With kick-off in the Alabama v. Penn State gave now barely twenty-four hours away, here are a few things to keep a close eye on when the Tide takes the field on Saturday night.
The Penn State offensive game plan: With the standard caveat mentioning the inherent unpredictability of opponent gameplans, all signs -- true freshman quarterback, first road start, established senior tailback, no Cody or McClain, Jerrell Harris playing inside, etc. -- point to Penn State trying to establish the run early and often against Alabama. If so, Alabama will have to answer the bell immediately and force true freshman quarterback Robert Bolden to lead his team to victory, and if the Tide can do that then suddenly the Penn State coaching staff must alter their method of attack. I think it's clear that the ideal strategy for Penn State is to shorten the game and try to win in a low-scoring contest, but if Alabama can shut down Evan Royster and the Nittany Lion running game, that strategy largely goes out the window. If Penn State struggles to run the football, especially in the early stages of the game, the odds are much improved that Alabama emerges victorious.
The stamina of Evan Royster and the rest of the Penn State team: Joe Paterno was openly upset at tailback Evan Royster after the senior gained twenty pounds in the offseason. Paterno mentioned yesterday that he had dropped some weight, but even so he still questioned Royster's stamina over the course of four quarters. Perhaps that same question should be asked of the entire Penn State team. The high today in State College, PA was a mere 72 degrees, but in Tuscaloosa it was 96 degrees and it is forecast to be roughly 91 degrees at kick-off on Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium. And all of that is to say nothing of the difference in humidity. Many times teams from further north have trouble when traveling into the deep south in early September, so keep a close eye on how Penn State holds up physically in the second half. Scott Cochran certainly will.
The health of Courtney Upshaw: As I wrote yesterday, there is no doubt whatsoever that Upshaw will play. When Alabama takes the field defensively, he will line up at Jack linebacker. But exactly what will we get out of Upshaw? Will he be the player we all expected or will he be an injury-induced shell of his normal self? If it's the latter, not only is that very good news for Penn State, that also means that Alabama may re-shuffle the linebacker corps. Pay close attention to Upshaw early in the game and the mobility he is displaying.
The performance of Chavis Williams: While the Dora product will probably be the first 'backer to come off the field when the Tide faces spread teams later in the year, if Penn State attempts to run the football as expected and remains in its conventional offensive attack, Williams will play a key role tomorrow night. Williams is an athletic player who can rush the passer off the edge, but he'll be called on to play a key role in stopping the run tomorrow night, and the Crimson Tide will need a good performance out of him to do just that.
The effectiveness of the Alabama pass rush: After a bit of an uneventful performance against San Jose State, the Alabama pass rush needs to return with a vengeance against the Nittany Lions. Robert Bolden may be young and inexperienced, but he does have a good group of receivers at his disposal and he does have a very strong arm. Given the attrition in the defensive backfield for Alabama, if the pass rush struggles for the Crimson Tide, don't think that Bolden doesn't have the ability to step up and make some big throws down the field. Pay close attention to the effectiveness of the Alabama pass rush, we need to consistently rush the passer to take full advantage of Bolden's youth and inexperience.
The personnel grouping used in the dime package: San Jose State showed us that in the nickel package DeMarcus Milliner would come onto the field and DeQuan Menzie would move inside to play the star position. However, we didn't see much of the dime, but from what I could tell it looked like we moved Mark Barron into the star position and brought walk-on safety Will Lowery onto the field. Who knows how often we will have to use the dime given the specific opponent this week, but even if it largely goes unused this week try to pay close attention to this simply to get a better idea moving forward.
The performance of DeQuan Menzie and Robert Lester: Given the presence of Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick, it seemed relatively clear last week that redshirt sophomore safety Robert Lester was the weak link of the defensive backfield. DeQuan Menzie, on the other hand, is a bit of a different story, a player who is still somewhat of an unknown commodity and someone who is admittedly not 100% healthy. When the Nittany Lions try to make plays through the air, expect them to stay away from Barron and Kirkpatrick and go after Menzie and Lester. If Penn State is going to have success in the passing game, the smart money is it coming at the expense of these two.
Big negative plays for Alabama: Earlier I wrote that Penn State would likely be looking to shorten the game and win in a low-scoring contest, and a key component of doing that is by generating a big negative play here or there. That's the type of play that tilts a relatively even game in one direction, or the type of play that ends in a loss despite an otherwise good performance that limits the opposing team to almost nothing. Penn State will be looking to land a big play or two like this, and if Alabama can just avoid the big negative plays, Penn State's path to victory becomes much more difficult.
The short-and-intermediate passing game for the Crimson Tide: For all of the talk by myself and others of the need to establish a more consistent vertical element in the passing game, Penn State will spend much of Saturday night playing in its traditional heavy mix of cover two and cover three zones. That won't entirely eliminate the possibility of a vertical element in the passing game, but it will make throwing the football vertically a more difficult task. However, that does open up opportunities to have a great deal of success throwing short and intermediate routes underneath the cover shell, and in many ways that has been the specialty of Greg McElroy. If McElroy and company can successfully get the short and intermediate passing attack going, it should be a productive night for the Crimson Tide offense.
The performance of D.J. Fluker at right tackle: While Chance Warmack looks to be an almost seamless replacement to the departed Mike Johnson, we still have question marks at right tackle with D.J. Fluker, and that is further compounded by the ankle sprain he suffered against San Jose State. You have to think that Fluker will do well in the run game, but how will he hold up in pass protection? He is probably considered the weak link of the Crimson Tide's pass protection now, so pay close attention to how the Nittany Lions choose to attack the redshirt freshman.
All in all, it must be said that Penn State is a quality football team with a good coaching staff. Are they a truly elite team, and are they best team we will face this season? The answer is probably no on both counts. Nevertheless, it's a good team that will probably push for ten wins in a legitimate BCS conference and one that will at least flirt with a Rose Bowl berth. Furthermore, loaded with raw talent or not, we're not a flawless team in our right, and truth be told we've got our fair share of areas for concern. Rest assured that Penn State will bring a fight to Tuscaloosa, and Alabama will have to respond accordingly and play at a high level if the Tide wants to remain atop the college football world.
Hope for the best.