest of the way. The Other Smith, Torrey seems headed in the opposite direction. He has only 18 receptions and just hasn’t been on the same page as his quarterback. Is Torrey simply a “one trick” pony or do you feel that the Ravens are misusing him? Either way he isn’t producing and it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be back in Baltimore next year.
  • The team has relied heavily on Owen Daniels since Dennis Pitta went down with another season ending injury. Daniels has caught 27 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns and has been a red-zone threat. His recent knee cleanup surgery has been downplayed by the coaching staff but he’s another player whose durability should be questioned moving forward.
  • The defensive front seven has put in solid work for Baltimore during the first half of 2014. Brandon Williams has stepped in and helped transform Baltimore into one of the best run stopping units around. His run stop percentage currently ranks sixth for defensive tackles, per PFF. He also takes on double teams and allows linebackers to make plays. Rookie C.J. Mosley has been one of the benficiaries and leads the team in tackles (76) and shown himself to be a quick study and to have a nose for the football. Pernell McPhee also has seemingly settled into his own, creating mismatches and sack opportunites from the inside and outside.
  • Haloti Ngata is also back to creating problems for the opposition. He’s only the second NFL defensive lineman (other than J.J. Watt) with a sack, interception and forced fumble in the first eight weeks of the season. So far he’s been healthy and productive but can he finish just as strong? Elvis Dumervil has seven sacks. He’s doing just what you hoped he would at this point and even though Terrell Suggs only has 3.5 of his own he’s been steady against the run and in providing pressure.
  • The secondary has been the biggest weak spot on the team thus far. Even with Jimmy Smith’s (now out for “several” weeks) Pro Bowl level play the team continues to struggle defending the pass. Injuries haven’t help as Lardarius Webb finally looks healthy but Asa Jackson most likely will miss the  rest of the season. That’s forced the team to get creative in using a variety of Safeties to play on the back end with mixed results. Former first-rounder Matt Elam is probably the most disappointing as he is tied for the NFL lead in missed tackles (12) by Defensive Backs. Five of those were last week in Cincinnati in a forgettable performance. My hope is that Will Hill’s reps will increase until he hopefully takes over a starter role to provide some stability from the back line.
  • Justin Tucker continues his ascent as one of the top kickers in the league. He has converted 10 of his 11 last field-goal tries, and his only miss was a 64-yarder that got blocked. He is 18-of-21 (85.7 percent) on the season and the Ravens continue to have faith in him to hit long tries. He has six attempts of 50 yds. or more this season. You’d think anytime he’s in range Coach Harbaugh would want to take those points since they’re automatic at this point.
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Can Damonte Dodd Be The Center Maryland Needs?

(Discuss over at the BSL forums here)

Since losing Alex Len, the Maryland Terrapins have had a carousel at the center position. The heir apparent, Shaquille Cleare, is now halfway across the country at the University of Texas playing. The undersized rebounder performing spot-duty, Charles Mitchell, is now with former ACC rival Georgia Tech as a result of, basically, a trade for Robert Carter. And the new kid on the block, four-star center Trayvon Reed, well, he was booted off campus before even stepping foot on the court.

So Maryland has thrust Damonte Dodd into the center of the ring, the three-star bouncy big man from Virginia who no one expected to be starting this early. Dodd came into College Park after spending a year in prep school readying his body for the rigors of D-I basketball, and was considered a four-year project at best. Instead, here he is in year two of his short career, the unqestioned starter at center. The job is his to lose.
The bigger question at hand, however, is a trickier one:

Is he ready?

Last Season

If we’re making honest assessments about players, then this necessitates being objective about what we have. Damonte Dodd played 166 minutes of basketball last season, and there were only about 14 minutes worth of basketball that one can actually say was even decent.

Against N.C. State, he went 3-for-3, pulled down 4 rebounds, and recorded a block. That’s it, really. He also had a seven-minute stint against Duke that most agreed was a decent showing, but his final stat line isn’t indicative of his decent play.

For the rest of that time, Dodd looked pretty lost out on the court. ACC basketball is a whole lot faster than rural hoops in Massannutten, Virginia, and it showed with Dodd’s play. More often than not, his teammates and coaches were tutoring him on a possession-by-possession basis, which isn’t a bad thing because Dodd willingly listened.

But were Dodd ready last year, he’d have played. Maryland needed a rim protector, and there’s no question Dodd wanted to provide that, but his play would have made the team worse. It would have been unfair to saddle him with that burden.

Rim Protection, Steals, Rebounds

The good news is that no matter what, Dodd is going to be able to provide rim protection that Maryland lacked last year. The advanced statistics show that Dodd blocked at a decent rate (5.9% of opponent shots were blocked while he was on the floor), just a little off Alex Len’s own numbers. Dodd has a lot of athleticism and length, and it’s not difficult to envision him sending back three shots a game.

I compare him to a guy like Chris Obekpa over at St. John’s. Absolutely bereft of much polish elsewhere in his game, but a shot blocking extraordianire who can provide the occasional dunk. Dodd isn’t going to be asked to do anything this year but stay out of foul trouble and alter shots inside the paint. The thought of being blocked is just as powerful as the actual block, and Dodd should have the ability to excel there.

He’s also going to provide some intangibles, it looks like. Dodd may have only had three steals on the season, but for a big man who only played a few minutes, that’s actually encouraging. Len played almost three times as many minutes and recorded four steals total. Those type of things usually translate, and anything Dodd can provide will be a big help.

He’s also an alright rebounder. Not great, and certainly not dominant, but passable. He’s not like Josh Smith over at Georgetown bad, but he’s also not as good as Len, Jordan Williams, or even Jonathan Graham. He may never be a double-double guy, but if he can read angles a little better he might get close.

Foul Trouble

Sometimes, numbers aren’t very accurate. But when it comes to foul rates, advanced numbers almost always translate out to be correct. Dodd picked up foul rates at an almost laughably high rate last season, which is bad news for a big man striving to be productive. Dodd averaged about 9.5 fouls per 100 possessions, or 6.3 blocks per 40 minutes.

Dodd needs to learn to control himself better, and avoid the ticky-tacky fouls beneath the basket on the defensive side that just aren’t worth picking up. That can be the single-most limiting factor for some big men, and oftentimes even NBA centers have difficulty not picking them up. From what we saw last year, this is going to give Dodd problems all year, much like it did Shaquille Cleare. As a result, we’re going to see more Graham and Cekovsky.

Little offensive improvement, but steady growth

If you’re looking for encouragement, know that Dodd managed to improve steadily throughout the year (albeit very incrementally). His player efficiency rating (which knocks defensive players more than offensive guys) went from 4.4 overall to 10.5 during conference play as the competition increased.

Dodd getting better overall defensively is necessary, because his offensive output will be negligible enough to make one consider whether he is playable there. Dodd does not have great touch on the ball, and that’s evident by his atrocious free throw shooting (12% from the line). Dodd was actually great at getting to the line, but once he was there things didn’t go well.

He’ll have a couple dunks, and perhaps a putback or two (although he did not show great touch with those either), but as we saw with Shaquille Cleare, it’s hard to play a guy who cannot provide any offense. It puts a lot of pressure on all the other players on the court to exceed expectations, and allows defensese to hone in on other guys since they can essentially ignore one.

Outlook

As a personal opinion, even as Coach Turgeon suggests that Dodd is the most improved player over the summer, I question whether Dodd is ready for the starting gig. His play last year was encouraging for a four-year player, but for a year-two starter? Not at all. He’ll be going up against big men who know how to fill it up as opposed to the wing and guard oriented ACC, and that will be a tough assignment for Dodd.

If he has improved, and can stay out of foul trouble while also knocking down his own foul shots, then Dodd will be a big plus for the Terps. He’ll get to sop up minutes, and that will put Graham on the court less and give Cekovsky even more time to grow into a hybrid guy. But if fans were frustrated with Shaquille Cleare all last season, they’re going to be just as disappointed with Damonte Dodd on a daily basis. It only took a few games for folks to start clamoring for Dodd, and I have a feeling it may only take a few games this year for folks to start begging for Cekovsky.

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Posted in Terps Basketball | Tagged | Leave a comment