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Takeaways: Penn State Falters In All Phases Against Wildcats

The Nittany Lions once again came out with a slow start in Saturday’s game against the Northwestern Wildcats. The offense looked anemic. The defense allowed a drive down the field that eventually ended in a missed field goal. It was a carbon copy of last week’s game against UMass. With Penn State’s early struggles becoming a habit on the season, it didn’t seem like a major cause for concern.

“Typical Penn State football,” I thought. “Christian Hackenberg will drive for a touchdown and the defense will force a three-and-out and everything will be right in the world.”

But that’s not exactly how things went. Instead of putting points on the scoreboard and making a big stop, the Nittany Lions failed to pick up a first down until the final moments of the first quarter and looked like Swiss cheese in the secondary as Wildcat quarterback Trevor Siemian picked the unit apart.

It was an ugly day. But no matter what happens on the field, there’s always something to take away from the game. Here’s what we learned about Penn State football during its 29-6 loss in the Big Ten home opener:

We aren’t who we thought we were. 

To take a page out of the Dennis Green Book of Quotes That Only Kinda Make Sense, this Nittany Lions team isn’t exactly what its record may have led you to believe it was through the first four games. We knew that the offensive line was an issue and that the run game was suffering and that the defense has a few flaws that make it beatable, but Penn State just kept on winning and it seemed like all of the problems would resolve themselves over the bye after going 5-0 and beating Northwestern.

Instead, the Nittany Lions finally played a legitimate team and the result showed that. Loud and clear. Penn State is good enough to beat UCF and Rutgers in close games. The team is good enough to make Akron and UMass look like the bottom feeders that they are. But this team is not good enough to be a real threat in the Big Ten this season and a Wildcat team that came into Beaver Stadium with a 1-2 record exposed the Nittany Lions.

That’s not to say that Penn State can’t win big games. Having big-play receivers and a great quarterback and a solid defense and a good running back corps will likely allow the Nittany Lions to pull off an upset victory or two down the road, but this team was never going to make a run at the Big Ten Championship Game.

Christian Hackenberg will live and die by his pocket protection.

He was sacked four times, but Hackenberg was hit a whole lot more than that and spent most of the game on the run and outside of the pocket. Hack is certainly capable of using his legs and making throws on the run, but with a relatively accurate arm and a whole lot of power, he’s always going to be a pocket passer. The sophomore quarterback does his best work when he has time to throw and let the play develop and go through all of his checks.

He ran the ball 11 times, only one of which appeared to be a called carry when he held on to the ball for a sneak on fourth down. That means that on ten different occasions, Hack was forced out of the pocket and had to take off running. Oh, and there were two runs by Hack that were called back on penalties. It wasn’t a positive day for the offensive line and as a result of that, it wasn’t a good day for Christian Hackenberg. He needs time and right now, he quite simply isn’t getting it.

“I know those kids care about this team and Christian Hackenberg and playing better,” James Franklin said after the game.

Unfortunately, caring doesn’t always translate to good play and today was an example of that.

Mike Hull is really good.

Senior linebacker Mike Hull had a career day as he totaled a career-high 16 tackles on the day including one for a loss. His biggest play of the day came late in the first quarter when Northwestern faked a field goal from the three-yard line and opted to run the ball. Hull read the fake like a book and was in perfect position to tackle Christian Salem at the line of scrimmage.

Hull is without a doubt the anchor and centerpiece of the Penn State defense, especially the front seven. He seems to find his way to the ball with ease play after play and said that the game is slowing down for him and that he’s playing more on instinct and thinking less this season.

He emphasized the need to improve on tackling after the game and cited that as one of the team’s biggest weaknesses against Northwestern. His second biggest area of concern: getting off of the field on third down.

Some things are more important than football.

For example: health and safety. Late in the third quarter, Northwestern cornerback Matthew Harris collided helmet-to-helmet with Christian Hackenberg down the left sideline.

Harris fell onto the turf and seemed to be immobile, laying still as medical personnel surrounded him for about ten minutes. Harris’ brother and Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald both spoke with him as he laid on the field. A quiet fell over the stadium and almost every player on the field took a knee.

After what felt like a lifetime, Harris was stabilized on a stretcher and carted off of the field, raising a thumps up to the crowd on his way out to the sound of a loud cheer from Penn State and Northwestern fans alike.

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It’s moments like these that serve to remind you that football isn’t the most important thing in the world, although it often seems like it.

Initial reports after the game indicated that Harris did not suffer any major injury and was traveling back with the team after being released from the hospital. Northwestern said that he was alert and moving after he left the field.

James Franklin looked sad after the game.

For the past couple weeks, my final takeaway has been how much of a boss James Franklin looked like on the sideline, arms crossed and game face on. On Saturday, Franklin looked dejected at his post-game presser and was visibly angry as he answered a number of questions with the word “no” without elaborating.

After his first loss, here’s what the coach looked like:

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a StateCollege.com 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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