Hall had Penn State executing well against Akron, but BC will be real test
Posted: Wednesday September 8, 2004 12:26PM; Updated: Wednesday September 8, 2004 2:29PM
JoePa and PSU rolled to a 48-10 win over Akron Saturday.
In recent years, critics have pointed to Penn State's offensive game plan as the source of the team's problems. Too rigid at times, they said, too reckless at others. But as Joe Paterno's once-proud program slogged its way through its worst season in school history in 2003 -- a dismal 3-9 campaign -- it became increasingly clear that it was the players, not always the playbook, who deserved those criticisms.
Quarterback Zack Mills, who was fighting a sprained knee, often seemed frozen in the backfield, searching for receivers as if they were distant relatives in a crowd. Those receivers, meanwhile, spent much of the season untangling themselves from haphazard routes, only to drop catchable passes under inevitable pressure. Turnovers followed missteps followed misreads, and Penn State dropped to No. 103 out of 117 Division I-A schools in total offense, just above East Carolina and Arkansas State.
No less an insider than former Penn State linebacker Brian Gelzheiser, in speaking to the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., this summer, summed it up thusly: "We stink because of the players we have."
But somehow, a bunch of those same players did just about everything right in a season-opening blowout of Akron. A team returning 32 lettermen from the squad that was scorched 41-10 in last year's season finale to Michigan State scored 41 points in two quarters alone on Saturday -- the most, incidentally, since Penn State tallied 48 first-half points against Michigan State in 2002.
En route to a 48-10 victory over the Zips, these new-look Nittany Lions pulled off one well-designed, and more importantly, well-executed play after another.
"I felt 100 percent comfortable out there," said Mills, who, in a prime example of the team's rediscovered coordination, became Paterno's first-ever player to run for a touchdown, pass for a touchdown and catch a touchdown in the game. "And that goes back to winter when we said, 'OK, we need to regroup here.' We've kept up on the little things all practice. It's the little things that matter, and that leads to me being more comfortable out there."
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Who to point to for that? The obvious answer is Penn State's new big man on "little things" patrol, offensive coordinator Galen Hall. In February, Hall, who started at quarterback for Penn State in 1960 and '61 and coached at the Division I-A, NFL (Europe), XFL and Arena levels after that, replaced Fran Ganter, who has been Paterno's sounding board since Richard Nixon held office.
As soon as Hall took over Penn State's offense, he began tweaking the way in which the Lions practice and prepare for games. Upon learning that quarterbacks and receivers didn't attend strategy sessions together, for instance, he started bringing the two groups into a single meeting room. He also made sure that quarterbacks, and not assistants, were throwing to receivers in practice. As for practices in general, they became daily boot-camps in which executing with confidence and precision was paramount.
As anticipated, Hall shuffled the play deck a bit, too. Famous for shrewd and sometimes risky play-calling as a head coach at Florida during the '80s, Hall most notably enforced a zone blocking scheme, which went a long way in helping sophomore running backs Tony Hunt and Austin Scott combine for 253 rushing yards on Saturday.
Still, the team's season-opening offensive success can be attributed as much to the implementation of Hall's plays as the design of them, and for that reason, players have high hopes for their next contest at Boston College this Saturday.
"The [Eagles] will be doing some different things," junior center E.Z. Smith said last weekend, "but for the most part, if we play the way we played today, we'll have a good shot at winning the football game."
Of course, that's a big If. In the wake of an ego-crippling season, Penn Staters will take progress where they can get it, even if it's stomping on a squishy Zips team in the '04 opener after barely showing up Temple in '03's kickoff. But the team has gotten past Akron, not Michigan, and even the most hopeful of fans know by now that Big Ten champions aren't rebuilt in a Saturday. As Paterno philosophized, Yoda-style, after the game: "The quality of our team isn't good enough right now for us to figure that we're good enough."
In other words, let's see if the Lions can take this show on the road this weekend.
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.