This 2013 version of the Penn State Nittany Lions' offense has fallen in a rut.
For the third game in a row, the offense has failed to reach 20 points and reverted to its early third-down deficiencies against Minnesota, converting just one of nine opportunities.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg didn't surpass the 75-yard mark until the fourth quarter. After rushing for 201 yards last week against Illinois, running back Bill Belton fumbled on his first touch and carried the ball just seven times.
The Big Ten's leading receiver, Allen Robinson, registered just 63 yards. Many of those came late in the game after a win was out of reach.
What is this Penn State offense?
Early in the season, head coach Bill O'Brien was able to bounce back and forth, at times using the pass to set up the run and vice versa.
When defenses crowded the box, trying to fluster his freshman quarterback, O'Brien would go to the air. If the opponents backed off to focus on Robinson, the second-year head coach leaned on his stable of running backs to control the game.
Recently, it's been difficult to tell exactly what the plan is.
Last year, in five of Penn State's last six wins, Zach Zwinak rushed for over 100 yards and the Nittany Lions were a power running team.
As evidenced by Zwinak's 150-yard performance in the loss at Minnesota, it's not that simple this year.
Even last week, when Belton had his career day, the Nits barely scraped out a win.
|Hackenberg's Passing Attempts|
For whatever reason, Penn State can't simply get by on being a power running team this year. Maybe it's the drop-off in quarterback play or a new hesitance to rely on the defense, but it's clear that a good ground game no longer equates to wins.
So maybe Penn State should air it out.
In the last three games, Hackenberg has attempted more than 25 passes just once—the win over Illinois.
In the first two games of the season—both wins—Hackenberg threw 31 and 33 times.
Perhaps this Penn State team needs to rely more on its freshman quarterback on a weekly basis. He certainly has the weapons around him to make it work and has the confidence and respect to keep defenses honest.
The cure is certainly not that simple and the coaching staff knows the personnel on its team better than anyone, but something needs to be done.
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, Purdue is next on the schedule. It has provided a remedy for struggling offenses all year.
All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.