Bama rolls, but inexperience shows
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Unless you are a graduate of the University of Alabama or of Penn State University, you probably failed to watch all four quarters of the game Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium. As a public service, it is my pleasure to inform you that the Crimson Tide did indeed win, 24-3.
No barns were burned in the making of this football game.
Sophomore tailback Trent Richardson ran for a touchdown and gained 190 rushing and receiving yards. The defense forced four turnovers, three inside the Crimson Tide 30. Alabama extended its winning streak to 16 games and its regular-season win streak to 26 games.
The game featured the legendary Joe Paterno on the Penn State sideline and former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden on the field before the game. Both received a warm welcome from the 101,821 at Bryant-Denny.
All of the above is correct, and it's a two-dimensional description of a three-dimensional issue.
The larger question concerning the matchup of two iconic programs has nothing to do with the outcome, which was all but sealed two years ago when quarterback Pat Devlin transferred from Penn State to Delaware after the 2008 season.
The Nittany Lions are playing a freshman because he is their best quarterback. Rob Bolden (13-of-29, 144 yards, 2 INTs) made some nice plays. However, as quarterback coach Jay Paterno suggested last week, solving the Alabama defense was the equivalent of learning Mandarin in one week. Bolden isn't ready to book a plane ticket to Beijing just yet.
"A tough crowd and a tough football team, well-played, well-coached and good position," Joe Paterno said, describing what Bolden found himself up against. "That made it tough on him."
The larger question has nothing to do with how happy Richardson will be to move aside for the return of Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram next week at Duke. Ingram watched this game on the Alabama sideline, wearing his No. 22 jersey and crimson warmup pants.
Richardson, who rushed 22 times for 144 yards and added another 46 yards on four catches, is delighted that his figurative and literal running mate will return to practice Monday.
"He's just a pleasure to watch run. That boy is an animal out there," Richardson said of Ingram, who injured his knee two weeks ago. "I love to see him run."
No, the larger question is whether Alabama's talent can overcome its inexperience, whether the Crimson Tide that took a 14-0 lead one play into the second quarter can improve faster than the team that managed to score only 10 points over the final three quarters.
"It's a great win, enjoy it for 24 hours, but there are a lot of things that we need to improve on," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
And this: "We made a ton of mental errors out there and probably could have finished some things a little bit better on offense," Saban said.
There was a missed field goal in the second quarter. There was a fourth-and-1 at the Penn State 33 in the fourth quarter that never was. Alabama came out of a timeout with 12 men on the field.
These are mistakes one expects to see early in the season. Maybe Alabama has spoiled us. Maybe expectations are too high. But 12 men on the field -- after a timeout -- is not the type of mistake that Saban's last two teams have made.
Junior linebacker Donta Hightower said the team is not where it should be after two games. "The times we made mental mistakes, they were able to make big plays," he said.
Senior quarterback Greg McElroy said that the Tide "unfortunately made way too many little mistakes tonight, in the second half especially, with formations and false start penalties and just bad mental errors."
In fairness, everyone quoted here also said nice things about the victory. In particular, McElroy's offense showed some variety heretofore unseen.
The Tide ran a lot of five-receiver sets in the first half. McElroy's touchdown passes, a 36-yarder to Kevin Norwood and a 14-yarder to fifth-year senior tight end Preston Dial, went to players who had never caught a touchdown pass. Who knows? Maybe there's a game to come when junior Julio Jones, who made four catches for 49 yards, won't be double-teamed.
Alabama has started 2-0 without its two best players: Ingram and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who will return next week as well after serving a two-game NCAA suspension. The number of mistakes almost surely will diminish as the season continues.
"I think from a playing standpoint we're playing really well," McElroy said. "From an execution standpoint, we can really improve. I think just little things, like substitution penalties. Those are small things that get you beat. Fortunately, tonight, they didn't really become a factor. Those are the things that hurt you over the course of a season. They're just mental penalties. Those five yards are hard to gain against SEC opponents."
In two weeks, the Crimson Tide begins a three-game stretch that will determine the Tide's direction. Alabama will play at Arkansas, return home for Florida, and then play at South Carolina. They might be the three best teams in the Southeastern Conference outside of Tuscaloosa.
It could be that the Alabama will continue to win while maturing. But that's not how it usually works in the SEC. There is work to do in the weeks to come.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.