Red-zone turnovers burn Penn State

Paterno
Paterno
Posted: September 13, 2010

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - There are plays, bad plays, that a football team can shrug off without cause for too much introspection.

There are plays, bad plays, that can be frustrating in a collective sense.

And there are plays, really bad plays, that can suck the life out of a group of players, leaving them to feel like famished beggars at a banquet only the other squad gets to enjoy.

Penn State had too many close encounters of the third kind Saturday night against defending national champion and top-ranked Alabama, turning the ball over four times, three of which thwarted red-zone scoring opportunities, in a 24-3 loss. That wasn't such a good thing for the young Nittany Lions, but it was worse for their 83-year-old coach, Joe Paterno, who didn't attempt to conceal his displeasure with what he had observed on a very muggy evening in packed, noisy Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"He was mad. He told us we were lousy, and he was right,'' guard Stefen Wisniewski said of the postgame tongue-lashing Paterno delivered, which followed the physical manhandling the Crimson Tide had put on Penn State, as reflected by Alabama's 409 to 283 edge in total yards.

Nor was Paterno, in grumpy-old-man mode, disposed to be any less harsh in a brief, agitated session with the media.

"We came down here knowing how good they were,'' Paterno groused when asked if Alabama was as formidable as its No. 1 ranking would suggest. "We didn't rise up to it. I'm not just blaming the kids. I thought our kids didn't play well, and I don't think we did a good job coaching. Period.''

Pressed by a reporter to repeat an answer the reporter hadn't heard clearly, JoePa snapped, "That's tough. Get a hearing aid.''

Figure the Nits, who fell four spots to 22nd in the Associated Press poll, to pay a heavy price for their perceived transgressions in practice this week, with a home date against Kent State looming. They were tossed into the 'Bama slammer by a more talented, perhaps better-prepared team that won going away despite the absence of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner (tailback Mark Ingram, who is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery) and its best defensive lineman (the suspended Marcell Dareus).

Maybe the biggest question going forward is how true freshman quarterback Rob Bolden will react after being cuffed around by Alabama's defense. Penn State was held without a touchdown for the first time since a 13-3 loss at Wisconsin on Nov. 4, 2006, and came within a 36-yard Collin Wagner field goal in the fourth quarter of being shut out for the first time since Michigan won, 20-0, on Oct. 6, 2001.

One Alabama beat writer offered the opinion that Bolden was "treated by the Alabama defense like he had a pork chop around his neck and got dropped in a Rottweiler pen.''

Bolden wasn't sacked, but he was consistently pressured in completing 13 of 29 passes for 144 yards with two back-breaking picks.

"I think he handled most of it really well,'' quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said of Bolden's first real baptism by fire. "He was not in awe of anything. He didn't flinch. We just had a couple of plays he didn't make. A couple of them, he got hit on the throws. We dropped a pass here and there. That's six or seven plays that were kind of a grab bag - whether it was [lack of] protection or a missed throw or we didn't make the catch.''

Alabama led, 7-0, in the first quarter when the first red-zone miscue rose up to haunt Penn State like the ghost of Bear Bryant. Playing a third-and-8 from the Tide 20-yard-line, Bolden, with linebacker Dont'a Hightower in his face, hurried a throw that was intercepted by free safety Will Lowery at the 3.

That hurt, but not nearly so much as the Keystone Kops sequence in the second quarter when Penn State seemed poised to slice into Alabama's 14-0 lead. On a second-and-6 at the Alabama 16, Bolden hit Chaz Powell in the left flat, but he coughed it up when hit by strong safety Mark Barron. Free safety Robert Lester scooped up the loose ball and took off for the other goal line, with wide receiver Derek Moye in hot pursuit.

Moye caught up and stripped Lester inside the 10, where the ball was recovered by fellow wideout Brett Brackett at the Penn State 2.

"The play was pretty crazy,'' Wisniewski said. "We ended up not turning the ball over, but we lost, like, 90 yards.''

Well, it was actually only 82, but who's counting?

The third red-zone botch came on Penn State's first drive of the third quarter, when, on a third-and-8 at the Alabama 26, Bolden, hurried by linebacker Ed Stinson, was intercepted by Lester at the 13.

"If you look at those three red-zone turnovers, we had a chance to win it,'' said Jay Paterno, an opinion his father apparently did not share. "It's 24-3, but it's not that far off.''

Rationalization and wishful thinking don't alter certain facts, though. Alabama tailback Trent Richardson, filling in for Ingram, carried 22 times for a career-high 144 yards and a touchdown and seldom went down on first contact. Red-zone woes or not, it never seemed as if Penn State really had a chance to pull off the upset.

"We had to play a perfect game to win,'' allowed Penn State wide receiver Devon Smith, who had a team-high five receptions, "and we didn't.''

NITTANY LINE PLUS

After every Penn State game this season, Daily News beat writer Bernard Fernandez will provide Nittany Line Plus with his observations and analysis. Here is his take on Saturday's 24-3 loss to No. 1 Alabama.

DID YOU NOTICE

-- That redshirt sophomore defensive end Pete Massaro, the former Marple Newtown High standout, registered his first career sack, a 9-yard takedown of Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy in the second quarter? The Crimson Tide possession ended with Cade Foster missing a 44-yard field goal.

-- That senior tailback Evan Royster's bid to become Penn State's leading career rusher hit another snag? Royster had nine carries for 32 yards and, for the season, has 20 carries for 72 yards. Coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Royster went into the season needing 481 yards to surpass Curt Warner's career record of 3,398 yards, but, at his current pace, would finish with 468, provided the Nits appear in a bowl game.

-- That Alabama occasionally lined up in five-wide-receiver, empty-backfield sets and the Wildcat formation, with tailback Trent Richardson and wide receiver Marquis Maze occasionally carrying the ball on direct snaps?

-- That Joe Paterno, who remains at 396 victories as a head coach, was denied his 500th win at Penn State since joining the program as an assistant to Rip Engle in 1950?

-- That the third Penn State interception throw came on a wobbly option pass by sophomore wide receiver Justin Brown in the fourth quarter?

-- That Alabama won on the 97th birthday of its late, great former coach, Paul "Bear'' Bryant?

-- That the Nits can get payback, in a manner of speaking, by beating the Kent State Golden Flashes this week? Kent State is the alma mater of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who, incidentally, evened his personal record against JoePa at 3-3, having gone 2-3 against him at Michigan State.

-- That it was a bad day all-around for Penn State, what with the three-time defending national champion women's volleyball team losing to Stanford on the same day in a tournament in Florida to end its epic, 109-match winning streak?

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