At 3-0, still room to improve for Penn State Gritty Lions

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Penn State pulled one out of a magic hat Saturday night. When you have a quarterback as talented and composed as Christian Hackenberg, good things and good plays eventually happen even on a night like Saturday night. Penn State’s offensive line was once again a near-complete wreck. The running game for the Nittany Lions was virtually non-existent. Hackenberg once again had too many moments when he had to force plays that just were not there. Rutgers was in Hackenberg’s face all night, knocking him off-balanced at times and forcing him to move. In the end though, Hackenberg showed great poise and leadership in leading Penn State to a late rally and victory.

Because the NCAA has lifted the remaining two seasons of a postseason ban on the football program, Penn State is now eligible to participate in the bowl season, the College Football Playoff and Big Ten Championship Game, as long as they qualify for any of those three. As a result of last night’s victory, Penn State is now out in front of the Big Ten championship race, sitting in first place with a 1-0 conference record before any other Big Ten teams (besides Rutgers) play a conference game. It is a good situation, and the schedule is as favorable as it can possibly be with a bye week before heading to Michigan, followed by a bye week before hosting Ohio State. Penn State also gets Michigan State at home in the final week of the regular season. While Saturday night’s come-from-behind thrill in New Jersey is plenty reason to celebrate, it is clear there is much that needs to improve in State College for Penn State to truly become a legitimate Big Ten contender.

It starts up front with the offensive line. Hackenberg needs protection and the running game cannot get going until the offensive line starts to improve. Depth on the line is a problem and a result of the sanctions the past couple of years, so just how much can improve between now and the next game or month may be limited. That does not mean Penn State and the coaching staff will not try. Perhaps what should be more of a breather next Saturday at home against UMass will be a good week to show some progress.

Once the offensive line does improve, the running game should follow. Mixing things up between Zach Zwinak for power running situations, spreading things out with Bill Belton and adding in Akeel Lynch to the mix still has potential for a good running game to help take some pressure off Hackenberg. Hackenberg has not had the cleanest first three games of the year despite some terrific passing numbers, and the thought he can actually get better is pretty remarkable. Receivers holding on to more passes would help as well. Penn State has shown potential to have receivers ready to step up after Allen Robinson moved to the NFL, but there have been a number of dropped passes the first few weeks as well.

Can Penn State realistically contend for a Big Ten championship? Given the way the Big Ten has been playing thus far, sure, why not. But before Penn State fans start making plans for Indianapolis, there is still a long uphill battle for the Nittany Lions. But for right now, they are in control of the Big Ten East, and that should feel pretty good.

Alabama losing special teams staffer to the New England Patriots

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The Alabama kicking game needs all the help it can get but will have to soldier on without a key member of the coaching staff.

According to The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, assistant special teams coordinator Joe Houston is leaving Tuscaloosa for a position with the New England Patriots.

Houston certainly has become a fast-riser as a coach. He was kicking field goals for USC from 2007-10 and got into coaching just recently. He served as an assistant special teams coach at Iowa State prior to joining the Crimson Tide staff.

While Houston is highly regarded off the field, his slim small body of work at Alabama was a mixed bag. Kickers Joseph Bulovas and Will Reichard combined to made just 12 of 18 field goal attempts in 2019. That includes a critical miss in the Iron Bowl that knocked the team out of the Playoff chase.

The Tide should still be okay on special teams come 2020 though. Reichard was injured early and hopes to be healthy after signing as the top prep kicker in the country a year ago. Highly regarded special teams coordinator Jeff Banks also returns.

Houston’s move to Foxborough no doubt came with a recommendation from Saban to his old pal Bill Belichick. The latter also struggled with the kicking game last season. Hopefully for both, this latest move will boost both teams in the critical third phase of the game.

Colorado closing in on hiring… Karl Dorrell?

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The unexpected Colorado coaching search may have an unexpected conclusion.

In a move first reported by Yahoo! Sports, the Buffs are supposedly close on hiring Karl Dorrell as their next head coach. USA Today later confirmed the news. He replaces Mel Tucker, who left for Michigan State in early February.

Bringing Dorrell in is, needless to say, a surprise move. The school had flirted heavily with former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian before parting ways. As it turns out, Colorado was looking at the wrong former coach in Los Angeles.

Dorrell spent five seasons in Westwood as head coach at UCLA from 2003-2007. The tenure had a high point of going 10-2 in 2005 but otherwise floated around .500. It didn’t help either that Pete Carroll had things humming across town at the same time as Dorrell was trying to get things turned around at his alma mater.

Since his firing, Dorrell has mostly been in the NFL. He had a one season stint as Vanderbilt’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2014 but is otherwise been coaching in the pros. That includes two stints in Miami and others with the Houston Texans and New York Jets.

Less than 24 hours before his reported hire at Colorado, Dorrell was promoted to assistant head coach of the Dolphins by Brian Flores.

Though Dorrell reached a bowl game in all five of his seasons in Westwood, his meddling record saw him pushed out the door. His replacement then? Former Buffs coach Rick Neuheisel. The two memorably helped lead the Bruins to the 1984 Rose Bowl together at the school.

Now Dorrell once again has the goal of getting back to Pasadena. Just not where anybody expected it to happen.

SEC says no to Arkansas spring game in Little Rock

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Arkansas has long been one of the more unique programs in college football in playing their “home” games roughly 200 miles away from campus. As much as playing down the road in Little Rock has become a way of life for the Razorbacks though, it won’t be a part of fans first close up with new head coach Sam Pittman.

In a release this week, UA confirmed that their final practice of spring ball would be held Saturday, April 25 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. That was not originally the plan however, as the team was hoping to host the scrimmage at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

The reasoning? It had nothing to do with scheduling conflicts but rather the conference office.

“As part of our ONE Razorback initiative, our goal remains to engage fans throughout Arkansas and beyond,” Director of Athletics Hunter Yurachek said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we did not receive the necessary waiver to accommodate the spring game at War Memorial Stadium as originally planned. However, we will continue to explore additional opportunities to enhance the numerous events already being held throughout the state to help bring the Razorbacks closer to our fans.”

SEC bylaws require the league to approve any off-campus spring practice. They didn’t despite Little Rock truly being the team’s home away from home for nearly a century.

The school just recently negotiated a new deal with War Memorial that runs through 2024. That was supposed to result in spring games being held at the venue in even years and a trio of conference games against regional rival Missouri in the Fall of every odd year.

It’s not known if the SEC’s decision was more of a one-off or if spring games in 2022 and 2024 will have to be scrapped.

The news is certainly a blow to those in the Southeast part of the state who were hoping to get a glimpse of the Hogs in their backyard instead of making the trip deeper into the Ozarks. Arkansas won’t have a presence at all in Little Rock this season as a result (for the first time since 1931) and will instead be fully confined to Razorback Stadium for all seven home games plus the spring scrimmage (for the first time ever).

It wasn’t too long ago where the Hogs were called in the state capital three or four times a year. That sadly is no longer the case now as a result of the league office putting a kibosh on things this spring.

Voice of Notre Dame Stadium to retire after 2020 season

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It’s the end of an era at Notre Dame Stadium.

The longtime public address announcer at the famed cathedral of college football, Mike Collins, is stepping down after the 2020 season. The school confirmed the news on Friday.

“I told my wife, ‘If Fr. Ted (Hesburgh) can retire at 75, that’s good enough for me,’” Collins said in a statement. “There is no one reason, but I can walk out with my head held high, good health and be proud that I’ll be better for my last game than my first. I’ve always viewed myself as an ambassador of Our Lady’s University, not merely an employee of the athletics department. I was able to do that for the most prestigious institution in the world, which just happened to be my alma mater.”

Collins’ voice has been the soundtrack for Fighting Irish games under the watchful eye of Touchdown Jesus since 1982. His first game that season came in a win over Michigan that doubled as the first ever night game the stadium as well. 

The Pittsburgh native hasn’t stopped since then. Upon the conclusion of the team’s contest against Louisville on Nov. 21, 2020, Collins will have called 233 straight Notre Dame games at the stadium.

No word on how the university will about finding a new public address announcer for the venue but they did note plans to celebrate Collins’ tenure will be announced later this year. 

While it always is going to be hard to call it quits given how good a gig it is, at least Collins will be going out with a bang given the slate ND has this season. The home opener will be against Arkansas on Sept. 12 while traditional rivals like Stanford join ACC foes like Duke and Clemson in coming to South Bend later in the year. All those games will be broadcasted on NBC. 

Western Michigan is also on the docket for the Irish at home in addition to contests like playing Wisconsin at Lambeau Field and a season-opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland.