Touchdown of Takeaways: Reality sets in as Lions fall at Michigan

Opinion/Story posted October 13, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Matt Lawrence

It was the first time anyone on the Penn State roster had played a game in Michigan Stadium. Despite a hot start, the Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2 B1G) fell apart in the second half, losing to the Wolverines (3-4, 1-2 B1G) 18-13.

It was a disappointing loss for James Franklin and company. Let’s take a look back at the defensive struggle that was Saturday night at The Big House.

1) Let’s try to start with some positives from Saturday night. Linebacker Mike Hull and the Nitttany Lion defense showed up in a big way once again. As he has done in each of the first five games, Hull led the team in tackles with 11.

Anthony Zettel recorded his second career interception, and the defense held the Wolverines to under 300 yards of total offense. Outside of a 25 yard pickup on the ground for Devin Garnder, the Nittany Lions limited the Michigan signal caller to -7 yards on nine carries.

Penn State remains in the top 10 nationally in both rush defense and scoring defense. We’ll see how they fare against Ohio State’s spread attack, but this defense should be able to keep the Nittany Lions in the majority of their games.

2) Bill Belton actually had a relatively successful night, rushing for 69 yards on 14 carries. He also added 4 catches for 26 yards. The problem was that the majority of those yards came in the first half.

Penn State was finding much of their success on the ground with Belton running sweeps out of the shotgun. Whether it was the line wearing down by the second half or something else, the Nittany Lions seemed to completely abandon that philosophy after halftime.

We’ll get to the coaching in a minute, but Franklin and the offensive staff can look at that first half and build off of what they were able to do early on.

3) Okay, now to the gorilla in the room. The reality is if UCF doesn’t decide to start the wrong quarterback in the first half, Penn State most likely starts the season 0-1. Instead, they win a dramatic opener, Christian Hackenberg throws for over 400 yards and this fan base, so eager for something positive, started believing this team could win nine or 10 games.

Despite starting 4-0, the glaring weaknesses that this team possesses were continuously highlighted. Call it false hope or inflated expectations, I think everyone got an idea of what they were facing when the Nittany Lions were completely stymied by the average Northwestern defense at home.

Now staring at a probable three-game losing streak with Ohio State looming after the bye week, Penn State needs to muster two more wins just to become bowl eligible.

4) In football, it starts and ends up front. If you can’t control the line of scrimmage on the offensive and defensive sides, you’re not going to win many football games.

I could sit here and lay into the offensive line for hours, but that seems to be all anyone has been doing lately. The one position that you can’t expect early contributions from freshmen is the offensive line, and Penn State right now is the epitome of that.

Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson were each heavily recruited high school linemen, but they’re redshirt freshmen that have never played at this level before. And then there are Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia who couldn’t crack the two-deep on the defensive line and are now in their first season on offense.

It’s a process. It won’t be fixed next week, and it probably won’t even be fixed next year. They’ve got a few freshmen redshirting that can supply depth next year, but we can see that significant contributions from them isn’t a realistic expectation.

5) I’m still perplexed as to the use of the tight ends in this offense. I understand that with a limited offensive line there is a need to keep a tight end in to help block, but if your tight ends are incapable of blocking then what’s the point?

I watched from the booth of The Big House time-and-time again Kyle Carter or Jesse James just completely whiff on blitzing linebackers forcing Hackenberg to scramble. For a big guy, James has a lot of work to do as a blocker if he expects to make in the NFL.

With that said, I continue to believe that the tight ends need to be used to open the middle of the field. As a unit they combined for just seven catches for 42 yards. With teams bringing constant pressure on Hackenberg, linebackers are forced to cover the tight ends and there is room over the middle for quick drags and curls all day.

6) What you see from Christian Hackenberg is what you’re going to get, and I think it’s important for everyone to understand what type of a quarterback he is.

In a teleconference before the Northwestern game, Hackenberg was asked if there was a quarterback in the NFL that he likes to watch and emulate. I found it quite telling that his response to that question was Jay Cutler.

Not Tom Brady, not Peyton Manning, not Aaron Rodgers. But Jay Cutler. And I think Cutler is a perfect example of Hackenberg’s game. His game is dropping back, and throwing the football around the field. He’s going to hold the ball too long at times because his reaction isn’t to run, and he’s going to make some decisions like the interception Saturday night that leave you scratching your head.

But that’s who he is and that’s not going to change. He’s a special talent, but I don’t care if Johnny Unitas is under center, if you don’t give your quarterback time to throw, he’s going to struggle.

7) Don’t think I would get to the end of this without mentioning James Franklin. I’m not at all pushing the panic button on Franklin, as I believe him to be a fantastic recruiter and given a full roster and a few more recruiting classes he will have the Nittany Lions back on the map.

But, through six games, the team has shown no improvement and has appeared to actually regress. The fake punt on 4th and 11 in Michigan territory was just an awful call that really changed the whole complexion of the game. And to only put together 27 yards of offense after halftime can absolutely be attributed to the coaching staff.

Things will get better. May not be this season, may not be next season, but there is help on the way and the future is bright for Penn State football. Franklin has got to clean some in-game things up, but it’s a bit early to completely write him off.

Matt Lawrence is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism and economics. To contact him, email mdl030293@gmail.com.