Ah yes, the bye week has arrived - and just in time, too. Now is when the coaches go back to the drawing board, the injury-ridden defense gets relatively healthy again and the fans step back off the proverbial ledge to get away from the Nittany Lions for one Saturday afternoon.
But with next week comes another football game - this one in Minnesota's second-year outdoor stadium - against a Golden Gophers squad that has gone 1-5 thus far. That includes a three-point defeat to FCS member South Dakota. That's every bit as bad as Michigan's epic failure against Appalachian State in the 2007 opener. A loss to this Minnesota team would send the Nittany Lions' level of confidence to a mark that we haven't seen since 2004. A victory, and Penn State returns to Beaver Stadium for the next two weeks (against a Michigan defense that hasn't stopped anybody and an untested Northwestern squad) with thoughts of salvaging something this year.
What is the real problem, though? Is the offensive line truly bad enough that Penn State couldn't score a red zone touchdown in the last eight quarters? Or was wide receiver Devon Smith accurate when he pointed to the problem lying somewhere "upstairs."
To me, it's a little bit of both, plus another reason - development. Penn State hasn't had a strong front five in several seasons now. Either the offensive coaches are misfiring on their judgement of talent in their line prospects (which isn't likely since other major programs have recruited these same players) or they simply are doing a poor job of developing that talent once it signs on the dotted line and arrives in Happy Valley. Michael Robinson and Daryll Clark - two quarterbacks that had success in their tenures - made the offensive lines look better than they were with their abilities to escape the pocket. Rob Bolden will do that as he matures, but he shouldn't have to worry about getting drilled every time he steps back to pass - and therein lies the problem.
With everybody wanting to talk about the offense, many seem to be forgetting that this Penn State defense has done next to nothing right in the first six games. The defensive ends (who now have only one of their best four healthy) have given the opposing quarterbacks all afternoon to throw the football, the linebackers have been a step slow everywhere they go, and the confused secondary has continually missed assignments, which has resulted in receivers that don't have a defender within 10 yards of them.
Fixing this won't be easy for defensive coordinator Tom Bradley now that many key contributors (including safety Nick Sukay, who is gone for the year) are battling injuries. But injuries are part of the game and nothing more than an excuse and Bradley knows it. He also knows that his defense wasn't tackling well when everyone was healthy in the first few games.
"(Injuries) are not an excuse - that's part of football and other guys have to step up," he told reporters after the Illinois game. "Good teams can (overcome this many injuries) - and we'll figure it out."
They better, or it won't matter what the offense is doing because Illinois showed the rest of the conference exactly how to go up and down the field on this Penn State defense for all 60 minutes on Saturday.
How good has the kicking been at the midway point of the season? Senior kicker Collin Wagner is 13-for-15 in field goal attempts, including 5-for-6 from beyond 40 yards. He has also made all nine of his extra point attempts.
Not to be overlooked is freshman Anthony Fera, who has been nothing short of sensational on kickoffs. Fera, who still needs to work on being more consistent as a punter, has already booted 13 balls for touchbacks this season. That's such an underrated statistic as it makes the opposing offense go at least 50 yards if it wants a reasonable chance at points.
Now if that defense could just stop somebody.
Drew Pellman is a Sentinel sports reporter. Contact him at email@example.com