Monday, September 29, 2014

Dissecting Penn State's offensive woes.

Before delving into this everyone do yourselves a favor: take a deep breathe, realize Penn State is still 4-1, they will go bowling for the first time since 2011, and take a step back from the ledge. Saturday was ugly. Very, very ugly. The Nittany Lions were embarrassed on homecoming Saturday against Northwestern by a score of 29-6. This was the Nittany Lions' worst ever loss on homecoming, and worst home loss since 2001.

Penn State's biggest problem this year has been the offense. Penn State ranks in the top 12 nationally in scoring, rushing, and total defense. The Nittany Lions' defense is not the Swiss cheese it was a year ago. However, the offense has regressed. Largely due to the terrible play of the offensive line.

This year Penn State ranks 100th nationally in points per game (22.8), 115th nationally in rushing yards per game (101). The passing attack, despite a bad game from Christian Hackenberg this past weekend, still ranks 25th nationally, and first in the Big Ten, in yards per game (306.8).

OL Coach Herb Hand has his work cut out for him.

The offensive line must improve, and the improved play must start in Penn State's next game which is against Michigan on October 11th. Penn State has allowed 14 sacks so far this year, the most in the Big Ten. They also rank last in the Big Ten in rushing yards. Penn State has talent at running back. Zach Zwinak is coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, Bill Belton is a dynamic play maker, and Akeel Lynch has more upside than Zwinak and Belton. I have trouble faulting the running backs for the failure of the running game.

All season long Penn State has had no running lanes whatsoever. Hackenberg has also constantly been under pressure, as evident by the 14 times he has been sacked. Up front redshirt junior left tackle Donovan Smith has played very well. Outside of Smith however, the offensive line has not had much success. Center Angelo Mangiro has shown flashes of good play, but his shot gun snaps have been bad all season. They tend to resemble dead ducks as they head toward Christian Hackenberg and get there slowly, something you can not afford when you have an OL that can't pass protect. Left guard Brendan Mahon has improved each week and is showing flashes of why he was one of the top OL recruits in the country in 2013, but he also needs to continue to get better each week. The right side of the offensive line has really been troublesome. Both Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey have been bad at right guard, and Andrew Nelson has had struggles at right tackle.
Belton and the RBs have had no room to run this year.

The big problem is Penn State really has no other options on the offensive line. Coming into the year many people, myself included, predicted Penn State's offensive line would be bad. However, I don't think any of us expected it to be this bad. With Miles Deffienbach out with injury, Donovan Smith was the only returning starter and it has shown. Deffienbach could be back in the next few weeks, and that should provide a huge boost to the OL as it would shift Brendan Mahon to right guard and get Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey off the field. The sanctions have hit the offensive line hard. Gaia and Dowrey were defensive linemen until this past offseason, but were shifted to offensive line due to lack of depth. The depth problem got even worse when Deffienbach got hurt in the spring.

Penn State's offensive line will improve, it just has too. Brendan Mahon has all kinds of talent, Andrew Nelson has a high ceiling too. The addition of Deffienbach, which could come as soon as the Maryland game, will also be a big boost. Not just on the field, but also mentally as he is one of the senior team leaders. As I said above, the sanctions hit the OL hard and it is showing. However, Penn State has some very solid offensive linemen committed in the 2015 class highlighted by the state's top recruit Sterling Jenkins. These young men could easily step in and play right away next fall, but that does not help the here and now. The point is, don't pile on Coach Franklin and his staff too much for poor offensive line play this season. There is not a whole lot of talent there, and there are two guys playing out of position. It will get better this year, it just simply has to, and will really improve in coming years.

There are ways to work around poor offensive line play however, and we have seen some of that from offensive coordinator John Donovan this season. Penn State needs to just about scrap draw plays, RB screens, and stretch runs that all take time to develop. Penn State's offensive line simply is not good enough to allow these plays to work. Donovan has done a better job of not calling these plays as much the past few games as he did early on, but he has still been stubborn with them at times. I do understand is line of thinking though, as you must be as balanced as possible on offense in order to win football games.

On offense Penn State needs to go with runs in between the tackles on which they just hand it off immediately and try and get yards. These have been the runs they have had the most success with this season. Cutting out on the penalties would also help, as Belton has had a few big runs called back this season due to holding penalties. Another thing that has led to huge success this year is something we saw a lot of in the second half of the Rutgers game, quick passes and screens to WRs. Those quick slants, out routes, hitches, and screens willed the Nittany Lions to a come from behind victory over the Scarlet Knights in their conference opener. They are plays that work to perfection when you have explosive WRs, which the Nittany Lions have, and also are great for teams with offensive lines that have protection problems. Penn State, obviously, also has that. I'd like to see Donovan call these more often on offense.

While the offensive line has been Penn State's biggest problem on offense, it is not the only one. The Nittany Lions have also not been good in the red zone. They have scored just 8 red zone touchdowns this season, which is tied with Northwestern for the least in the Big Ten. This must improve. I've pointed out multiple times this year that Penn State must stop settling for 3, or nothing, in the red zone and start getting 6. This hurt them Saturday, as their three red zone possessions resulted in two field goals and a blocked field goal. Had they scored touchdowns on even two of those drives, it would have been a completely different game.

Mental mistakes such as drops and penalties have also been killer. Penn State has had a lot of big plays called back due to holding and illegal block penalties this season. The WRs have also had a case of the drops at times this year, even the sure handed Geno Lewis had a killer drop on Saturday. They need to clean up the mental mistakes as well.

Penn State's defense is one of the best in the country, and they have a stud at quarterback in Christian Hackenberg. They also have three very talented running backs, and roll three deep at tight end. Furthermore, they have a very talented group of WRs led by Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. However, Penn State's offensive line is a mess. Their offensive is truly the one thing keeping Penn State from currently being 5-0, and from being a top 15-20 team this season.

Ohio State and Michigan State are the only remaining games on Penn State's schedule I'm chalking up as guarantee losses. The other 5 are all very winnable. Temple, Indiana, and Illinois are all games Penn State should win, and Michigan and Maryland are also very winnable. Especially the Michigan game even with it being in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are an utter mess right now, much more of a mess than the Nittany Lions. There is no reason for Penn State to finish any worse than 7-5 this season, with 8-4 being a real possibility. Even 9-3 still wouldn't surprise me. It is extremely frustrating to watch this offense right now. But the offense must play better as they get into the teeth of conference play, and that all starts with the offensive line.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Northwestern 29, Penn State 6. The good, not so good, and other notes.

Penn State was embarrassed yesterday. The Nittany Lions (4-1) lost their first game of the season by a score of 29-6. This was the Nittany Lions worst home loss since 2001, and worst ever loss on homecoming weekend. Making things even worse is the fact that Northwestern is not a very good football team. In fact, to be honest, Northwestern is a bad team. However, credit is due to the Wildcats as they took it to the Nittany Lions right from the opening kick off.

Luckily for the Nittany Lions, they have a bye this week. The bye could not come at a better time. Nyeem Wartman is banged up, and Penn State missed him dearly yesterday. The OL is still a total and complete mess. Brandon Bell was dealing with a hand injury yesterday, and Penn State looked like a team that just needs a week to recharge their batteries. However they need to improve, as after the bye week the teeth of their Big Ten schedule really begins.

The Good


Penn State did absolutely nothing right yesterday. Northwestern dominated all three facets of the game. Offense, defense, and special teams it was all Wildcats on Saturday. This was the worst lost Penn State had since the Indiana game last year. After the game Coach Franklin said that the Nittany Lions will fix their problems, and I believe in Coach Franklin, his staff, and these players. They will get better. This bye week could not come at a better time.

The Not So Good

The Offensive Line

Brian Gaia (72) blocking his own teammate
Yesterday Penn State's offensive line continued to be offensive to watch. Christian Hackenberg once again had no time to throw. It was impossible to establish a running game. Problems that have plagued the Nittany Lions all season continued to spring up yesterday. The terrible play of the offensive line yesterday was highlighted by a stellar play on a 4th and 1 on which Brian Gaia decided to block Andrew Nelson instead of a Northwestern defender. Bill Belton was promptly stuffed for a loss of 2. The offensive line is a mess. Donovan Smith has played well this year, but that is about it. Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey have both been bad. Brendan Mahon, Angelo Mangiro, and Andrew Nelson have all been average at best. This offense line needs to get a lot better, and it needs to start next week against Michigan.

Christian Hackenberg
Hack was bad yesterday. He went 22/45 for just 216 yards, 0 touchdowns, and an interception. He missed open guys throughout the day, and just flat out looked bad on Saturday. In Hack's defense the line continued to play like hot garbage and didn't give him much of a chance on a lot of throws. However, Hack was still flat out bad on Saturday. He must play better if the Nittany Lions are going to be successful in conference play.

The Offense As A Whole
Penn State had just 266 yards of total offense on Saturday. That is horrible. They ran for just 50 yards, the rushing game has become a major concern. They went 3 for 17 on third down, and 1 for 4 on fourth downs. Extending drives was something they did not do well Saturday. The fact Northwestern's defense is not very good made all of this just that much more disheartening. This was the worst the offense had looked all season, and the players and coaching staff must use the bye week to get better.

The Pass Defense
Trevor Siemian threw for 258 yards and a touchdown yesterday. All day long Northwestern had guys running around open. The Nittany Lions were especially vulnerable in the middle of the field. This is where I feel they really missed Nyeem Wartman. Jason Cabinda was playing in his first career game, and got beat in coverage multiple times. He also looked absolutely lost at times. However, these are things Cabinda will improve at with more experience. All in all Penn State's defense played okay yesterday. They gave up just 361 yards of total offense, and kept the game from being an even bigger blowout. However, Northwestern had way too much success throwing the ball yesterday.

Special Teams
Sam Ficken had a field goal blocked for the second time this year. Northwestern kept ripping off big returns on punts and kicks. It was bad. Penn State's special teams had been very solid this year after struggling mightily in past years. However, Saturday it was bad again. Hopefully this is just a one time things.

Penn State's bye week could not come at a better time. The Nittany Lions have injures that need to heal up, and a lot of things they need to sure up in their play. Going to the Big House, especially under the lights, is never easy. But Michigan is not very good this year and have been beaten soundly at home the past two weeks by Minnesota and Utah. Temple, Indiana, Illinois, and Maryland are all also very winnable games. All hope is not lost. Penn State is not a bad team, yesterday was just a bad game. They happen. The Nittany Lions can still go 8-4 and get to a solid bowl game. However, they need to play much better than they did yesterday.

Other Notes
- The attendance Saturday was 102,910 the highest attendance since last year's Michigan game.
- The Nittany Lions are off this week, and then head to the Big House to play a scuffling Michigan team under the lights on October 11th.
- This loss snapped Penn State's 5 game winning streak that dated back to the season finale a year ago.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Penn State's defensive line is dominating teams.

Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to say that his defensive linemen are 'trained in the art of chaos.' So far this year Penn State's defensive line has been causing more than their fair share of chaos. Penn State's defensive line is anchoring and leading a defensive unit that is allowing the fewest rushing yards in the country at 49.5 yards per game, and the 6th fewest points in the nation at 11 points per game. Both of these lead the Big Ten. Through the first four weeks of the season the argument can be made that Penn State's defensive line has been the most dominate group, regardless of position, in the entire Big Ten.

Anthony Zettle might be the best d-lineman in the country right now

The defensive line is anchored by one of the best defensive tackle duos in the nation, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson. This season Zettel has 13 tackles, 3 sacks, and leads the Big Ten with 7 tackles for a loss. Zettel has truly been unblockable this year, and is well on his way to being an All-American if he continues to play this way. While Johnson does not get the stats or recognition Zettel does, his play has been just as key for the defense. At 6'5 315 pounds Johnson is a load for any offensive lineman to handle, the fact he is very athletic just makes him even harder to block. James Franklin even said, "he's the most athletic 6'5 315 pound guy I have ever seen." Johnson may not get the stats of Zettel, but he still blows up a lot of plays and pressure the quarterback. He helps eat up the blockers that allows the linebackers to make so many plays.

Penn State has also gotten good play from back up defensive tackles Tarrow Barney and Parker Cothren. Barney was one of the top JUCO defensive tackles in the country last year, and chose to come to Penn State. Barney has provided very good depth, and recorded his first career sack against Umass on Saturday. Cothren, a redshirt freshman, has made great strides. He already has two sacks this year, and has been seeing playing time on key downs for Penn State. Cothren is a very good athlete, which helps make him such a pain for offensive linemen to handle.

Penn State can roll six deep at defensive end if they need to, and this is a great luxury to have. Even though Deion Barnes, CJ Olaniyan, Brad Bars, and Carl Nassib get nearly all the snaps at defensive end the Nittany Lions could also use redshirt freshmen Garrett Sickels and Curtis Cothran if need be, Sickels and Cothran each recorded their first career sack this past Saturday.

Barnes (18) has been a terror for QBs this year

In 2012 Deion Barnes was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and was nearly unblockable, after struggling last year he looks like that player again. Despite only having 1 sack through four games, Barnes has been making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. He has been pressuring the opposing quarterback on seemingly every pass attempt, and has batted down multiple pass attempts at the line of scrimmage. He has also made huge strides against the run. There have been many plays this season on which he has forced an opposing runner to cut back inside where the defensive tackles and linebackers were waiting to stuff him.

Opposite Barnes is senior captain CJ Olaniyan. Olaniyan has recorded a pair of sacks this season, and appears to finally be reaching his potential. Olaniyan is a player I have been high on for a long time, and after showing flashes in the past he has put it all together this year. He has been pressuring quarterbacks, squeezing down on offensive tackles to eliminate running lanes, and already has racked up double digit tackles which is an accomplishment for a defensive lineman through just four games. Olaniyan is one of the unsung heroes on Penn State's dominating defense, but that does not make his stellar play any less of a key to the Nittany Lions early season success on defense.

When long time defensive line coach Larry Johnson left Penn State for the Suckeyes this past offseason many people were left unsure how the Nittany Lions' defensive line would play this fall. Well, they're off to the best start a Penn State defensive line has gotten off to in a long time. Sean Spencer is a young, fiery, passionate, and good coach. He has stepped right in and picked up where LJ left off. Right now you could make a strong argument that Anthony Zettel is the most dominate defensive lineman in the country. Deion Barnes looks unblockable again. Austin Johnson and CJ Olaniyan are as unsung as it gets. All of that is without even mentioning the back up defensive linemen who have already combined for 6 sacks. Right now Penn State has the most dominating defense in the Big Ten, and one of the most dominating in the country. And the outstanding play of the defensive line is the biggest reason why. If the Nittany Lions' defensive line continues to play to the high level they have through four games, then Penn State's defense is going to remain one of the best in the country and give the Nittany Lions a chance to win every game they paly this year.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Previewing Penn State vs Northwestern

What: Penn State Nittany Lions (4-0, 1-0) vs Northwestern Wildcats (1-2, 0-0)
When: Saturday, September 27th, 2014. Noon, Big Ten Network.
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pennsylvania.
The Penn State Nittany Lions are 4-0 for the first time since 2008 when they started out 8-0 on their way to a Big Ten Championship. Last week Penn State steamrolled the heavily mismatched Umass Minutemen 48-7. Yes, it was just Umass but it was still good to see Penn State dominate as a good team should in a game like that. It was also nice to finally get the running game going.

This Saturday is homecoming at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions will welcome the Northwestern Wildcats to town for their Big Ten home opener. Penn State currently sits as 9.5 point favorites in this game. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has done a great job at Northwestern to turn them from perennial losers to competitive in the Big Ten. However, this year's team might be the worst one Fitzgerald as ever had during his tenure.

Northwestern comes into this game at 1-2. Their losses came to Cal and Northern Illinois, they finally got a victory last week defeating FCS Western Illinois at home despite being outgained in that game. Northwestern ranks 75th nationally in passing offense, 106th in rushing offense, and 104th in scoring offense. They are not doing a whole lot right so far this season. One of the trademarks of Northwestern the past few seasons has been a high powered spread attack, but so far this year they have not had said attack.

At quarterback is senior Trevor Siemian. On the year Siemian has completed 59.1% of his passes for 614 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. Through the first three games Siemian has also been sacked 7 times, and this was against three not so stellar defense. Anthony Zettel, Deion Barnes, and the rest of the Penn State defensive line should be licking their chops thinking about going up against this Northwestern pass protection. Siemian has enough athletic ability to make plays with his legs, but he is never going to kill you with his legs unlike some of Northwestern's past QBs such as Kain Colter. However, Siemian is an accurate passer. It is key for Penn State to get pressure on Siemian on Saturday and not let him get comfortable in the pocket. I feel confident that they will be able to do so.

Trevor Siemian
Northwestern will throw the ball to a ton of different players. So far this year 14 different players have caught at least one pass, Siemian included. So trick plays are also something you must always watch out for against the Wildcats. Stopping trick plays comes down to being sound on defense and doing your job, something Bob Shoop's defense has had no problem with so far this season. Their leading receiver is junior Cameron Dickerson who has caught 7 passes for 129 yards and a score this season. Senior Kyle Pater (117 yards, 1 TD), and junior and former defensive back Dan Vitale (103 yards) each also have over 100 yards receiving this season. Junior speedster Pierre Youngblood-Ary has been a big play threat so far this season for Northwestern. He has just 3 catcher, but is averaging nearly 24 yards per catch. This includes a 54 yard TD catch against Northern Illionis. At 6'3, 190 pounds he can be a bit of a matchup nightmare but the Penn State secondary has played very well this season and should be able to contain the Northwestern passing game which is averaging just 228.3 yards per game this season.
At running back Northwestern dearly misses Venric Mark. The very explosive Mark decided to transfer in August after being suspended for the first two games of the season. Three guys have been carrying the load with Mark gone this season. Freshman Justin Jackson, senior Treyvon Green, and freshman Solomon Vault. Jackson has run for 184 yards and 2 touchdowns, Green 101 yards, and Vault 74 yards and 2 touchdowns. Do some quick math however and you see these three are averaging just a combined 119 yards per game through three games. That is just slightly over their team average of 115 rushing yard per game. As I said above, they rank 106th nationally in rushing offense. Penn State ranks 1st nationally in rushing defense allowing just 49.5 yards rushing per game. Penn State has allowed 100 yards rushing just once all season, and that came when they gave up 103 rushing yards to Rutgers. They are also coming off a game against Umass where they allowed just 3 rushing yards. Now I do not expect them to hold Northwestern to 3 yards rushing this week, but they should shutdown the Northwestern rushing attack this Saturday.

Northwestern has also struggled on defense this season. Last week against Western Illinois they allowed 292 yards passing to Trenton Norvell, and, well, Trenton Norvell is no Christian Hackenberg. Through four weeks Hack leads the Big Ten with 1,261 passing yards. This is also a Big Ten record for passing yards through four games. Penn State's 329.5 passing yards per game ranks 16th nationally. Hack and the passing game should have a huge day Saturday.

Northwestern is allowing 139 yards rushing per game, but Northern Illinois was the only team that tried to regularly run the ball against Northwestern. The Huskies were very successful in doing so rushing for 221 yards. Last weekend Penn State's rushing game took huge strides, albeit against Umass. The Nittany Lions rushed for 228 yards after rushing for just 227 yards in the first three games. Northwestern's defense can be vulnerable to the run, and I want to see Penn State exploit that. Once Penn State starts to get into the teeth of their Big Ten schedule, starting with Michigan on October 11th, they need to be able to run the ball. Last week Akeel Lynch continued to look like the best all around back on the team. He averaged 10.1 yards per carry while rushing for 81 yards and his first career touchdown. On the season Lynch is averaging 7.7 yards per carry which is much better than Bill Belton's 4.0 yards per carry and Zach Zwinak's 2.9 per carry. I believe all three backs bring something to the table, Zwinak in short yardage situations and Belton as a third down back for example, and all three should be used. However, I believe Lynch should be the primary back and be getting the bulk of the carries at this point.

Ultimately, there is zero reason Penn State should lose Saturday. Northwestern is simply not a good football team. This game could be close for a half or so simply because Pat Fitzgerald is a hell of a football coach and will have his team extremely motivated Saturday, but in the end I see the Nittany Lions cruising through the fourth quarter with a comfortable two score cushion. Penn State gets to 5-0, 2-0 in conference play, and then come Sunday afternoon cracks the AP Top 25 for the first time since December of 2011.
Penn State 31
Northwestern 16

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The magic of Christian Hackenberg.

From the very second he committed to Penn State in February of 2012 the expectations for Christian Hackenberg were extremely high. As the top rated pro-style quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class fans thought of Hack as a quarterback capable of taking Penn State Football to the next level. So far, he has not disappointed.

The true sophomore quarterback has started all 15 games Penn State has played since he stepped on campus in the summer of 2013. The Nittany Lions are 10-5 in those games, and Hackenberg is the biggest reason why. Hackenberg already holds the school record for most career games with 300+ passing yard (7) as well as the single game passing record (454 yards). He is already one of just 10 quarterbacks in school history with at least 4,000 career passing yards (4,037) and he's got at least 21 more career games under center for the Nittany Lions.

Hackenberg has also proven he can come through in the clutch. It all started last year against Michigan. In front of a sold out crowd under the lights at Beaver Stadium he marched the Nittany Lions the length of the field with less than a minute to go in the game to tie it, and then went on to defeat the Wolverines in 43-40 in a 4 overtime thriller. he would do it again a few weeks later against Illinois, leading a drive that culminated in a game tying field goal with a little over a minute to go. The Nittany Lions would go on to win the game 20-17 in overtime.

Already this year he has led the Nittany Lions to two last minute come from behind victories, including last week at Rutgers in front of a hostile crowd. Last week's showing was extra impressive since the Nittany Lions had done nothing on offense all game. Yet Hackenberg still managed to march the team 81 yards to take a 13-10 lead with 1:49 to go in the game. Despite the fact Penn State's offense had sputtered all night, I for one had zero doubt in my mind that when Hack was handed the ball down 4 with 3:19 to go that he was going to win the game. With Hack under center, anytime the Nittany Lions are in a close game in the 4th quarter I have zero doubt that he will find a way to win the game.

Last season Hackenberg was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year after throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. Through three games this season he leads the Big Ten in passing yards (1,082) and total offense (1,103 yards). He is the clear cut early front runner for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

Akron coach Terry Bowden may have put it best when asked about Hackenberg before the Zips' matchup with Penn State last week. When asked how they planned to stop Hackenberg he said that there is truly no way to gameplan for a quarterback that good. That is an extremely high compliment to get from any coach. Especially a coach the quality of Terry Bowden, who has a defensive coordinator as good as Chuck Amato.

Despite terrible offensive line play through the first three weeks this season, Hackenberg has continually showed great pocket presence. He has endured one hit after another, as well as having already been sacked double digit times. Five alone against Rutgers. Yes, Hackenberg has the tendency to make throws he shouldn't resulting in interceptions. But this is something he can, and will, improve with more maturity and experience. Hackenberg has the arm to make any throw in football, this arm allows him to take chances most quarterbacks can't. When you combine that arm strength, his ability to endure hits, the risks he takes and often gets away with throwing the ball, and his clutch gene watching Christian Hackenberg reminds me a lot of Brett Favre. Also, much like Favre, Hackenberg is not the most mobile guy in the world but is a good enough athlete to avoid defenders in the backfield and can run for yards when the opportunity presents itself.

Now that the postseason ban has been lifted, Hackenberg has the chance to really do something special at Penn State. This team could easily win 9 or 10 games this season and find themselves in a very good bowl game. If they are able to upset Ohio State and Michigan State, both of which are at home, or even just one of the two the Nittany Lions could end up winning the Big Ten East and going to the conference championship game. He will enter next season as one of the Heisman Trophy favorites, and if he continues to improve and play great, paired with Penn State winning ball games, a Heisman Trophy is not out of the question. Especially since people around the country are starting to realize that Hack is simply one of the best.

Hackenberg is well on his way to being a first round draft pick in the NFL Draft. Odds are he will leave after next season when he is draft eligible. There's also a very good shot that Hack will be the first quarterback off the board, whenever he enters the draft. He could easily end up a consensus top 5 draft pick by the time his playing days at Penn State are over.

Christian Hackenberg is one of the best quarterbacks in college football. The scary part is he will only continue to improve, as he is just a 19 year old true sophomore. We are quickly learning that as long as #14 is under center the Nittany Lions will have a chance at victory each week. Hackenberg is an extremely special quarterback, he is one that this generation of Nittany Lion fans will always be telling future generations about. Hack is going to go down as one of the best players in Penn State history, and before it is all said and done will most likely be the greatest quarterback in school history. Sit back and enjoy it folks, because Christian Hackenberg is going to win a lot more football games at Penn State before his time is up.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Previewing Penn State vs Umass.

What: Penn State Nittany Lions (3-0) vs Umass Minutemen (0-3)
When: Saturday, September 20th, 2014, 4pm on the Big Ten Network.
Where: Beaver Stadium State College, Pennsylvania.

Last week the Nittany Lions won their Big Ten opener in thrilling fashion. They went into a hostile environment in Piscataway and defeated Rutgers 13-10 on a last minute Bill Belton touchdown run. This came after Christian Hackenberg led a drive to pick up a come from behind win for the second time in three weeks. With the win Penn State got to 3-0 for the first time since 2009, and James Franklin became the first Penn State head coach to win the first 3 games of his Penn State career since Bob Higgins in 1930. This team still has issues that need fixed. Primarily the offensive line. But Umass is a good team to work on issues like that against. This week should be a breeze for the Nittany Lions.

The Minutemen come in at 0-3. Last week they lost to Vanderbilt 34-31 after leading 24-7 in the second quarter. The Minutemen have allowed 105 points in their first three games, an average of 35 points per game. This ranks 104th nationally. Despite scoring 31 points last week, they still rank 91st nationally in points per game (25.3). They are also 80th in passing offense (224 yards per game) and 119th in rushing offense (81 yards per game). Penn State's defense has been dominate through three games ranking in the top 10 nationally in points, yards, passing yards, and rushing yards allowed. Coach Shoop's group has got to be licking their chops this week.

On offense Umass is led by senior quarterback Blake Frohnapfel. This season Frohnapfel has completed just 48.9% of his passes for 619 yards, he has 5 touchdowns to go along with 2 interceptions. Their leading rushers are junior Jamal Wilson (20 carries, 88 yards, 1 TD), and freshman J.T. Blyden (20 carries, 68 yards). Penn State defensive line should dominate the line of scrimmage Saturday and stuff the Umass rushing attack without much trouble. Junior tight end Rodney Mills (6'1, 215 pounds) could cause matchup problems. Evident by him averaging over 20 yards per catch this season. However, he has just 5 receptions but 3 have been for touchdowns. Mike Hull, Brandon Bell, or one of the safeties should be able to neutralize Mills without too much trouble.

Umass has no one on their offensive line capable of containing players like Anthony Zettel and Deion Barnes. I look for Penn State's defensive linemen to control the line of scrimmage, and live in the backfield Saturday afternoon. We also could see a lot of playing time for some younger guys this Saturday since this game should be in the bag early on. Garrett Sickels, Gary Wooten, and Parker Cothren are all guys that may see more reps than usual. Same for senior Brad Barrs. It is always nice to get players like this plying time in blowouts, incase they are needed down the line due to things such as injury. I don't want to put the cart ahead of the horse here, but this game has no business even being close.

Tajae Sharpe

Umass' best wide receiver is 6'4, 200 pound junior Tajae Sharpe. This season Sharpe has caught 15 passes for 246 yards, and 1 touchdown. Any wide receiver that is 6'4 can be tough to cover. But with one of the Big Ten's best at cornerback in Jordan Lucas, the Nittany Lions should be able to prevent Sharpe from burning them.

What I want to see most Saturday is improved play from the offensive line. Umass has one of the worst, if not the worst, front sevens Penn State will see all year. There is no reason this offensive can't begin to build some confidence this weekend while giving Hack plenty of time to throw, and opening up lanes for the running backs. I also want to see those running backs (Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, and Akeel Lynch) play better. I realize a lot of their struggles can be chalked up to poor line play, but it is time one of them takes this running back jump by the throat and makes it theirs. Penn State needs their rushing attack to improve, or else they could be in trouble when they get into the teeth of their conference schedule and play teams like Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State.

The offensive line is in a good position to take some real steps forward these next few weeks. They play two very poor defenses in Umass and Northwestern, then have a bye week, go to Ann Arbor to play a mediocre Michigan defense, then have another bye week before the Buckeyes come to town. Also, none of these next three opponents have a defensive lineman that jumps out at you as one that can be a game changer and really disrupt things like Rutgers has in Darius Hamilton. This line is young, and will improve as the season goes on. How much they improve however is what remains to be seen. With enough improvement, Penn State could easily be a 9 win club this season.
This game Saturday should be no contest. The Nittany Lions are 28 1/2 point favorites for a reason. However, Penn State can not get stuck overlooking Umass. If they do that, they may end up in dog fight they do not want to be in. This is the worst team Penn State will play all season. The Nittany Lions dominate this one from start to finish, and cruise to a 4-0 record.
Penn State 35
Umass 3

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Penn State 13, Rutgers 10. The good, not so good, and other notes.

Last night Penn State welcomed Rutgers to the Big Ten by picking up a 13-10 victory in Piscataway. This game was not pretty, and Penn State probably should have lost. The offensive line is still a mess and needs to improve immensely. However what matters right now is Penn State has played 3 games and won them all.

This was a very gratifying victory for me, for a lot of reasons. Honestly, it was probably the best win for me since Wisconsin in 2012. Even if it was just Rutgers. It was a great night to be a fan of 'that team from Pennsylvania.' There's a lot of things the Nittany Lions need to sure up before the schedule really starts to stiffen with Michigan in a few weeks. But for now, it's time to enjoy being 3-0.

The Good
Christian Hackenberg
He just does it all. Last night Hack was given the ball with 3 minutes left, 81 yards to march, and down 4. He marched the Nittany Lions down the field and into the end zone for the 13-10 victory. He once again threw for over 300 yards, and has in all three games this season and in four straight games going back to last year's season finale at Wisconsin. He did this last night despite continued terrible offensive line play, and a rash of penalties by the offense that did nothing but cause Penn State to shoot themselves in the foot. We are quickly learning that as long as #14 is under center, Penn State is going to have a chance.

The Defense
Coach Bob Shoop's unit was dominate again on Saturday night. There is zero way the Nittany Lions win last night without the defensive performance they got. They forced 5 turnovers, held Rutgers to just 10 points, and surrendered just 3 first downs and 70 yards in the second half. Through three games the Nittany Lions have allowed just 295 rushing yards, and have not allowed 300 yards of total offense in a game yet. This defense has been a complete 180 from what we saw a year ago. Anthony Zettel, Mike Hull, Jordan Lucas, and Deion Barnes have all looked like all-conference performers so far. Trevor Williams is bursting onto the scene as a pretty good cornerback. Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman keep improving. This defense is fast, physical, they swarm to the ball, and they are fun to watch. If the defense continues to play the way it has, Penn State will be in every game they play this season. No matter how much the offense struggles.

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Anthony Zettel
Zettel looked like a man amongst boys once again last night. He dominate on the line scrimmage, was constantly in the backfield, and made it a long night for Gary Nova and the Rutgers offense. Last night Zettel recorded 3 tackles for a loss, half of his tackles this season have been a tackle for a loss. The move to defensive tackle has proven to be a great move for Zettel. Through three games Zettel leads the Big Ten with 2.33 tackles for a loss per game, this puts Zettel fourth nationally in this category. If these first three games are any indication, he could find himself as a first team all-conference player come season's end.

Halftime Adjustments

Penn State's offense did nothing in the first half and was getting shut out at halftime. Then in the second half the offense woke up. The gained 271 yards, 13 first downs, scored all 13 points, and had the ball for 18:29 in the second half. The offensive line also played better in the second half, and that played a big role in this. However offensive coordinator John Donovan also deserves a lot of credit for this. The adjustments he made at halftime worked brilliantly.

The Not So Good

Offensive Line

This is becoming like a broken record. The offensive line was a mess again Saturday night. Christian Hackenberg was sacked 6 times and hardly ever had time to set his feet when looking to throw. Penn State also allowed Rutgers to block and field goal and a punt. Furthermore, Penn State only mustered 64 yards rushing Saturday night. This coming against a Rutgers' defense that gave up nearly 300 yards rushing to Howard a week ago. There were times on Saturday when the line looked like they had no idea what to do. On some plays there were guys running into each other, and seemed to have their blocking schemes very messed up. There were also some extremely costly holding penalties called on the offensive line Saturday night. The offensive line absolutely has to play better, period. Donovan Smith has had a fine season thus far, but the rest of the line has been an absolute mess. This can not continue. Coach Herb Hand certainly has his work cut out for him.

Running Backs
I realize the messy offensive line has not helped this group out at all, but they are better than this. Saturday night Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch combined for 41 yards on 18 carries. That is horrible. One of these three need to step up and grab the position by the throat. Penn State needs to get a rushing game established when they head into conference play. A big step in that direction would be for Zwinak, Belton, or Lynch to step up and grab the position by the throat and, no pun intended, run with it.

On Saturday night penalties reared their ugly head once again for Penn State. The Nittany Lions only had 5 penalties, but they were costly. One called back a Jesse James touchdown, and one called back a play that would have set up a first and goal. The Nittany Lions have gotten a lot better since week one with the penalties, but they must continue to work to clean this up.

Special Teams
Penn State had a punt and a field goal blocked Saturday night, luckily neither came back to burn them. The blocked punt gave Rutgers a short field, but the Nittany Lions' defense wouldn't let Rutgers capitalize on it. There was also that pooch punt disaster with Hack. After the game Franklin said they should have taken a timeout there. That is a designed play where Hack throws it if the defense comes out in man coverage, and is supposed to punt if they are in zone. Rutgers was indeed in zone, Hack did indeed punt the ball, and it wnet horribly.

Other Notes
- Christian Hackenberg now holds the school record for career games with 300+ yards passing, and he's still got at least 21 more games as a Nittany Lion.
- Hack leads the Big Ten in passing yards (360.7 yards per game) and total offense (367.7 yards per game).
- More Hack goodness, he is now the 10th QB in school history to have 4,000 career passing yards.
- This is the first time since 2009 Penn State has started 3-0.
- Coach Franklin is the first Penn State coach since Bob Higgins in 1930 to start 3-0.
- Penn State leads the Big Ten in scoring defense (12.3 points per game) and ranking 11th nationally. They are also 2nd in the Big Ten and 7th nationally in rush defense (68.3 yards per game).