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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

October 13, 2009
Somewhat lost in all the justified gnashing of teeth following the Duke loss was this little factoid: State committed ZERO penalties. This was, of course, in stark contrast to the prior games against Wake Forest and Pittsburgh in which the Pack committed eight and 12, penalties respectively. The closest State had come to playing penalty-free football prior was the four penalty performance in the opening game against South Carolina.

It doesn’t change the “L” to a “W,” of course, but there’s no one complaining about it. You have to think that playing mistake-free football was a point of emphasis during practice the week leading up to the game. To the team’s credit, they took heed.

But if State is to become a better football team — one that plays up to and above its talent level — the course of the season can’t be spent addressing a new glaring issue each week.

After the first week loss to SC, the issue was offensive line play. South Carolina shredded our line and sacked Russell Wilson six times. During the next three weeks as the Pack destroyed its FCS competition, you could tell offensive line play was a point of emphasis. Sure enough, the offensive line looked like a new unit against Pitt’s athletic defensive front, limiting the Panthers to just one sack while State racked up 530 yards of offense.

But with the offensive line issue seemingly fixed, the penalty bugaboo made its presence known against Pitt with the aforementioned 12 penalties. The penalties decreased the following week against Wake but were more damaging — the brain-dead, drive killing/extending kind.

State puts a goose egg in the penalty column against Duke but now faces its third glaring issue of the year (one that’s been there since the Pitt game, truthfully): defensive woes. Specifically, poor tackling and lack of aggression.

The scheme is to blame for a good bit of it, particularly the ease with which Duke completed five-yard outs, but the scheme doesn’t prevent a player from making tackles or pressuring the opposition when they squat down in the zone. Too many times the State players would drop into coverage on their heels, waiting for the pass to be thrown before making a move toward Thad Lewis’ intended target. Rarely, if ever, did State’s defenders anticipate the throw.

Even more alarming is that State switched to a man defense in the second half to adjust. Couldn’t tell? Don’t worry…not many folks noticed, either. The film of State’s “man” defense in the second half could very well be submitted to coaching clinics on how not to play man defense. Entitle it: “How To Play Man So Soft They’ll Think You’re Playing Zone!”

So here we are at the midway point with yet another large, glaring issue waiting to be solved. So far, the coaching staff has seemingly fixed the offensive line issue, and subsequently the penalty issue. Can they fix this one in time to salvage a bowl bid? Moreover, can they fix it without creating more problems along the way? Or will a fourth glaring issue of the season arise against Boston College that requires another week or two of practice to correct, just in time for the conclusion of the season?

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