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Game Day Observations: Buffalo

by Doug Leeson and David Abruzzese

Penn State is back at .500 with a win in the home opener against Buffalo. After raising many questions in a brutal opening loss at Temple, the Nittany Lions got back on track against the Bulls. Here are some things we noticed watching from the press box.

  • There’s hope for the offensive line. Critics say that this zero sack performance should be discounted because it was against Buffalo. Are you kidding? A unit that gave up 10 sacks last week responded with a shutout against another Division I college football team. Not only was the result great, but it came in the face of more adversity. Andrew Nelson, arguably the line’s best player, lined up at left tackle for the first half. With seconds left, he was injured and had to be helped off of the field. Paris Palmer, whose struggles last weekend were well documented, replaced Nelson and played great. Not only was the group successful at protecting Hackenberg, but it was just as solid pushing forward, which was encouraging because…
  • We may have witnessed the future of Penn State’s running backs. Saquon Barkley, playing in his second career game as a true freshman, broke out in a big way. He played his first snap in the second half, and still found enough time to tally 115 yards and a touchdown. Akeel Lynch is certainly the featured back in the offense, but the highly touted Barkley proved that should Lynch’s play falter, there’s a backup with elite potential ready to go.
  • Dismal weather resulted in a sub-standard Beaver Stadium crowd. The official reported attendance was 93,065, but it never felt like that. The student section was spotty at kickoff, and during the game there were a lot more students far back in the bleachers under cover. I can’t blame anyone since the rain was pretty bad, but this was definitely one of the quietest home openers Penn State has seen. Not that this is evidence of anything significant, but the few people I’ve asked about the game said they only went for either the first or second half. Attendance definitely fluctuated, and it was pretty evident.
  • Penn State’s special teams are good? Joey Julius missed his first field goal attempt of the game, but for the first time in a while, almost every punt and kick return was threatening. After a solid shower from Koa Farmer against Temple, DeAndre Thompkins was mainly given the reins in this game and wow, can he fly. Had Buffalo’s punter not taken a great angle to knock Thompkins out of bounds, he would have taken the punt back for a touchdown. He had four punt returns with a long of 58 yards and an average of 17.8. Malik Golden and Nick Scott each fielded a kickoff and returned them 18 and 58 yards, respectively. Yes, Buffalo is not Ohio State, but potential is there.
  • Christian Hackenberg – despite underwhelming statistics – looked far more comfortable under center than he did in Week One. I know, his final numbers through the air don’t necessarily indicate it, but the junior quarterback made significant strides in Week Two against the Bulls. His opening day performance was an unmitigated disaster, but not all the blame rests on his shoulders. For starters, the pro-style quarterback was forced to operate the entire game from the shotgun, and was never given a chance to make plays downfield. On Saturday, however, things seemed much different. He took snaps under center, and was given numerous opportunities to let the ball fly downfield. What’s more, his offensive line – which we’ll get to in a second – didn’t concede a single sack, allowing Hackenberg to get comfortable in the pocket and go through his progressions. For those who watched the team in 2014, you’ll know that time in the pocket was something of a luxury for Hackenberg. Again, it was only Buffalo, but at least he showed signs that remnants of the fearless gunslinger we came to know and love in 2013 are still there. I’m with every single fan when I say I hope Hackenberg comes out guns-a-blazing next weekend under the lights against Rutgers.
Christian Hackenberg calls out to his teammates.
Christian Hackenberg calls the snap cadence.
  • Chris Godwin is making significant strides in year two. Chris Godwin emerged as the unheralded leader of a high-profile group of young receivers in 2014. He finished last season with 26 catches for 338 yards and two scores, while flashing a knack for the deep ball and a second gear when he finds space. Fast forward to 2015, and you’ll find a much more complete receiver. After beating out redshirt junior Geno Lewis in camp for a starting spot, Godwin has made the most of his snaps, turning in 10 catches for 156 yards in his first two games of the new season. He ranks high on the list of the Big Ten’s best receivers in terms of average yards per catch – ranking No. 11 with a figure of 15.6 per grab. It’s only a matter of time before he begins to find the endzone, and much of that will rely on the time it takes for the offense to gel as a collective unit. Keep an eye on No. 12, because he could be in for some big things as the season progresses.
  • Speaking of wide receivers, where is Saeed Blacknall? This one is puzzling to me. After making a handful of plays in 2014 as a true freshman – highlighted by a leaping grab in the corner of the endzone against Ohio State – the former four-star recruit was expected to take the next step as a playmaker in 2015. Well, so far that’s not going according to plan, because Blacknall has been non-existent in 2015. I don’t mean that metaphorically, either. In two games, he’s yet to record a single catch, let alone make any noticeable impact on the offense thus far. He’s barely seen the field, yet remains perfectly healthy. Whether or not he sits in James Franklin’s doghouse remains to be seen, but signs are pointing towards that very notion. With the recent performances of freshmen Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins, it’s likely Blacknall remains a non-factor, barring any injuries to the players above him.
  • Enough about the skill players, how about Paris Palmer? Writing this fills me with great joy, because Paris Palmer is a guy I’ve been rooting for since the moment he arrived on campus. He put in work in the weight room, and molded himself into a Big Ten caliber offensive tackle. His Week One performance was nothing short of abysmal, but credit the young man for the way he responded to adversity. Andrew Nelson kicked over from his traditional spot at right tackle to fill in on the left side against Buffalo, but was injured in the waning seconds of the first half. Palmer was presented with a second chance to go out and prove himself, and he did so with conviction. He played like a guy fully aware of his job security, and instilled confidence in his coaching staff after his impressive second half performance. With Nelson’s status up in the air for Week Three, look for Palmer to reclaim his spot as Penn State’s starting left tackle.

Again, Saturday’s win might’ve come from a MAC opponent, but it’s fairly obvious that Penn State made significant improvements from its week one dud against Temple. Now on to Rutgers, the team prepares for its first Big Ten matchup of the season under the lights in primetime at Beaver Stadium.

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