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Penn State Football: 2014 Report Card

by Ben Berkman, David Abruzzese, CJ Doon, Doug Leeson, and Alex Robinson

It was an up-and-down year for the Penn State football team. After winning four straight to start the season, it then dropped its next four. And after splitting its last four, the Lions finished 6-6. There were glimpses of promise, and moments that made us shake our heads, but this team is headed to a bowl for the first time since 2011.

Just as we did earlier in the season, our sports staff has decided to grade each of the team’s units. Each staff member gave a personal grade, and they were all averaged together to create one “staff grade.”

Here’s how the team measured up:



Midseason Staff Grade: B

Final Staff Grade: D+

“Christian Hackenberg came into the season with sky-high (possibly unfair) expectations, and really didn’t come close to meeting them. The same quarterback who last year threw for 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions followed up his performance with 8 TDs and 15 picks. A lot of blame has been put on the different coaching staff, and it is warranted in most cases, but the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year had too much of an underwhelming regular season to receive anything near a good grade. He entered the season as a (very) distant sleeper pick for the Heisman, but only rarely showed flashes of his freshman self. His elite potential is still there, but let’s all hope this sophomore season will be an exception rather than the rule when it comes to his career in the Blue and White.” — DL

running back

Running Backs

Midseason Staff Grade: C-

Final Staff Grade: C

“I don’t want to echo what I said during our midseason update, but it’s the only explanation. This unit’s success depended on the success of the offensive line. Keyed by the return of Miles Dieffenbach, the line started to gel towards the end of the year, and the group of Akeel Lynch, Bill Belton, and Zach Zwinak benefited from it. Highlighted by a season-high 254 rushing yards against Temple, this group slowly started to gain traction towards the end of the year. Zwinak’s season-ending injury was a huge hit, but the emergence of Lynch as a feature back more than made up for it. With a more experienced line in front of him, it isn’t unrealistic to expect Lynch to be the Nittany Lions’ first 1000-yard rusher since Zwinak in 2012.” — AR

wide reciever

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Midseason Staff Grade: B+

Final Staff Grade: B

“All things considered, with a weak offensive line, inconsistent quarterback, and nonexistent running game, the Nittany Lions’ receiving corps was actually a decent piece of the team this season. Two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week DaeSean Hamilton set multiple Penn State records during the season, despite only scoring one touchdown on the year. In fact, Jesse James was the only Nittany Lion to catch more than one touchdown pass this season. However, other than the all-too-common dropped screen passes, the team’s wide receivers and tight ends were usually reliable facets of the offense. There’s always room for improvement, but no one will look back on this 6-6 team and blame the receiving corps.” — DL

o line

Offensive Line

Midseason Staff Grade: F-

Final Staff Grade: D

“It’s hard to completely blame an offensive line that had everything stacked against it. Undersized, inexperienced, and injured, this line had little chance to support Hackenberg or open rushing lanes from the start. Of course, there were some incredibly ugly moments: 50 yards rushing against lowly Northwestern, and allowing Christian Hackenberg to get sacked more than 40 times this season (a Penn State record) stand out. Angelo Mangiro, an inexperienced junior, was forced to play numerous positions, as were his teammates. Yet since the return of Miles Dieffenbach three weeks ago, Penn State’s front five has undeniably improved. Akeel Lynch rushed for more than 130 yards two weeks in a row. Christian Hackenberg started completing passes from the pocket against Michigan State, albeit short-lasting. The Nittany Lions return all linemen but Dieffenbach, and have some big recruits coming in. Next year will only be better for Penn State’s offensive line.” — BB

d line

Defensive Line

Midseason Staff Grade: A

Final Staff Grade: A-

“From the heroics of Anthony Zettel, to the quiet steadiness of Austin Johnson, the veteran presence of C.J. Olanyian, and the athletic playmaking ability of Deion Barnes, Penn State’s defensive line was arguably the most outstanding unit on this year’s squad. As the defense’s first line of, well, defense, the front four helped shape Penn State’s highly ranked unit, limiting opposing ball carriers to an incredible 84.8 yards per game and 2.56 yards per rush. As well as being instrumental in stopping the run, the line recorded 30 sacks in 12 games, with Barnes rebounding from a lackluster 2013 season to finish second on the team with six sacks. Zettel, the team’s leader in sacks (8) and tackles for loss (15), also snagged three interceptions, including a 40-yard return for a touchdown against the Buckeyes. After losing longtime defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. to Ohio State in the offseason, Sean Spencer stepped in beautifully for the Nittany Lions, helping turn a defense that allowed more than 380 yards per game last season into the nation’s third-best defense, allowing only 269.8 yards per game. Although the line will lose Olanyian to graduation, Parker Cothran, Brad Bars, Carl Nassib, Tarow Barney, Garrett Sickels, Evan Schwan, and Tyrone Smith played well in relief when the starters needed a rest. Altogether, the young rotation added 56 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks, signaling a bright future for an already stellar unit.” — CJ



Midseason Staff Grade: B

Final Staff Grade: A

“Along with the defensive line, the linebacker corps did Penn State proud this season. Mike Hull is a stud, leading the Big Ten and seventh nationally with more than 11 tackles a game. Hull is a senior, and his leadership lessons will be valued next year. He was surrounded by young talent on both sides: Brandon Bell, Nyeem Wartman, Jason Cabinda, Gary Wooten, and Von Walker all saw significant playing time this year, and are all either sophomores or freshmen. Wartman turned into a playmaker, whose huge hits had the ability to shift a series’ momentum. Cabinda is a true freshman, and performed admirably in his first start against Illinois when he replaced an injured Bell. Led by this group, Penn State had the best statistical defense in the country, and allowed only 17.7 points a game.” — BB



Midseason Staff Grade: B

Final Staff Grade: B+

“For what has traditionally been one of Penn State’s most glaring weaknesses, the secondary exceeded expecations this season to become one of the team’s best pass defense units in recent memory. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas entered the season as the veteran leaders, capable of locking down opposing receivers. Lucas, who had a breakout year in 2013, failed to record an interception this season, but led the team with nine passes defended and fourth in total tackles with 51. However, his numbers were down because opposing quarterbacks shied away from passing toward his direction, the biggest sign of respect paid to a cornerback. Amos, who will graduate this year, tied for the team lead with three interceptions, and finished tied for seventh in the Big Ten with 10 passes defended. But where Penn State’s secondary shone brightest was the play of its young defensive backs. After Ryan Keiser’s season-ending rib and bowel injury, freshman Marcus Allen stepped in as the starter with 11 tackles and two pass breakups against Ohio State, and finished the season third on the team in total tackles with 52, including an interception and two tackles for loss. Fellow freshmen Christian Campbell and Grant Haley, filling in for the injured Trevor Williams, each recorded an interception in the game against Temple, with Haley returning his pick 30 yards for a touchdown. The secondary tallied two or more interceptions in a single game on four seperate occasions, including a comedic five picks against Rutgers’ Gary Nova. Altogether, the passing defense finished 12th in the country, limiting opposing quarterbacks to 185 yards per game through the air. The unit also finished third nationally in passing efficiency defense, hauling in twice as many interceptions (16) as touchdowns allowed (8) all season.” — CJ

special teams

Special Teams

Midseason Staff Grade: C-

Final Staff Grade: C-

“This unit just barely passes class this season, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of senior kicker Sam Ficken. After a tumultuous start to his Penn State career, Ficken shattered expectations this season. His 23 field goals were third-most among FBS kickers, and he set a school record previously held by Kevin Kelly and Matt Bahr. Four out of five misses came on blocked field goals, and his only outright miss, a 51-yard attempt against Michigan State, came in the team’s final regular season game.

Where the unit had problems was in kickoff and punt coverage. The 90-yard kickoff return by Michigan State’s R.J. Shelton, where the sophomore wideout broke four tackles on his way to a back-breaking touchdown, was certainly a low point. But there’s also William Likely’s 15-yard punt return in the closing minutes against Maryland that gave the Terapins great field position in Penn State territory to set up the game-winning field goal. As a unit, Penn State’s special teams surrendered 24.72 yards per kickoff return, ranking 116th among 125 FBS teams. Even Ficken, for all he’s done in the kicking game, never developed a knack for touchbacks as the team’s kickoff specialist, and even booted a few out-of-bounds this season. The two punters, Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello, started the season on the wrong foot (no pun intended) before turning it around slightly at the end of the season (Pasquariello averaged 40 yards per punt and downed three inside the 20 against Sparty), but still finished the year rank 103rd in the nation with a 34.94 net punting average. Though many of the unit’s struggles can be credited to the lack of scholarship players on the roster (and therefore an alarming number of walk-ons on special teams), head coach James Franklin prides himself on having good special teams (excuse me, “We-fense”) and will need to improve in that area before the start of next season.” — CJ



Final Staff Grade: C

“This coaching staff came into its first season garnering much hype, but didn’t live up to its billing throughout the season. Despite some of the team’s struggles, however, the group shouldn’t garner a huge amount of flak because of the circumstances it walked into.

“Yes, certain things have been inexcusable, and that includes offensive coordinator John Donovan’s performance. His play calling has been both predictable and and ineffective. His unit ranks among the worst offenses in the country, getting completely outperformed in most games. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has been the opposite, however, as his unit ranks among the nation’s best, being led by star linebacker Mike Hull. Overall, this unit has much room for improvement, but with some big-time recruits on the way, the future looks bright.” — DA

Photos: Bobby Chen, Zach Berger, Dana Lipshutz, and Hannah Byrne

About the Author


Posts from the all-student staff of Onward State.


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