Leaving Piscataway Victorious: Putting The Win In Context
The Nittany Lions opened up Big Ten conference play this weekend on a wet Saturday night. The crowd was boisterous, the atmosphere was electric, and the stage was set for what everybody hoped would be a physical matchup. This game was especially important for the Nittany Lions. Now free of crippling NCAA sanctions, each game moving forward counts. No longer are the Nittany Lions playing for pride and more recruits, because there is now a Big Ten Championship berth on the line. The game gave us much to ponder and discuss for the weeks ahead.
The Scarlet Knights exposed the Nittany Lions up front, giving the Penn State offensive line fits throughout the entire game. Christian Hackenberg was often harassed, being forced to scramble out of the pocket rather than sit and go through his progressions. Holding penalties late, most notably the one by Angelo Mangiro which negated Geno Lewis’ would-be touchdown, almost derailed Penn State’s comeback hopes. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton proved tough to stop, but he will not be the only notable defensive lineman the Nittany Lions face this year. If this performance was any indication, Ohio State’s Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett will be nightmares to contain. The unit, led by seasoned veteran left tackle Donovan Smith, has all the potential in the world to rebound and give its quarterback time to make plays. Christian Hackenberg possesses phenomenal talent that goes to waste when he is under constant pressure. Despite his statistically impressive game, Hackenberg forced a good amount of throws as a result of inadequate time to make reads. If he wasn’t getting sacked, then he was forced to throw in a hurry. The line must strengthen sooner than later, as a tough Big Ten slate lies ahead for the Nittany Lions after they face UMass this Saturday.
The running game is also dependant on the offensive line to open up running lanes and allow the Nittany Lion backs to do their job. Minus the late game magic of Bill Belton, Penn State’s running game was non-existent, only tallying up 64 yards on the night. Belton, who had 36 of those 64 yards, is only averaging 2.6 yards a carry after Saturday night. This is a troubling statistic, because this indicates Christian Hackenberg (who tallied 18 rushing yards) is saddled with carrying the weight of an offense on his shoulders, as he was forced to do this past Saturday. With no reliable rushing attack to fall back on, he instead is forced to keep drives alive himself, resulting in too many opportunities wasted. Let’s remember now that Christian Hackenberg is a 19-year old who played in a hostile environment with the spotlight on him. That’s a daunting task for any young quarterback in the country. Going forward, the offensive line needs to give Bill Belton and company more opportunities to keep the chains moving, as Hackenberg cannot do it alone.
Despite a rocky first half, the aforementioned Hackenberg still put up some gaudy numbers in a wet, hostile environment. His seventh 300-yard game breaks another Zack Mills passing record, a notable accomplishment for the young star. However, if the Nittany Lions want to make a run at a Big Ten title, Hackenberg must tone down his errant throws. Quarterbacks love to make plays, and it’s evident that Hackenberg is trying to do everything in his power to get the Nittany Lions on the board. This said, occasionally there will be no open targets and no chance at salvaging the play. Christian Hackenberg must realize this and occasionally dump the ball to his safety valve or throw the ball away, rather than try and make something out of nothing by squeezing balls into microscopic windows. Against a good secondary, like some of the ones he will soon face, that will not work. The young, athletic secondary of the Wolverines or the more experienced secondary of the Buckeyes will eat those errant throws up. That said, Hackenberg’s gunslinger mentality has led to a lot of playmaking opportunities for receivers DaeSean Hamilton, Geno Lewis, and Chris Godwin, along with tight ends Jesse James and Kyle Carter.
Defensively, this team is among the elite. The defense is the main reason Penn State left Piscataway victorious. It pressured Scarlet Knights’ quarterback Gary Nova, “the Big Ten’s most efficient quarterback,” to throw five — count them — five interceptions. When Nova wasn’t throwing picks, he was getting harassed by the likes of Anthony Zettel, Deion Barnes, and C.J. Olaniyan. Opposing offenses are going to have nightmares about the Nittany Lion defense, which ranks 11th nationally in points against with 12.3. Bob Shoop wasn’t afraid to mix it up when it came to blitzing schemes, but still managed to get pressure on Nova even when rushing the four linemen upfront. The secondary was stout, and made countless plays all over the field, including the five interceptions. This was by far the unit’s best showing, and bodes well for upcoming Big Ten matchups. Ohio State freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett will be in for a treat if Mike Hull and the rest of Penn State’s defensive unit bring the same intensity as they did against Rutgers.
All of these takeaways can help paint a picture of where the team stands currently, but one thing is for certain: The Nittany Lions are 3-0, and more importantly 1-0 in conference play. In a game that they could not fall short, they conjured up some late game magic and pulled it out. It says a great deal about the character of a team when they can go on the road and come out on top. No matter how shaky Hackenberg seemed early on, he buckled down along with the rest of the team and got the job done. Hackenberg’s pass to Geno Lewis on the sideline, which set up Bill Belton’s game winning scamper, said it all.
I believe that this team has a whole lot of heart, and what it may lack physically, it’ll make up for with grit and tenacity. I think this team is capable of something special, and with no sanctions or bowl bans to slow them down, it’s beginning to look like we could be in for quite the season. Penn State’s march to the postseason remains unblemished. Next up, the Minutemen of Massachusetts.