Monday, November 23, 2009

I Love the Drake (and Running the Football)

Forgive me for my lack of excitement over the weekend, but given Penn State's two home losses to Iowa and Ohio State, not to mention the Eagles continuing to make the same old mistakes, I just couldn't get myself too worked up over the games against Michigan State and the Bears, even though both had enormous implications for postseason play.

Penn State, despite its weaker than weak schedule, two home losses and overall underwhelming performance in 2009, was still in the BCS bowl discussion, and with a 42-14 victory, the Nittany Lions will probably (and wrongfully) be in one. And the Eagles, of course, sat at 5-4 heading into last night's game, just on the outskirts of the NFC playoff picture thanks to victories by the Cowboys and Giants earlier in the day. With the 24-20 victory, the Eagles moved back into the wild card lead, displacing the Giants, whom they already beat.

And yet, I really couldn't get into the games all that much. I watched, sure. And I watched with my usual critical eye, but I just couldn't put too much emotion into either game. These teams have broken me to the point of truly not allowing them to dictate my mood. Been that kind of season I guess. That approach seemed warranted after Penn State played a lackluster first half, putting up no points against a porous Michigan State defense in the first quarter and going into halftime tied 7-7.

However, the game turned on the first drive of the second half. Stephfon Green took the opening kickoff 37 yards to the Penn State 46, and three plays later, Philadelphia's own Curtis Drake made the play that put the Nittany Lions ahead for good. The freshman from West Catholic took a backward swing pass from Daryll Clark, and the high school quarterback faked as though he was going to run, stopped and fired one to the end zone. That's where Andrew Quarless, despite being double teamed, leaped up and snagged the pass for a touchdown, his second TD grab of the game. I love the Drake.

Between the last game against Indiana and then again yesterday, Drake has displayed his versatility and speed, proving he'll be a big asset to Penn State in the years to come. Against Indiana, he touched the ball three times, gaining 60 yards. That's 20 yards per touch. The highlight was his 26-yard gain on a reverse, where he really showcased his first-rate speed. And Saturday, he was at it again, gaining 18 yards on his only run of the game, hauling in two passes for 22 yards and posting a perfect quarterback rating, hitting Quarless in the end zone from 14 yards out.

From there, it was all Penn State. They rattled off four touchdowns in the third quarter and made it five in a row to go up 42-7 before the Spartans scored once more to end the game. After a subpar first half, Penn State came out and steamrolled Michigan State in the second, led by Evan Royster's 114 yards rushing and 8.8 yards per carry. In his three years at Penn State, the Nittany Lions are undefeated when Royster rushes for 100 yards or more. That's not a coincidence.

Daryll Clark and Graham Zug also had very nice games, though Clark was pretty bad in the first half and Zug inexplicably dropped an easy touchdown pass. Still, their numbers were impressive. Clark finished the game 19 of 27 passing for 310 yards and four touchdowns. Zug caught two of those TDs, nabbing four passes in all for 99 yards. And Quarless did the rest of the heavy lifting, scoring the first two TDs for Penn State and finishing with four catches for 62 yards.

Defensively, pretty much everyone played tremendously, with the exception of Josh Hull, who was burnt in coverage numerous times, because he sucks. But everyone else looked pretty good, especially Navorro Bowman, who was flying all over the field. And Nick Sukay even hauled in a pick, showing he's not useless back there.

Now, unjustly, Penn State will probably be playing in a BCS bowl. And they may be going to one in place of Iowa — you know, the team that beat Penn State in Beaver Stadium. Even despite the fact that Penn State has beaten such powerhouses as Akron, Syracuse, Temple (bowl eligible!), Eastern Illinois and Indiana. Their other wins came against Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State, all teams that are mediocre or worse. The only two quality opponents Penn State faced were Iowa and Ohio State. They lost to both of them. At home. That's a résumé that should disqualify any team from BCS contention. Yet all the computers and the pollsters and the bowl people see is a 10-2 record for a Penn State team that has a huge following and a fanbase that travels well to bowl games. In others, all they see is money. And that's why this average Penn State team is going to go to a BCS bowl. And that's wrong, especially if they get a BCS bid at the expense of an Iowa team that came in to Happy Valley and soundly defeated them. This is all coming from a diehard Penn State fan and alum.

But hey, at least Penn State wrapped up a disappointing 2009 season with a victory and a 10-2 record. I know there are a ton of programs that would be dying to finish 10-2.

Then there was last night's game in Chicago. From the start, it looked like the Eagles may be in for an easy night. On their first two drives, the Eagles went right down the field, doing a very nice job of balancing the pass and the run. On the opening possession, the Eagles went 68 yards in 8 plays to get to the Chicago 7. Of those eight plays, four of them were runs, an even 4:4 run/pass ratio. The Eagles stalled at the 7 and had to kick of field goal.

The defense followed up by stopping the Bears, and on the second drive, the Eagles took over on their own 24. They they proceeded to march 76 yards right down the field, capped by a 13-yard touchdown pass from Donovan to Jason Avant. The drive consisted of 8 plays and a penalty. The Eagles ran on four of those 8 plays again, for a 4:4 run/pass ratio. One was a McNabb scramble, so the Birds actually called 3 runs and 5 passes, but still, good ratio. They were up 10-0 and moving the ball at will, keeping Chicago off-balance by mixing up the play-calling.

Then the Eagles stopped running. Completely. And the Bears inched back into it behind the foot of Robbie Gould, better known as the player whose agent/lawyer sent me a cease and desist letter. Stupid Gould, who again could not hit a field goal if the goal posts were 50 yards apart at Penn State, made four field goals from 45, 28, 28 and 49 yards. I hate Robbie Gould.

But I hate Andy and Marty and their stupid play calling even more. After moving down the field with ease and putting up 10 points on their first two drives by balancing the run and pass evenly, the Eagles then went pass-happy again. On their third drive, the plays went like this: run, pass, penalty, pass, pass, pass, sack, punt. That's one run and five passes for 0 points. Following another Gould field goal, the Eagles went sack, pass, pass, run, run, interception. Four passes, two runs, 0 points. The next drive went just one play, when McNabb hit DeSean Jackson, who then fumbled and was recovered by Penn Stater Anthony Adams. After another Robbie Gould field goal made it 10-9 with 13 seconds left, LeSean McCoy did get a rush to end the half. That hardly counts.

So to recap, the Eagles ran the ball 8 times and passed the ball 8 times in the first two series and scored 10 points, building a 10-0 lead. Then they stopped running altogether, and a 10-0 lead turned into a 10-9 lead at halftime. Naturally, any smart coach would look at what worked and what didn't in that first half, then look at themselves in the mirror and conclude they had to get back to the run. But not Andy and Marty. No. Let's pass, pass, pass.

On their first possession of the 2nd half, the Eagles went incomplete pass, 5-yard penalty, pass, incomplete pass, punt. A three and out, no runs whatsoever. Sav Rocca, who should be cut today, punted the ball 16 yards, giving Chicago great field position. After another Gould field goal, the score was 12-10 Bears. The Eagles actually went back to the run, gaining 7 yards on first down with McCoy, then committing another dumb penalty, then gaining 10 yards on a swing pass that technically was a lateral to DeSean for a first down. They they gained 6 yards on a run by McCoy. That's three runs for 23 yards, over 7 yards per carry. Then McNabb got sacked, followed by a completion to Maclin short of the first down. Tough break, but they were running effectively and moved the ball a little bit before having to punt.

After the defense got a stop, the Eagles scored on the second play on a 48-yard bomb by McNabb to DeSean. Why? Because the Eagles got back to the run on the previous possession, forcing the Bears to respect the run and bring more guys in the box. That allowed DeSean to break free in the secondary, using his great speed, and McNabb hit him for the TD to regain the lead, 17-12.

Shocking how that works. On their only other scoring drive, the one that won the game, the drive breakdown went like this: run, pass, run, pass, run, pass, pass, run, pass, pass, run. That's 5 runs and 6 passes, resulting in a touchdown. What do you know? That final run was the 10-yard touchdown by LeSean McCoy that put the Eagles up 24-20 following a blocked field goal on a 48-yard attempt by Gould. That block felt so good for me. Nothing like seeing the dejected face of Robbie Gould. And then to punch it in the end zone to take the lead, well, that was the icing on the cake.

Of course, the game wasn't simply if you run the ball you will win. Jay Cutler was terrible yet again, helping out the Eagles by missing three completely wide open receivers for what surely would have been touchdowns. And the defense, despite getting the big stop at the end when it needed it, couldn't generate consistent pressure, even against a suspect Chicago line, Sean McDermott can't dial up a blitz that works to save his life, no one can tackle, and Chris Gocong completely sucks at football. Seriously, when Jeremiah Trotter has an infinitely better game than you at linebacker, that's a problem. For my money, Gocong was the worst player on the field for either team, getting beat badly for a touchdown, overrunning nearly every one of the few plays he actually was in position to make, and flat-out sucking. He's not a football player. Just isn't. At least not a linebacker. Stand-up defensive end, maybe. But linebacker, no.

Having said that, there were plenty of positives from this game too. For starters, they won, to improve to 6-4 on the season. Trent Cole was a beast, Sheldon played well despite being hurt and most of the D didn't make many mistakes. Even Dimitri Patterson played reasonably well, especially when that pussy Asante left the game. Seriously, Asante, you're getting paid huge bucks. Get out on the field. Hell, even Macho Harris did a decent job in coverage. It helps that the Bears don't really have any real wide receivers, but still.

Offensively, McNabb was sharp, completing 72 percent of his passes, and the Eagles proved they could run the ball, gaining 157 yards on the ground. The __Seans each had excellent games, as LeSean gained 99 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown while DeSean nabbed 8 catches for 107 and a score. Of course, it would help if these two secured the ball better, as both fumbled. Gotta hold on to that thing.

It was an important victory for the course of the season, and maybe after watching the game tape, Andy and Marty will realize just how scary good this offense can be when they stay balanced, though I doubt it. If they stick to running the ball, given how well LeSean has played this year, it will open things up even more for the explosive receivers. DeSean is a stud, Maclin looks more and more like the first-rounder he was each and every week, Celek is a bona-fide Pro Bowl candidate and Jason Avant is as reliable as slot receivers come. If you force teams to respect the run the way the Bears had to last night, the passing game will become even more efficient and explosive. It's not rocket science, though at times you'd think it was given the play-calling. If you run, the wins will come.

Oh, and Tim Shaw is on the Bears. He made two great special teams plays, one an enormous hit. Who knew he was still alive, let alone in the NFL? That makes for three Penn Staters on the Bears (Anthony Adams, Robbie Gould, Tim Shaw) and even a Temple Owl (Jason McKie). Good to see those guys are earning paychecks in the NFL. (Well, good for everyone except Robbie Gould. Fuck Robbie Gould. He doesn't deserve shit.)

BallHype: hype it up!

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