This weekend was like visiting a distant relative. More than a year ago, my wife and I identified this game — Alabama's trip to State College to take on old foe Penn State — as one of those kinds of games, the kind you're willing to spend a little extra and plan a long way in advance, just to be sure you're there. At the time we were planning, we weren't sure if we'd see Joe Paterno (note: as it turned out, we did not, in fact, see Joe Paterno) but still — how many times in your life will you get to see Happy Valley up close?
Slowly, those travel plans clicked into motion — our friends David and Kelly Hardin signed up eagerly, and everything fell into place. We were going to Penn State. To see a legendary rivalry renewed.
The diary of the actual road trip — and the parts about pickle sandwiches and other notable things from the road — can wait until later in the week. For now, let's focus on the actual game.
Much like last September, the vibe coming into this edition of the Bama-Penn State series was a little weird. It can't be overstated how excited PSU fans were to have Alabama in town: I don't know if anyone in crimson paid for a drink all weekend. Moreover, very few Nittany Lion fans we talked was willing to give the home team much of a chance. "You guys third string is as good as our first team," one guy said, and he meant it.
Of course, that struck me as an enormous red flag: Not only was our squad about 1,000 miles away from home, it was the first big test for an unproven quarterback corps that frankly looked bad in Week 1. With the historic nature of everything, it seemed like a moment for one of those games that eventually turns into a movie they sell in the campus bookstore.
Instead, Alabama did what it's done in nearly every road test under Nick Saban: Swarmed an inferior opponent with defense, and slowly broke its will on offense. Once Trent Richardson found the end zone just before halftime to make the score 17-3, it was apparent to anyone still watching that Penn State's only real chance was to hope Alabama would beat itself. And it wouldn't.
Some other thoughts ...
— Penn State's campus and stadium are equal parts gorgeous and historic. Maybe my favorite part of the game presentation came prior to the marching band taking the field, when the Lion mascot ran to midfield, put his palms toward the ground ... and quieted the crowd. Then he slowly raised his arms and, section by section, brought the noise level back up. Doesn't sound like much in print; pretty cool in person.
(Note: As much as I enjoyed the stadium, some of the locals overrated the experience slightly. One very young fan I talked to was positive the noise level inside Beaver Stadium would be more than our young quarterbacks could handle, and when I calmly mentioned Tennessee and LSU, he quickly said, "Oh, it's WAY louder here." Ummmmm ... OK.)
— One other subplot from talking to the PSU crowd: The general consensus among nearly everyone is that Joe Paterno — for all he's done for the program, the university (his name is on the library, for God's sake) and college football in general — has the program in a holding pattern as long as he hangs around. It's harder with each passing year to recruit top-flight athletes, and the offensive schemes designed by Jay Paterno and Galen Hall aren't exactly what one might call "imaginative." On Saturday, the lack of a cohesive presence on the sideline — an injured Paterno was in the booth, though he apparently wasn't wearing a headset — forced them to use all three timeouts on the first drive, they stubbornly stuck to a quarterback rotation that is clearly not working and basically gave up in the fourth quarter. To be fair, this Alabama defense will make most offenses look bad, but Penn State never gave itself a chance.
— So the offensive line did play a little better — wasn't a dominant performance by any stretch, but the opponent was much improved as well. Worth noting: In addition to the continuity at the quarterback spot, Alabama played essentially the same five people on the line all day (Vlachos, Steen, Warmack, Jones and Fluker). Which is probably our best five, even if the mere mention of "continuity" apparently upsets coach Saban.
— Very little can be said about A.J. McCarron's performance that hasn't already been said. Easily the most important thing he did all day was NOT turn the ball over, since, as we established, Penn State wasn't going to beat us unless we gave it away. Since I have to be the pessimist about everything (apparently), allow me to point out the passing game, at least for the moment, is pretty horizontal. And for some reason, we had 3-4 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. No idea why.
— Don't know if it's obvious on television, but one of the things that made Mark Ingram special was his ability to cut so well. As big and fast as Trent Richardson is, he doesn't make the same kind of decisive cuts as Mark, and often costs himself big play opportunities as a result.
— If Marquis Maze fields another punt inside his own 5, my father will have a coronary episode. Do you want that, Marquis? Do you?
— While we're here, we might as well address the fake punt. I'm all for going for the first down there — the way our defense was playing, the short fields weren't hurting us, and we should be able to make an inch when we need it. That said, I don't know why you bother faking the punt. Why not just line up and go at them? Seems like a waste is all.
— The issue on defense, as OTS notes, continues to be pressuring the passer. If this team cannot affect the quarterback better than it did Saturday, it will cost us a game. No secondary in the world can cover for 7 seconds every play.
Which reminds me: Arkansas is very quietly scoring at exactly the same pace it did last year, as it prepares to come to Tuscaloosa in two weeks. Which means everybody's focus has to shift and shift quickly.
That's the lousy thing about history: Now that it's over, it's well, history.