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.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”