Eastern Michigan vs. Penn State: 10 Things We Learned in Nittany Lions' Win
Now that Week 2 is in the books, we have a little bit more to go off of when we're trying to predict how the future for Penn State will look. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg got off to a shaky start against Eastern Michigan but rebounded in time to set a single-game school record for passing yards by a freshman.
So what's next? Where does Penn State go from here? What is setting up nicely for the rest of 2013 and beyond, and what still needs work?
We'll answer all of those questions and more with these 10 things we learned about Penn State in its 45-7 win over the Eastern Michigan Eagles.
He's Still a Freshman
First, let's go through Hackenberg's Week 2 numbers.
He was 23-of-33 for 311 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. There's no question those yardage numbers are impressive. Any Penn State quarterback would be happy with 300-plus yards in a game, to say nothing about a freshman.
But there are still a few issues that are going to prevent us from anointing him the savior of the Penn State program. First, Hackenberg had a slow start Saturday in front of a large home crowd. Sure, butterflies will affect a quarterback early in a game. But even as the game progressed, we still saw many of those "freshman mistakes." High passes, overthrowing wide-open receivers, a few poor decisions (one that resulted in an interception) and a few missteps have us in a "wait-and-see" mode.
Still, it's also clear why this kid was so highly touted coming out of high school, and the Penn State quarterbacking duties will be well taken care of with Hackenberg taking the snaps for the next four years.
Sanctions Affecting Practice
We all know what a terrific job Bill O'Brien has done at Penn State, making sure the program doesn't implode under the weight of NCAA sanctions. Still, those sanctions are there, and we're beginning to see an on-field consequence of scholarship limits.
Penn State is so severely limited as to the number of scholarships it can hand out each season (essentially an FCS program's limits) that practices don't consist of scholarship players versus scholarship players. With so many walk-ons filling the Penn State roster these days, several facets—tackling in particular—are being short-changed during the week.
Saturday against Eastern Michigan, there were far too many broken arm tackles. While Penn State may be able to get away with that against an MAC foe, teams like Wisconsin and Ohio State will have a field day with the poor tackling techniques the Nittany Lions are putting on the field.
Lack of Depth
The lack of depth has us concerned with more than just Penn State's tackling ability. So far, Penn State has largely escaped the dreaded injury bug. But we're talking about big-time, Big Ten football here. Sooner or later, someone is going to miss a drive, a quarter, a game or, heaven forbid, the rest of the season with an injury.
With so few scholarship players even available for full-speed, top-notch practices, how can O'Brien and his staff cope with the loss of a starter due to injury? Time will tell.
Hackenberg Knows His Pocket
For Hackenberg, there are plenty of things that Penn State fans will want to point to in order to convince others that he's destined to become a truly great, even Heisman-worthy quarterback in the years to come. We can help those fans out with the one trait that will best serve the youngster moving forward: his amazing pocket presence.
Saturday, we saw a quarterback remained poised and calm in a pocket that was collapsing around him that showed maturity beyond his true freshman years. Hackenberg was great at not only controlling his reads, but deciding quickly when to hit the primary receiver, when to check down and when to tuck it and run.
While he won't be lighting up any stat sheets with his scrambling ability, Hackenberg certainly can keep a bad situation from getting worse by some cool-headedness in the pocket—a much underrated skill these days.
Penn State's run game, with 251 yards and five touchdowns, was an unexpected bright spot against EMU. When all eyes were on Hackenberg, the running backs stepped up in big moments and put some much-needed points on the board.
But the ground game didn't really get moving until late in the second quarter, and then more so in the second half. That's worrisome.
The sad truth is that there probably aren't many teams in the Big Ten that couldn't—or shouldn't be able to—put up more than 200 rushing yards on Eastern Michigan. The Eagles aren't only an MAC program, they're a bad MAC program (2-10 in 2012). When EMU's defense was fresh and ready to play, there was a lot of inconsistent running coming from the Penn State backfield.
As the game wore on, we saw the EMU defense bend under the pressure. But teams like Michigan and Ohio State—both October opponents for the Nittany Lions—won't be completely taxed by the third quarter.
Don't expect 250 yards every Saturday.
Zwinak, Belton, Lynch and Robinson Are Special Players
There are a few players—besides Hackenberg—other teams must start paying close attention. Zach Zwinak, Allen Robinson, Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton all stepped up with big performances Saturday, and they will likely be relied on to contribute in a big way moving forward.
Both Lynch and Belton had 108 yards rushing, while Zwinak added a powerful 43 yards. Zwinak and Belton had two touchdowns with Lynch adding another. On the receiving end, Robinson led all players with 129 yards on seven receptions (including one touchdown).
While the depth at every position for Penn State might not be all that great, the top tier of offensive skill position players is as good as we've seen in Happy Valley for some time.
3rd-Down Conversions Still a Major Issue
What is a coach to do?
After a laughable 1-of-16 last week on third down against Syracuse, Penn State put up another embarrassing conversion ratio this week against lowly Eastern Michigan: 1-of-10.
That's right, sports fans. Penn State is now 2-of-26 this season on third downs, or just 7.7 percent. It doesn't get much worse than that.
Much of the problem comes from 3rd-and-long situations that Penn State puts itself in. In the third quarter Saturday, Penn State had a long third-down pass called back on offensive pass interference, making it an even longer third-down attempts. While the next play resulted in a long gain, it was still well short of a first down, and PSU was forced to punt.
There also seems to be a bit of nervousness on the part of Penn State's offense on third down. Perhaps setting themselves up with 3rd-and-short several times next week will help the Nittany Lions get the monkey off of their backs.
The good news is that Penn State didn't get to third down nearly as often Saturday, with most first downs coming on first or second down.
Penn State was also 2-of-2 on fourth down. So there's that...
Lack of Depth Doesn't Extend to the Running Backs
We already talked about Penn State's lack of overall depth due to lingering NCAA sanctions. That hasn't seemed to impact the running back part of the depth chart, though.
Somewhat surprisingly, Penn State appears to have at least three ball-carriers capable of big plays and big yards: the aforementioned Zwinak, Belton and Lynch.
All three running backs found their way into the end zone against EMU (Belton and Zwinak twice), taking an unbelievable amount of pressure off of the Penn State passing game. There couldn't be a better remedy for the freshman quarterback jitters than a solid run game—and that medicine is not in short supply at Penn State.
Bill O'Brien Really Trusts Christian Hackenberg
It takes a lot for a head coach to really, truly trust his quarterback. When that quarterback is a true freshman, it's almost unheard of to see a coach do what O'Brien did Saturday.
Despite frequently finding themselves backed up into the shadow of their own goal posts, the Nittany Lions came out throwing the football. While there was certainly something to be said about O'Brien's desire to get Hackenberg as much pressure-packed experience as possible as quickly as possible, we were surprised to see him employ the sink-or-swim method.
Like tossing a child into a poll sans life jacket, O'Brien has clearly decided that Penn State is going to live and die by Hackenberg's performance under pressure. When most coaches would take a few runs inside of their own 10-yard line, O'Brien's Nittany Lions aren't afraid to throw the ball.
Or at least if Hackenberg is afraid, he hasn't shown it yet.
Great Against Syracuse and EMU, but the Big Ten Is Coming
Penn State put up 45 points and 574 yards Saturday. That's great.
Those totals also came against Eastern Michigan. While that shouldn't detract from what the Nittany Lions accomplished, it does—or at least should—temper any excitement Penn State fans have about the Lions' prospects once the Big Ten season gets underway in a few weeks.
Penn State's fortunes in the conference will be decided relatively early with games against Michigan and Ohio State both coming in October. The season wraps up on November 30 with a trip to Wisconsin. Despite looking pretty decent against teams like Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, those three games will likely see Penn State as the underdog.
There's also the possibility that a much-improved Illinois team and a Nebraska program still searching for an identity in the Big Ten could prove troublesome.
While eight wins last season was certainly impressive, and O'Brien was awarded a richly deserved Paul "Bear" Bryant Award as national coach of the year, it's incredibly difficult to see how Penn State could ever hope to improve upon last season.
Don't get us wrong: six or seven wins, even eight wins each season would be great for PSU. It would certainly set the program up for a return to conference and even national relevance once the sanctions are an ugly memory. But those scholarship limits around going to be around for awhile, and it's probably time the Penn State fanbase gets accustomed to setting six to seven wins each season as a realistic goal.
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