Since last Saturday’s 24-10 loss at Minnesota, the airwaves, newsprint and chat rooms have declared a common excuse for Penn State’s poor performance in Minneapolis and the Nittany Lions’ 5-4 mark on the season.
Now, we’re seeing just how much the NCAA sanctions, levied as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, are affecting the program.
Don’t blame the players. Don’t blame the coaches.
It’s the sanctions.
Well, if that makes you feel better, fine.
But, here’s one guy who isn’t buying it.
Look, I’ll give you the defense. The lack of depth, especially at linebacker, has been a problem all season. Penn State has Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a 200-pounder who should be playing safety, at linebacker trying to take on 300-pound offensive linemen. Injuries to Mike Hull and Ben Kline haven’t helped.
But, it’s the other side of the ball where we’re trying really hard to find out how sanctions are a poor excuse for a lack of execution.
In the last three games, the Nittany Lion offense has not scored more than 17 points in regulation time.
OK, there’s a pardon for Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the class of the league.
But the other two games are a mystery.
Penn State scored 17 points — needing a last-minute field goal — in regulation, before beating Illinois 24-17 in overtime. In four other Big Ten games, the Illinois defense has given up an average of 47 points and no opponent has scored less than 39 points.
Last week, it was 10 points against a Minnesota defense that had been giving up more than 30 points per game in Big Ten play.
Honestly, since Big Ten play has started, the Nittany Lion offense can only point to one game where it has performed up to, and maybe beyond, expectations and that was the 43-40 quadruple overtime win over Michigan.
And it’s hard to figure out why given the talent that’s there.
Take a look across the board.
Allen Robinson is arguably the best receiver in school history and he’s going to have the numbers and the highlight reel to prove it. He’s already caught 73 balls for a school-record 1,106 yards this season. His numbers project to a mind-boggling 90+ catches for close to 1,500 yards.
Zach Zwinak is a 1,000-yard rusher from a year ago. If his fumbling problems are behind him, he might get close to that number again. Zwinak coupled with Bill Belton, who became the school’s first 200-yard rusher in a game since Larry Johnson in 2002, and Akeel Lynch are on pace to rush for more than 2,000 yards combined this season.
And if you’ve got running backs with those numbers, the offensive line has to be doing something right. Save for Garry Gilliam, who is a converted tight end, the core group has seen its share of action.
Kyle Carter was well on his way to breaking the school’s receiving mark for tight ends before being injured last fall. Jesse James is experienced and true freshman Adam Breneman was among the best-rated tight ends in the country.
In fact, none of these guys who are playing every week are chopped liver. They were all highly rated out of high school. They’ve got more recruiting stars than the cast list for Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13.
If there’s one major difference on offense, it’s at quarterback. True freshman Christian Hackenberg has replaced Matt McGloin, who will likely make his first NFL start with the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. McGloin had the offense clicking with relatively the same skill players last season.
The easy fall guy is Hackenberg, but you might be surprised to find the freshman has the offense on pace to surpass last year’s yardage totals.
Penalties? Last year’s team was penalized more.
Turnovers? That’s a possibility with six more than all of last season. Lay some of that on mostly experienced players who have lost 11 fumbles.
The most telling statistic may be the quarter scores. Last season, Penn State outscored its opponents’ 97-20 in the first quarter and 95-46 in the second quarter. The Nittany Lions were outscored in the second half, but not by much.
This season, it’s the exact opposite. Penn State has been outscored by opponents in each of the first three quarters, while holding an 85-54 edge in the final quarter. Penn State has trailed at halftime in each of its losses.
Penn State is moving the ball effectively, but in conference games the Nittany Lions are tied for last in red zone offense, having scored only nine touchdowns in 21 trips inside the 20.
Is it Hackenberg’s inexperience or maybe some play calling? Maybe a little of both.
How many of you were screaming at the TV last week when the Nittany Lions quit running Zwinak and started passing? Two second-half drives ended in Minnesota territory with the ball being turned over on downs. Only one of the final eight plays on those two drives was a run.
Well, the numbers should get a boost from the worst team in the Big Ten today. Purdue (1-8) is a train wreck, having been outscored 193-31 in Big Ten games.
Maybe a blowout win (the Nittany Lions are three touchdown favorites) could help restore some confidence to a unit that has struggled just as much as the defense.
And maybe the excuses will stop — at least for a week.
Walt Moody is sports editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4630 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wmoodycdt.