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Penn State Zips Akron 21-3, Improves to 2-0

It wasn’t pretty, but the Penn State football team is 2-0 for only the second time in the last five years. The Nittany Lions defeated the Akron Zips (1-1) 21-3 in James Franklin’s Beaver Stadium coaching debut on a sunny Saturday in State College. 

How it happened: Even on a day when it sputtered and stumbled, Penn State’s offense still had some fire power when it needed to.

Christian Hackenberg — a game removed from setting the Penn State single game passing record with 454 yards — tossed for 319 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Jesse James had his first career two touchdown day, capped by a 44 yard catch, run, and score with nine minutes remaining that all but secured the game for Penn State.

Daesean Hamilton and Geno Lewis — the duo that carried the Nittany Lions’ offense in Ireland — each continued their momentum into Saturday. Hamilton hauled in seven receptions for 69 yards, and Lewis collected six passes for 98 yards. Through two games, Lewis and Hamilton have combined for 32 receptions and 505 yards.

“We need other guys to start making plays,” said Franklin, talking about the duo and how they create mismatches for opponents. “But I’ve been pleased, it’s not just one guy you’re trying to stop.”

The run game continued to lag, though showed signs of improvement. Akeel Lynch, who only carried once against Central Florida, paced the ground attack with seven carries for 45 yards. Bill Belton (36 yards) and Zach Zwinak (30) also contributed.

With 2:58 left in the first quarter, Hackenberg play faked right to Belton, who then ran through the secondary unmarked. Belton then secured Hackenberg’s lob to the left side of the field and rumbled  into the endzone for a 22 yard reception which put the Lions of 7-0. After that touchdown, however, Hackenberg started to struggle. He threw two red zone interceptions, one that killed a nine-play drive in the first quarter, and one at the one-yard line that was returned 51 yards by the defense. At times, he seemed out of sync with his receivers. 

But when the offense struggled, the defense picked them right back up. After a missed field goal on the first drive of the game, Bob Shoop’s unit held the Zips to five straight 3-and-outs. The team only gave up 157 yards and held Akron to just 3 of 10 on third downs in the first half.

“I feel like everybody has newborn confidence on our defense,” said cornerback Jordan Lucas after the game. “We don’t have a leash anymore. We’re not thinking, we can just go out there and be football players.”

After an Akron field goal to start the second half, Hackenberg started to find a rhythm. He found James for his first touchdown of the day, a thirteen yard slant that the tight end hauled in at the two before dragging his tacklers into the end zone with 2:38 left in the third quarter. The pass capped a ten play, 79 yard drive that knocked 5:26 off the clock.

Then, six minutes into the fourth quarter, Hackenberg again connected with James. This time, the 254 pound tight end caught a wheel route, and outran numerous defenders on his way to a 44 yard touchdown to provide the final score. Akron tried to drive a few times after that, but each one was snuffed out by a relentless Nittany Lion defense. 

Defensively, the Nittany Lion’s defense consistently stifled an Akron team that put up 41 points last weekend, albeit against a much weaker Howard squad. The Zips’ quarterback, Kyle Pohl, dropped back 46 times — a tough defensive task on a muggy afternoon. Still, Pohl only completed 24 of those attempts, for 208 yards and no touchdowns, after tossing three touchdowns last weekend. No Akron running back eclipsed more than 30 yards on the ground.

Breakout Performance: Can we give the honor to a punter? Chris Gulla booted five punts for an average of 48.8 yards. Gulla consistently buried the Zips deep in its own side of the field, a large factor as to why it only managed three points.

Additionally, the offensive line, which Franklin cited as an area of concern, performed more like an asset than a liability. Under center, Hackenberg usually had sufficient time to deliver his passes. In fact, it was sometimes too much: Hackenberg waited and waited in the pocket for the perfect throw on numerous occasions, before ultimately throwing an ill-fated lob over the middle.

Player of the game: James is probably the most deserving candidate, who efficiently caught six passes for 57 yards and two touchdowns. It was the first two touchdown game of James’ career. You could also consider Gulla, and linebacker Mike Hull, who recorded 9.5 tackles and was all over the field making plays. 

Other notes:

  • Hackenberg set another passing record today, again at the expense of Zack Mills. The sophomore quarterback set the team record for total passing yards in back to back games with 706, beating Mills’ previous mark of 686.
  • The announced attendance of 97,354 was a far cry from the #107k that Franklin hoped would pack Beaver Stadium this Saturday.
  • Franklin praised the teams defensive efforts, especially Anthony Zettel who, for the second game in a row, roamed the opponent’s backfield. “I think we can tighten up a few more things in our [secondary] coverage,” he said. “But I think [the defense] is playing well. I think we have to create more 3 and outs, and create more turnovers.”
  • Franklin spoke about getting emotional during pregame, but not when you may have thought. “Running out of the tunnel, I was in game mode,” Franklin said. “But walking off the bus… I was fighting back tears. The sunglasses helped.”

About the Author

Ben Berkman

State College, PA

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