UNIVERSITY PARK — These are nervous times for Joe Paterno and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
They're at the midway point of what so far has been an underwhelming 3-3 season and waiting for their midseason grades from the Ol' Perfesser, Paterno's roommate at Brown.
Ol' Joe expected his guys to struggle early this semester, but he didn't expect them to perform so miserably.
"We just can't go the way we're going," Paterno said after a 33-13 debacle at the hands of Illinois last week. "We're not making any progress. I thought by this stage we'd be a pretty good football team. We're not getting any better. That's the discouraging part."
The offense ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring and total offense and 10th in rushing. The problems begin with the offensive line, which was unable to open running room against Alabama, Iowa and Illinois.
Freshman quarterback Rob Bolden played the worst game of his brief career against Illinois, but he has a ton of potential. He needs help from his coaches, who got away from the short passing that worked at the start of the third quarter against Iowa.
The read option that Penn State used with Michael Robinson in 2005 to escape the program's Dark Ages might be effective. It might take some pressure off the line and help the off ense produce.
"When you lose, you can point fingers at everybody else," Paterno said. "We (he and his coaches) probably could have done a better job somewhere along the line."
Now injuries have decimated the defense, the foundation of the team for the last seven seasons. Penn State lost safety Nick Sukay (pectoral muscle) for the season, and eight others on defense were dealing with injuries going into the bye week.
"That's part of football," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "We have guys hurt, and other guys have to step up."
Penn State has six games remaining, all in the Big Ten, and much work to do. The Lions have road trips to Minnesota and Ohio State, a neutral site game against Indiana and home games against Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State.
If the offense doesn't improve, it will be difficult for them to finish better than 6-6.
This report card, though, isn't about the next six games; it's about the first six games.
Here are the Perfesser's midseason grades for Penn State:
Quarterbacks: Rob Bolden made history by becoming the first true freshman to start an opener for Penn State, and he has a promising future. But he's being graded with juniors and seniors, so he gets an unsatisfactory grade. He's last in the Big Ten in completion percentage and interceptions. He also needs to get more help from his coaches with play selection.
Running backs: Penn State might rank 10th in the Big Ten in rushing, but it's hard to lay the blame at the feet of Evan Royster, Stephfon Green and Silas Redd. They've had very little room to run. Royster, for example, is averaging 5.0 yards a carry. If Bolden is allowed to run the read option, it might help the backs and the linemen.
Receivers: Derek Moye, Justin Brown and Brett Brackett have caught passes when they've come their way, but Graham Zug and Chaz Powell have had trouble holding onto the ball. Moye and Brown seldom run underneath routes, and Bolden seldom throws the football over the middle, which has handicapped the passing game. The Lions also are without their top two tight ends because of injuries.
Offensive linemen: It's hard to believe Dennis Landolt and Ako Poti, who finished last season as the starting tackles, left such a large void upon their graduation. But the off ensive line has played poorly, even with Stefen Wisniewski, Johnnie Troutman and Lou Eliades returning as starters. Eliades suffered a season-ending injury against Temple, which has hurt, but the line has been a weakness more than a strength in the last 15 years.
Offense's overall grade: F.
Defensive linemen: Ollie Ogbu and Devon Still have been solid after Jared Odrick graduated and went to the NFL, but they're not taking up two blockers like Odrick did on every snap. The ends needed to pick it up, even before starters Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore were injured. With their status for the rest of the season uncertain, the line could struggle throughout.
Linebackers: For the second straight year, the backers have had to deal with several injuries. Michael Mauti (ankle) and Bani Gbadyu (knee) missed the Illinois game, but might be ready to play next week at Minnesota. The biggest loss was Gerald Hodges, the most athletic linebacker on the team who suffered a hairline fracture of his leg on the opening kickoff at Alabama. These guys can make the biggest improvement in the second half.
Defensive backs: Losing Nick Sukay (pectoral muscle) for the season hurts the secondary. If Drew Astorino returns to free safety for Sukay, Penn State might move Chaz Powell from offense to cornerback and move D'Anton Lynn to strong safety. Lynn and Stephon Morris have mostly been steady, helping the Lions rank second in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed.
Defense's overall grade: C.
Special teams: Perhaps the worst performers last year, they have become the most dependable this year. Penn State ranks first in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage, second in kickoff returns and third in net punting. Plus, Collin Wagner has made 13-of-15 field goals, including a 49-yarder, and has scored 48 of the Lions' 109 points. They've made an amazing turnaround.
Coaching: Paterno and his staff answered the biggest question they faced when camp opened, and that was finding a quarterback. They haven't done enough to help Bolden. They also have failed to answer the second-biggest question, and that's getting the most they can out of the offensive line. The special teams, which did not receive a passing grade last season, have been outstanding.