Penn State Looks to Start New Year with Win

Penn State Looks to Start New Year with Win

Our PSU guru Kevin McGuire is back with a look toward Penn State's matchup with the University of Houston in today's Ticket City Bowl (from inside, somewhat paradoxically, the Cotton Bowl). Kick off is scheduled for 12 p.m. and can be seen on both ESPN U and ESPN 3.

We thank Kevin, as always, for his contributions during this especially difficult season on the PSU beat. Stay up to date on Kevin's activities during the off-season by checking out his work at the Examiner.com and following him @krmcguire. And now, on with the show...

Rob Bolden will look to lead the Penn State Nittany Lions to a win Monday afternoon, and get 2012 started on the right foot for a football program that has been through a rollercoaster like no other in 2011.

 
Bolden will be Penn State’s starting quarterback for the TicketCity Bowl against the Houston Cougars today in Dallas, as the Nittany Lions return to the old Cotton Bowl stadium. Matt McGloin has been ruled out for the game after continuing to fail concussion tests following an altercation with teammate and wide receiver Curtis Drake a couple weeks ago after practice. McGloin had become the full-time quarterback since Tom Bradley was named the interim head coach, although the team also utilized the wildcat offense as well, using Drake as the key wildcat quarterback. Drake, a Philadelphia native, did not make the trip to the bowl game and Bradley has not commented on how much they will actually use the wildcat offense.
 
Penn State’s offense could have a tough day ahead of them, because they will have to keep up pace against the nation’s top offense. Houston is a very pass-happy team, with sixth year senior Case Keenum looking to finish his storied college career on a high note. After losing the Conference USA championship game at home, Keenum and the Cougars dropped out of the high profile bowl scenarios, similar to the way Penn State dropped (although for much different reasons). This makes for a quality match-up in the TicketCity Bowl, and it should be one of the better match-ups when you look at Houston’s offense and Penn State’s defense.
 
“Houston is different, contrasting styles,” Tom Bradley said of the Cougars “Their tempo is different than ours, defense is different. We haven't played an offense like this in a long time.”
 
Penn State’s secondary will have to be alert all game long, because Keenum finds holes in every defense he faces. But Keenum has not gone up against a defense like Penn State’s with the likes of Devon Still bringing pressure on the defensive line. Still, a Wilmington, Delaware, native says he will play despite a case of turf toe.
 
Of course the big story surrounding the football program right now is the ongoing search for the permanent replacement for Joe Paterno, who was fired in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked the university and community a couple months ago. There have been many names to keep an eye on and it seems that every could days a new report referencing a source breaks loose, such as yesterday’s word that Penn State was leaning toward New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
 
“They haven't said anything about us regarding the coaching search,” Bradley said the other day. “As I said the other day, I had an opportunity to speak with the committee. Spent some time with them. They were very gracious. I was able to talk to them about the way I would do things. That's all that I can ask.”
 
Will the first bowl game of 2012 act as a continuing audition for Bradley, who is becoming more and more the ideal candidate for Penn State? That remains to be seen.

Villanova's Kpassagnon speaks softly but earns NFL scouts' attention

Villanova's Kpassagnon speaks softly but earns NFL scouts' attention

As the rain poured down on him, the 6-foot-7, 290-pound defensive lineman lumbered off the field at Villanova Stadium, a picture of dripping wet intimidation.

And then he spoke.

“I don’t really like the rain,” the Villanova senior said softly.

Then, he thought about the Wildcats’ trip to freezing South Dakota for a second-round FCS playoff matchup with South Dakota State on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN3).

“I don’t like the cold, either.”

Meet Tanoh Kpassagnon, a quiet, articulate, intellectual business school student who doubles as one of the fiercest football players in Villanova history and a big-time NFL Draft prospect.

“He’s a bit of an anomaly,” Villanova defensive line coach Joe Trainer said. “He almost has that California chill mode to him. One of the first thing I tell scouts is he’s not that alpha male who’s gonna come up and go, ‘Hey, dawg, what’s going on, man?’ He’s going to wow you physically but he’s not gonna come out of his skin with personality. A lot of times people initially mistake that for softness but he definitely has an understated toughness and hardness about him that has served him well.”

It’s also served Villanova well as the No. 9 Wildcats rode their gentle giant to an 8-3 regular-season record, their sixth playoff berth in nine years and an opening-round 31-21 win over Saint Francis last week.

One of the top defensive players in the Football Championship Subdivision, Kpassagnon was named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year and recently earned an invite to January’s Reese’s Senior Bowl. He led the league in the regular season with 19 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, while adding two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one blocked kick and a touchdown.

And his stock may continue to rise with a good performance in Saturday’s Top 10 showdown against No. 7 South Dakota State.

“It’s more TV time, just showing we’re good as a team,” he said when asked about the extra playoff exposure. “I was just talking to the Sauce Squad — that’s what we call the defensive line — about our goals for the year and we had nothing except a national championship on our mind. That’s something that’s been ingrained in our minds, and we’re gonna do everything we can right now in order to reach it.”

The fact that Kpassagnon quickly turned the attention from himself to the team is indicative of how he’s handled his growing reputation around the country. According to Trainer, scouts from every NFL team have been to a Villanova practice or game at least twice this year with most teams coming three times. There have even been four or five NFL general managers at Villanova Stadium to see Kpassagnon, who retiring head coach Andy Talley has called “probably the greatest player we’ve ever had” in his 37 years at the helm.

But while calling the presence of scouts “nice,” Kpassagnon also said he “doesn’t really think about it too much” — at least not until the season ends.

“He’s a very grounded guy,” Trainer said. “The greatest compliment I can give him in terms of non-measurables is he’s as consistent of a player as I’ve ever been around. I mean that not in a performance standpoint but in a life standpoint. A lot of times young kids today are really high and then really low. He’s just steady as the day is long, and he takes everything in stride. His mom and dad have done a great job with him.” 

It’s also because of his parents, both of whom originally hail from Africa, that Kpassagnon isn’t laser focused on the NFL. His mother is a chemical scientist and his father an economist and both stressed education above sports. He never even watched any sports as a kid and didn’t begin playing football until the sixth grade.

Later, he morphed into a three-sport star at Wissahickon High, playing basketball and running track on top of his blossoming football career. But he never took his eyes off the books. A finance major with minors in accounting and entrepreneurship in the Villanova School of Business, he already has four job offers to go along with very good grades. And he likes to study the game of football too, taking pride in maybe finding things that others can’t on film.

“They have a highly skilled backfield but I’ve been paying attention to their line mostly, trying to see their tendencies, trying to see if they have any tells,” Kpassagnon said of the South Dakota State offense. “I think I picked up on a couple.”

He laughed, then added: “I’ll keep that a secret for now.”

No matter what happens Saturday in South Dakota, it’s clear that the secret on Kpassagnon is out. And judging by how much he’s been scouted — and his place on several mock drafts — it’s not a question of if he gets drafted but what round.

“I think he’s the best prospect that this league has ever had in all of my time here,” said Trainer, who coached at Villanova from 1997 to 2004 before becoming the head coach at Millersville and then Rhode Island, returning to ’Nova in 2014. “He’s a special talent whose best football is ahead of him. And he’s not even close to his ceiling.”

Sixers-Magic 5 things: Hoping for a dry court with rested roster

Sixers-Magic 5 things: Hoping for a dry court with rested roster

The Sixers (4-14) will tip off against the Orlando Magic (7-12) at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night (7 p.m./CSN and CSNPhilly.com).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Floored
Let's try this again.

The Sixers will return to the Wells Fargo Center court for the first time since Wednesday's game against the Sacramento Kings was postponed because of moisture on the floor.

While the Sixers were frustrated that they couldn't face the Kings, the team was also happy that player safety was made the top priority in the postponement decision.

"It was disappointing not to play," head coach Brett Brown said after practice on Thursday. "It got to a stage the longer that it went and it was being prolonged and prolonged, I'm glad that ultimately we didn't play."

2. Rested and ready
The postponement of Wednesday's game means the Sixers haven't played since Monday's road loss to the Toronto Raptors.

Center Joel Embiid should be even more rested than his teammates since he didn't make the trip north of the border because it was the second game of a back-to-back set.

When Embiid does return to action Friday against the Magic, he will have a little more freedom. The NBA's Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month had his minutes restriction raised from 24 to 28 earlier this week.

That should only mean good things for Embiid, who turned in a strong effort when the Sixers faced off against the Magic earlier this season. Embiid recorded 18 points and 10 boards for his first-ever double-double in a 103-101 loss to Orlando back on Nov. 1.

3. Protection plan
Perhaps Embiid's bump in minutes will help the Sixers better protect the paint this time around.

During the season's first meeting, in which the Sixers blew an 18-point lead, the Magic scored a massive 60 points in the paint. Former Sixer Nikola Vucevic and Serge Ibaka led the way with 45 combined points.

The Sixers can't allow that type of production inside, especially from a team that ranks 25th in the league with an average of 39.5 points in the paint per game.

4. Injuries
Jerryd Bayless (wrist), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

Former Sixer Jodie Meeks (foot) is a game-time decision for the Magic.

5. This and that
- The Sixers have lost three straight to the Magic.

- Vucevic has averaged 20.3 points and 13.2 rebounds against the Sixers during his career.

- Dario Saric scored a career-high 21 points on 9 of 14 shooting in the season's first clash.