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The 2013 Nittany Lions: A Football Season In Review

As many have written in the last five days, the 2013 Penn State football season was a bit of a roller coaster with constant ups and downs. For that very reason, it’s hard to really interpret what happened in each game without taking a look back as the team’s identity seemed to morph from one week to the next. With that in mind, here’s the 2013 Penn State football season in review:

Week One — Syracuse (W, 23-17):

This was a game of firsts for the Nittany Lions. It was the team’s first time playing at MetLife Stadium, the home of the New York Jets and New York Giants. It was Christian Hackenberg’s first start. He threw his first completion, his first touchdown, and his first interception. Most importantly, he won his first college football game, leading Penn State to a 23-17 victory over the Orange in a neutral-site season-opener.

Syracuse opened the game with a 3-0 lead before two Sam Ficken field goals turned the tables. Penn State never trailed again, taking control of the game in the fourth quarter when Hackenberg connected with Geno Lewis for a 54-yard touchdown.

Week Two — Eastern Michigan (W, 45-7):

The Nittany Lions did exactly what they were supposed to do against a weak Eastern Michigan team, dominating the Eagles en route to a 45-7 win. After starting Bill O’Brien’s first season with two losses, Penn State opened its second season under O’Brien with two straight wins. The running game dominated as Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch each had 108 yards. Lynch ran for one score, Belton ran for two, and Zach Zwinak also found the end zone twice.

Week Three — Central Florida (L, 31-34):

Facing its toughest non-conference opponent of the season, the Nittany Lions couldn’t rise to the challenge against the UCF Knights at Beaver Stadium. It was as close as a game could be, even considering that Penn State never once held a lead. Hackenberg played well, completing 75 percent of his passes for 262 yards and one score while Zwinak ran for 128 yards and three touchdowns.

Unfortunately for the offense, the defense could not hold up its end of the bargain as it failed time and time again to make big stops. UCF quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson were just too much for a relatively inexperienced Penn State defense that would not hit its stride until much later the season to handle. Penn State made an attempt at a late-game comeback, cutting the UCF lead to 34-31 with 2:51 to go on a miraculous five-yard end zone fade to Allen Robinson, but it was for naught.

Week Four — Kent State (W, 34-0):

This week saw another mediocre opponent travel to Beaver Stadium and take a whooping. Hackenberg struggled immensely against the Golden Flashes, completing just 37 percent of his passes and throwing a pick in the game. The running game picked up the slack as Zwinak kept up his strong early season pace, scoring three touchdowns and paving the way for a 34-0 Nittany Lions lead to get to 3-1 entering the first bye of the year.

Week Five — Indiana (L, 44-24):

In what might have been the most demoralizing loss of the season for the Nittany Lions, the team headed to Memorial Stadium and was absolutely thrashed by the Hoosiers in the Big Ten opener, losing to Indiana for the first time in 17 games. Hackenberg played strong in the game as O’Brien relied heavily on the pass, completing 30 of his whopping 55 pass attempts for 340 yards and three touchdowns. The defense struggled to come up with stops again, letting Nate Sudfeld pass all over the secondary.

Week Six — No. 18 Michigan (W, 43-40):

I doubt that I have to remind you what happened against Michigan in this night game in mid-October following Penn State’s second bye week. It certainly wasn’t the prettiest football game of all time, especially if you’re a fan of good defense, or good offense for that matter. The teams combined for seven turnovers, but Michigan looked to have the game wrapped up with a 34-27 lead late in the fourth quarter. Brady Hoke mismanaged the clock and the Penn State offense got the ball back with just under a minute to go.

Hackenberg executed a miracle game-tying drive that featured “The Catch,” an amazing Robinson grab just one yard shy of the end zone that was followed by a quarterback sneak touchdown. The game went to four very ugly overtimes in which Hackenberg did not complete a single pass and the two teams scored just 15 total points. None of that mattered in the end as Belton ran into the end zone from two yards out to win the game 43-40.

Week Seven — No. 4 Ohio State (L, 63-14):

This game is barely worth going into detail about as the score pretty much tells the entire story. On the road against the undefeated No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State lost 63-14 and gave up 42 points in the first half alone. The Buckeyes totaled 686 yards of offense including 408 rushing yards as they absolutely dominated the Nittany Lions.

Week Eight — Illinois (W, 24-17):

Penn State got back on track one week later against one of the weakest opponents in the conference: the Illinois Fighting Illini. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly a confidence booster for the Nittany Lions as they just barely edged out a team that they were capable of blowing out, needing an overtime to finish off the Illini at Beaver Stadium.

Belton played spectacular in the game after Zwinak was benched with a bad case of the fumbles, racking up 201 yards and a score on 36 carries. Following a 15-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Carter to take the lead in overtime, Ryan Keiser came up with a game-winning interception off of Nathan Scheelhaase to wrap things up.

Week Nine — Minnesota (L, 24-10):

The Nittany Lions dropped a dud on the road against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a team that shocked the Big Ten in 2013, having a successful 8-4 regular season. Statistically, the game was close. Penn State led in first downs 22 to 9, trailed in total yards 381 to 353, and the Gophers racked up five penalties to just one by the Nittany Lions. But the Gophers were able to play their game against Penn State, pounding the rock and dominating the clock en route to a 24-10 win.

Hackenberg was pedestrian in the game against a solid Gophers defense, going for 14 for 25 with 163 yards, no scores, and no interceptions. Zwinak led the way for the offense with 26 carries for 150 yards and a score. The Nittany Lions defense struggled in the first half but hit its stride in the middle of the third quarter. It was too little too late as the offense never found a way to put together a solid second half drive.

Week Ten — Purdue (W, 45-21):

Luckily, the Nittany Lions had a cupcake game to follow up that loss against a Big Ten opponent. The Boilermakers were the worst team in the conference this year and were arguably on the same level as Kent State and Eastern Michigan. Zwinak was dominant in the game, carrying the ball 26 times for 149 yards and three touchdowns as he earned back his job as the primary ballcarrier.

Penn State held Purdue to just 41 rushing yards and 264 total yards as the Nittany Lions went on to win 45-21 at Beaver Stadium after breaking the game open late in the third quarter. Adam Breneman had his first career touchdown against the Boilermakers, catching an eight-yard pass in the end zone near the end of the first half.

Week Eleven — Nebraska (L, 23-20):

It was Senior Day and the Nebraska Cornhuskers looked to be Penn State’s best chance to get a seventh victory and finish the season with a winning record. The game was almost identical to the Wisconsin Senior Day game one year earlier. There was an end zone fumble, a questionable call that negated a touchdown, a lot of snow, and an overtime period.

The result was different this time though, as Penn State didn’t give the senior class a win behind a Sam Ficken overtime field goal this time. Instead, Ficken missed his overtime field goal while Nebraska’s Pat Smith hit one from 42 yards out to seal Penn State’s fate.

Week Twelve — No. 15 Wisconsin (W, 31-24):

I’m sure that this win is still relatively fresh in your minds as it happened less than a week ago. Against the second-best conference opponent the Nittany Lions faced in 2013, it played their strongest game of the season against the No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers to put up a shocking 31-24 upset victory that ended the season on a very high note.

Hackenberg saved his best performance for last as he completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards and four, yes, four touchdowns. The first half ended with a 14-14 tie, impressive enough as most expected a decisive Wisconsin victory. By the 12:59 mark in the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions had scored 24 unanswered points and led 31-14. The Badgers staged a last-second comeback attempt but couldn’t pull it off and Penn State won 31-24 in Madison to clinch a 7-5 winning record. And that, folks, is all she wrote.

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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