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Pregame stretch, 10.14.11

October 13, 2011 - Ray Eckenrode

Purdue (3-2) vs. Penn State (5-1)

Noon Saturday, Big Ten Network

Announcers: Tom Hart, Derek Rackley and Lisa Byington

Annoyance factor: Toto, we don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. After the excellent effort ABC put forth last week, we think we’re due for a letdown with this BTN crew of unknowns. We’ll keep an open mind. Always of interest to us when we encounter a new sideline reporter is to see how and if they handle the halftime interview with Joe, which is now one of the toughest gigs in the business. It’s hard enough trying to get anything near insightful out of any football coach during a game, let alone one that can’t hear you and is in pain.

Line: Penn State -12

Smarts say: Vegas was burned on the over/under last week and this one, at 39, is a full five points lower. However, we’re still talking about PSU scoring six times (2 TDs and 4 FGs) to get it in the 26-13 range.

Quick hits:

+ From “The More Things Change…” file: Cory Giger’s story this week (linked at top right) on Penn State’s current red zone woes caught our attention, mainly because of this quote from Penn State Passing Coordinator/Quarterback Coach/Majordomo Jay Paterno:

“I think one of the things that we’ve got to do, we’ve got to come up with that big play from the 30-yard line going in where we get an easy one.”

Hmmm, interesting idea, improve your red zone woes by scoring before you get there. Now why does that sound familiar? Why, why, why? Where have we heard that idea before? Um, wait, we know, it was almost one year ago to the day WHEN WE WROTE IT. From an Oct. 1, 2010, blog (linked at top right) about – drum roll, please – Penn State’s red zone woes!!!!:

TIP #1: SCORE BEFORE YOU GET THERE – While that might sound smart alecky, we’re dead serious. The potential reward of avoiding the red zone completely is worth the risk of taking at least one shot at the end zone every single time you cross the opponents’ 40.

Now, talk about your mixed feelings. Should we feel honored a coach at a (semi) major D-1 program is echoing one of our cockamamie schemes? Should we feel angry that it took him a year to do so? Should we feel embarrassed that it’s Jay? Or, for our next trick, should we set on sights on teaching Jay when to properly call a screen pass?

Of course, we don’t really think Jay Paterno is reading “15 Minutes” and stealing our ideas. That would be like someone stealing plays from a football video game.

The pick:If we assume (we know, we know) that Penn State’s defense will keep Purdue somewhere in the 10- to 17-point range, this game comes down to the Nittany Lions offense scoring three touchdowns. And it does not take much to figure out how Purdue will approach this game defensively with Derek Moye out of the gruesome twosome in. Look for the Boilermakers to drop a safety down frequently to try and blunt Penn State’s rushing game. We’d expect to see Purdue blitz Rob Bolden who has yet to show any ability to make quick reads and throws. We’d expect them to drop into coverage on Matt McGloin, who’s lacking his favorite deep threat and who’s shown he’s prone to mistakes if you make him mount long drives to score. Unless Purdue’s front seven is just as bad as Iowa’s was, we expect that means the Nits will have to complete some first-down passes to get things moving and we expect they’ll struggle to do that…. PSU 20-13.

Last week: We were wrong on both counts last week, dropping us to 4-2 against the spread and 5-1 straight up.

Jacksonville vs. Pittsburgh

1 p.m. Sunday, CBS

Announcers: Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts

Annoyance factor: At this point, anything is better than Dierdorf again. Eagle is solid if unspectacular. Fouts became somewhat of a folk hero in Pittsburgh last November when during a game against the Raiders he called out officials for going overboard calling violent hit penalties on the Steelers, saying they should “put a skirt” on quarterback Jason Campbell after James Harrison was called for one of six personal fouls called that afternoon.

Referee: Ron Winter

Competence factor: The Steelers have had a run of above average officiating recently but that will come to an end Sunday when Referee Ron Winter and his flag-happy crew come to town. After calling 20 penalties during the Monday night game in Week 4, Winter’s crew was off last week, no doubt updating their eyeglass prescriptions and resting up their throwing arms. Budget some extra time for watching this game.

The line: Pittsbugh -12

Smarts say:The Steelers strong showing last week and the Jags’ el-foldo act left little doubt this would be a double-digit spread. With a relatively low over/under of 40.5, Vegas sees something in the range of 27-14 Pittsburgh.

Quick hits:

+ There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and grousing so far this year about what’s “wrong” with Rashard Mendenhall. All of it overlooks the most obvious answer (that’s been forecast here many times): Mendenhall is on the downward slope of his career. In today’s NFL, the window of production for a running back has closed dramatically and a back who merits a second big contract (the Ravens have such a decision coming up with Ray Rice) is rare. When Mendenhall recorded his first 1,000-yard season in 2009, we noted here that the Steelers “wasted” it by not making the playoffs. We forecast then that he might only have two more 1000-yard efforts in him and it’s looking like that might not even be the case. Mendenhall recorded 566 carries in 2009 and 2010 and he was punished physically for nearly every one of them. That punishment has more to do with his injury-filled and underperforming 2011 season than any speculation about the effect of his ill-advised offseason Twitter dump. Keep in mind, we’re not saying with certainty that Mendenhall is done. We don’t think we’ve seen a large enough sample yet in 2011 to make that call. We’re just saying that if you’re looking for a reason why his injuries are up and his production is down, apply Occam’s Razor and start with the most obvious answer.

+ The Steelers can get a rather large monkey off their collective backs Sunday by finally beating Jacksonville in Pittsburgh, where the Jags are 3-0 all time, including a bitter and controversial playoff victory in 2007. The 31-29 playoff win became bulletin board material again this week when Mike Tomlin abruptly ended his conference call with Jacksonville reporters after about four minutes when he felt they were dwelling on questions about that game, the last of Tomlin’s first season in Pittsburgh. Readers of this blog will remember the game as one where Tomlin foolishly went for two two-point conversions in the fourth quarter, missed on both of them and wound up losing by two points. But Steelers fans in general remember the fateful 4th-and-2 scramble by David Garrard that sealed the win but also eventually led to a letter of apology from the NFL, which admitted officials missed not one, not two but three blatant holds on the play, against LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton and James Harrison. (Click the link at upper right to re-watch the play, paying special attention to the tackle of Hampton as Garrard dashes by.) We’re not sure what’s behind Tomlin’s antics because becoming prickly over something that happened four years ago does not fit his MO. In any event, we’re hoping the incident serves to motivate the Steelers and not awaken the Jags.

The pick: If you think the Jags can’t win this game, you’re wrong for three reasons: Maurice. Jones. Drew. OK, that’s one reason, but it’s a doozy. Jones-Drew has absolutely killed the Steelers historically and is a big reason they are 3-0 at Heinz Field against Pittsburgh. Of course, it’s not David Garrard getting the ball to MJD this time, it’s rookie Blaine Gabbert. To say rookie quarterbacks haven’t fared well against the Steelers is an understatement so the Jags will be trying to keep the game out of Gabbert’s hands and rest it on Pocket Hercules’ legs. You can figure Jacksonville will be ready to defend the three-step drop offense the Steelers showed last week, so that makes the running game even more critical this week. Minimizing turnovers remains the single biggest factor influencing the Steelers play and if Rashard Mendenhall can hang onto the ball Sunday, its’ … Steelers 24-17.

Last week: We foresaw a close Steelers win last week, which was half right. We’re now 3-2 straight up and 2-3 vs. the spread.

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