Against Triple-Option Navy Offense, Penn State Has But One Option: Win

Against Triple-Option Navy Offense, Penn State Has But One Option: Win

Penn State returns home this weekend to host Navy, with both teams looking for their first win of the season (3:30 p.m. on ABC / ESPN 2). 

Penn State’s season has gotten off to a rough start and the Nittany Lions look to avoid their first 0-3 start since the 2001 season. A week after a special teams meltdown at Virginia, which saw Sam Ficken miss an extra point and four field goals – the fourth miss sailing wide left as time expired in a 17-16 loss – the team looks to regain something positive to reflect on.

One positive that can come out of the agony of defeat last week on the road was the much-improved play of the defense, which forced four turnovers against the Cavaliers. The defense was the unit that allowed a season opening win slip away from them, first by seeing a lucky bounce go Ohio’s way and then watching as the Bobcats clawed back and snatched a win. The unit, led by senior linebacker Michael Mauti, took on the responsibility to step up their game and did a good enough job to pick up a win last weekend.

The offense, of course, remains a work in progress, and key players are already banged up. Quarterback Matt McGloin left last weekend’s game with an elbow injury but did return to help move Penn State into position for a last second field goal. He should be back and ready to go after not even appearing on the injury report in Penn State’s weekly game release. But sophomore running back Bill Belton continues to be listed as possible with an ankle injury, which means Derek Day may get a good amount of playing time out of the back field.

One offensive player who has taken advantage of the opportunities left by transferring players has been sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson. Robinson enters this weekend leading the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards. Is it safe to say he has become the team’s go-to wide receiver? Probably, especially now that starting wideout Shawney Kersey decided to leave the team this week. 

The loss of Kersey likely means a chance to play for freshman Eugene Lewis or sophomore Matt Zanellato. Again, young players are filling Penn State’s key positions now, and growing pains could come with it. But if there is a bright spot here it is that many of these younger players will get playing time and perhaps help build and sustain this football program through the four years of sanctions.

Penn State’s job this week will be to slow down the Navy triple-option offense, which they should be able to accomplish without too much trouble. But this may not be the same sort of Navy offense we have seen in recent seasons, as the Midshipmen have a quarterback in junior Trey Miller. The Georgia native had a fairly productive performance against Notre Dame but his consistent passing efforts were not enough to keep Navy in the game against a bigger, more physical Notre Dame team in week one over in Ireland.

One thing we have seen in the first two weeks is that Penn State’s defense struggles to get off the field. If Navy can pick up a few yards here and a few more there using their run-heavy offense, Miller may have more than enough to sustain a number of drives with a good eye in the pocket. This means Penn State’s defensive line needs to see the defensive line break through and breath down Miller’s neck.  One underrated aspect of Navy is their somewhat larger than normal offensive line. Navy did allow three sacks against Notre Dame, so look to see if defensive tackle Jordan Hill can have a big performance for Penn State.

This is almost a must-win game for Penn State, if just for a bit of a confidence boost. Wins ultimately mean nothing for Penn State this season of course, but after two heart-breaking losses these players need something to celebrate. And with Temple coming to Happy Valley next week after a bye week, the pressure is starting to mount for Penn State to get something going now.

One final note, the game can be seen locally on ABC, but if you’re watching from elsewhere on the country, you’ll find it on ESPN 2.

Keep up with Kevin’s college football coverage on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.

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Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.