Saturday’s Loss a Reason for Optimism
Shortly after Saturday night’s heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, I walked into the tunnel, through the iconic gates, and onto the Beaver Stadium field. As I first stepped into the south end zone, it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the feeling of letdown that follows a tightly-contested loss against a conference rival.
It’s natural to feel despondent after going through the emotional motions that accompany such a game. Over the course of just a few hours, you take a roller-coaster ride that starts with pre-game excitement, leads to halftime depression, climbs towards overtime aspirations, and comes crashing down when the Buckeyes eke out a close one.
Amid all of that doom and gloom does lie a very bright light at the end of this tunnel of football mediocrity. Upon reflecting on the game and Penn State’s surprising and inspiring second half comeback, I realized that this team isn’t all that far away from legitimate competition, both in this conference and on a national stage.
Here are just a handful of reasons to believe in the future of the Penn State football program.
The offensive core is young and overflowing with potential.
Did you see DaeSean Hamilton last night? He looked like he was playing his third or fourth year of college football, not his first. Hamilton snagged a Penn State single-game record 14 receptions for 126 yards in the game. He’s hauled in 57 balls for 686 yards on the season.
Geno Lewis is seeing extensive field time for the first time in his career, and has 33 catches for 523 yards and one score. The speedy receiver hasn’t been great in Penn State’s three straight losses, but he’s a legitimate deep threat with solid hands and an impressive vertical leap.
Akeel Lynch isn’t getting the ball as much as he should be, but as a change-of-pace back the sophomore is getting 5.2 yards per attempt. He finished last season with an even six yards per carry on 60 rushes. Last night, with Bill Belton totaling just eight yards on nine carries, Lynch racked up 38 yards on 13 carries. These aren’t great numbers, but they’re indicative of his ability to make the most of a hurting offensive line.
And last but not least, Christian Hackenberg still has a lot of good football to play at Penn State despite having generally poor numbers on the season. Hack’s completion percentage of 63.3 is encouraging, as is his second half play against the Buckeyes and an impressive two minute drill.
Sure, things haven’t exactly been pretty for the Nittany Lions on offense this season, and they certainly weren’t last night, but this core of young and talented skill players is only going to get better going forward. And we all know how good Hackenberg looks with a solid offensive line to give him time in the pocket, which leads to the next point.
The offensive line is going to get better.
Two freshmen, a sophomore, and two juniors. Right now, that’s the offensive line, a unit thats pieces are for the most part seeing the field as college starters for the first time. In some cases, guys come into college ready to play right away. You saw that with Hackenberg, but that simply hasn’t been the case with a line that has a lack of depth and experience. At the very least, depth is on the way.
Noah Beh, a three-star left guard out of Scranton, is likely redshirting this season. Offensive tackle Brendan Brosnan is in the same boat. Add Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright to that equation and you have four young three-star offensive linemen headed into next year as redshirt freshmen.
Come 2015, Penn State will add on Sterling Jenkins, a beast of an offensive tackle rated at four stars and the second-best player in Pennsylvania. He will be joined by fellow four-star linemen Ryan Bates and Steven Gonzalez.
This team has three losses that can be blamed, in part, on the offensive line’s play, unless you’re more keen on blaming the referees as we did for the Ohio State game. The point is, the line is the one spot on the team that’s really showing the effect of scholarship sanctions, but the downturn at the position will likely be short-lasting. With improvements coming in droves next year, this unit will quickly get better and live up to Penn State standards.
Our defense is pretty damn good.
I’ve been saying this on a weekly basis, but the Ohio State game proved it to be true. The Buckeyes are eighth in the nation in average points per game and 18th in rushing yards. They scored 56 on a Rutgers team with a respectable defense. They piled on 66 against Kent State, 50 against Cincinnati and 52 against Maryland.
These teams aren’t exactly the cream of the crop, but Penn State held the Buckeyes to just 17 points in regulation and scoreless in the second half. Penn State is now ninth in the country in points against, averaging just 17.4 per game.
If there’s one thing that Penn State football has always been known for, it’s certainly defense. That changed a bit in the Bill O’Brien era and is continuing to do so with James Franklin’s approach, but this program can and will always fall back on its roots. There are some veterans on this defense, like senior Mike Hull, who won’t be around long, but that side of the field is generally a long-term strength for the team going forward.
The future isn’t as perfect as it may have sounded above and I’m certainly not saying that you’ll see the Nittany Lions in the national championship next year, but the point is that there’s a lot of positivity to be taken out of that overtime loss against the Buckeyes.