Penn State football: Grading the Nittany Lions with Big Ten play looming

tjohnson@centredaily.comSeptember 29, 2013 

A third of the season is in the books for the Penn State football team and the Nittany Lions are off to a solid 3-1 start.

While the Nittany Lions have a breather with a bye this weekend, it’s time to take a good hard look at Bill O’Brien’s squad before it opens Big Ten play Saturday at Indiana (3-1).

Call this a nearly mid-term exam:

Quarterbacks

Christian Hackenberg has been spectacular for a true freshman. Keep in mind, the 18-year-old made his first start in an NFL stadium after battling sophomore Tyler Ferguson briefly for the starting job in training camp. Before his most recent outing against Kent State, Hackenberg had completed nearly 72 percent of his passes.

With four games under his belt, Hackenberg’s completion percentage is 62 percent. He’s thrown for 1,027 yards and is on pace to challenge Matt McGloin’s school record of 3,266 yards in a season.

Hackenberg has shown his youth at times, however. He has held on to the ball too long and has taken nine sacks, fumbled three times with two of them lost, and has thrown four interceptions.

Ferguson has attempted just four passes and has also lost a fumble.

Grading on a curve ...

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Penn State has chosen to use a running-back-by committee approach, but really the Nittany Lions send out the trio of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch in waves.

Zwinak has worn defenses down with his bruising style, while Belton has kept them on their heels with his rejuvenated bursts. Akeel Lynch has shown vision, speed and a cutting ability to rival both of Penn State’s older backs.

Zwinak is the lone back who has lost a fumble but has carried most of the load with 67 carries for 297 yards. Belton and Lynch have earned 33 and 32 carries, respectively, and have chipped in 253 and 263 yards. Zwinak has gobbled up most of the touchdowns and has proven nearly unstoppable from 10 yards out with all eight of his scores coming from close range.

While they have yet to make huge waves as receivers out of the backfield (Belton caught a touchdown pass against Kent State), all three have been assets in the passing game, helping keep Hackenberg upright when in the pocket and picking up blitzers.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers

Allen Robinson has been great with 26 catches for 448 yards and three touchdown so far. He’s a potential game-breaker every time he gets the ball in his hands.

Brandon Felder is second on the team with 16 grabs for 135 yards.

After those two, there is a considerable drop-off in production. Richy Anderson, Eugene Lewis and Matt Zanellato have combined for just 12 catches for 146 yards. Lewis has yet to make an impact in the passing game since breaking loose for a 54-yard touchdown pass in the season opener.

Grade: B-

Tight Ends

Penn State lost Matt Lehman for the season to a knee injury early in the first game. Kyle Carter was hurt against Syracuse, too, and has yet to be a major contributor. Garry Gilliam, who started is now at offensive tackle.

Those are three tight ends who saw a lot of action last season who have not, cannot or have yet to make as big an impact as in 2012 when tight ends combined to catch 83 passes for 1,097 yards and 10 touchdowns.

So far, Jesse James has been this unit’s most reliable target, with nine catches for 106 yards. Freshman Adam Breneman has shown flashes, but has been used as a stopgap until Carter is at full health. Unless Carter can return to form, this group is on pace to haul in just 50 passes for 713 yards this season.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

After a lousy performance in the season opener against Syracuse, the offensive line has gotten better and better at paving lanes for Penn State’s running backs.

Adam Gress and Gilliam have traded starts at right tackle while Ty Howle has transitioned nicely as the unit’s leader at the center spot. Donovan Smith, Miles Dieffenbach and John Urschel have been solid providing cutback lanes for their tailbacks. Eric Shrive and Angelo Mangiro have also gotten meaningful snaps so far.

A majority of Penn State’s 17 penalties have come against this unit on false starts or holding penalties, most of them early in games.

Grade B-

Defensive Line

The pressure has been inconsistent as the front four have combined for just 4 1/2 sacks so far. But, the potential is there.

The Nittany Lions may have turned a corner against Kent State when Golden Flashes quarterbacks were hurried and hit often. Deion Barnes, who finished with six sacks last season, finally got a shared sack last weekend.

Tackle DaQuan Jones has been a force in the middle with 25 tackles, while Kyle Baublitz and Austin Johnson are also beginning to settle in up front. End C.J. Olaniyan quietly is off to a good start with 15 tackles — second most among defensive linemen — with a sack and three tackles for losses. Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel also have contributed.

This unit could do a better job of disrupting the passing games of opponents by knocking balls down at the line of scrimmage. So far Barnes, Nassib and Zettel each have broken up one pass.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The bye week comes at a good time as the Nittany Lions will essentially have three weeks to get outside linebacker Mike Hull closer to 100 percent. With an ailing Hull, who sat out the Kent State game, it has been musical chairs at his spot.

Glenn Carson has been the rock in the middle and has yet to play a sub-par game. His 29 tackles lead the team while he’s also broken up two passes, earned half a sack and made 3 1/2 tackles for losses. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, normally a safety, has yet to match his dazzling performance against Syracuse where he forced a fumble, recovered it, notched a sack and had an interception.

Nyeem Wartman has yet to develop into a full-time contributor as he’s shared snaps with Ben Kline — who has also been in and out of the lineup with injuries — and Obeng-Agyapong.

Grade: C+

Defensive Backs

Corners Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams have played solidly for first-year starters at their respective positions but were exposed — as was the entire defense — against Central Florida in a 34-31 loss.

They, along with safeties Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos, will likely see receivers closer to what UCF brought the rest of the way as the Big Ten season unfolds and will need to match the physicality they experienced against the Knights. Safety Ryan Keiser could be out for a while with a hand injury, but Jesse Della Valle has experience to fill in.

Willis leads the secondary with 21 tackles, while Williams has 16 and Lucas 15. Both Williams and Lucas have proven themselves athletic enough to hang with most receivers. They also have noses for the ball, with a combined 12 breakups.

Da’Quan Davis is an experienced reserve and gives defensive coordinator John Butler another option. Amos is known for his physical play and the defense could get a boost if he amps up his hitting.

Grade: B-

Special Teams

Penn State’s punting game leaves a lot to be desired, as Alex Butterworth is averaging just 39 yards per punt. By comparison, Hackenberg has fared better with a 42 1/2-yard average on two pooch punts.

The return game has shown glimpses with Eugene Lewis on kickoffs. Freshman walk-on Von Walker and Della Valle have held possession and not made any big blunders on punt returns.

Kicker Sam Ficken has been lights out. He’s nailed 7 of 8 field goals, with his lone miss from 57 yards out that was nearly good. He booted a career-high 54-yarder on a wet field inside a windy stadium against Kent State. He’s got eight touchbacks and is the most improved player on the team.

Grade: B-

Coaching

Like a good coach does, Bill O’Brien has taken the blame for a few shoddy play calls — running it too predictably against Syracuse or getting pass-happy in the rain against Kent State.

A failure to properly adjust defensively led to the UCF loss. But, O’Brien’s coaching of Hackenberg can’t be taken for granted. He’s also working with less as the Nittany Lions have just 71 scholarship players on the roster thanks to the NCAA sanctions.

By employing Obeng-Agyapong at linebacker, Butler has given his defense a wrinkle. The Nittany Lions are nearly always in a nickel look when they’re really in their base defense because Obeng-Agyapong is adept in coverage. The decision to rest Hull for the Kent State game was the right one.

Grade: B-

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