MADISON, Wisc. — In the tradition of spinning things forward, Penn State players were looking to the future following their 31-24 win over Wisconsin on Saturday.
And while the team’s schedule is complete — the would-be bowl-bound Nittany Lions (7-5 overall, 5-5 Big Ten) are banned from postseason play — winter workouts are just a few weeks away. Returning players will gather in the weight room at the Lasch Building and a few departing veterans will likely join them as they ready for the next level.
A win in the season finale over the No. 15 Badgers (9-3, 6-2) left them all with a sense of accomplishment.
Before Saturday, most Penn State players hesitated when asked to describe the emotions they’d experienced through their previous 11 games. Most of them agreed — it was an up-and-down campaign.
Finishing on an up was crucial, senior team captain Glenn Carson said.
“That’s another reason why this game was so important for those underclassmen to propel them into the next season,” Carson said.
Penn State entered its second season under Bill O’Brien with numerous questions about depth and the ability to compete successfully against other, more scholarship-heavy teams in the wake of Penn State having its scholarships reduced.
At times those concerns were founded.
The injury list grew as key players like tight ends Matt Lehman and Kyle Carter, linebackers Mike Hull, Ben Kline and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and safety Ryan Keiser all missed time with injuries. Running back Bill Belton and defensive backs Adrian Amos and Malcolm Wills were all felled by different ailments in the final two games.
But youngsters were able to step in and contribute.
Sophomore Jordan Lucas emerged as one of the team’s most vocal leaders and his play at cornerback was lauded by O’Brien and his teammates. Meanwhile, true freshmen earned prominent responsibilities including tight end Adam Breneman and linebacker Brandon Bell. Christian Hackenberg finished in the top three of nearly every Big Ten passing category.
“I think from where we’re at now, two years into basically a new program, and I mean that by saying that (when the sanctions came out in the summer of 2012), things changed because of what happened with the sanctions,” O’Brien said. “I think to be where we’re at right now, could we be better? Certainly. We could be better. We could’ve coached better. We could’ve played better. But I think the program is in pretty good shape right now.”
The Nittany Lions could return 15 starters combined on offense and defense next season. They’ll also welcome back a handful of players who got in on Penn State’s youth movement this season. That group includes five redshirt or true freshmen who made their first starts this season.
“I think that bodes well for the future,” O’Brien said. “Those guys have to keep working and keep trying to improve. But certainly it’s good to come in here and those guys play a lot and we win. That leaves everybody with a pretty good feeling.”
But with it comes uncertainty.
Junior wide receiver Allen Robinson could enter the NFL Draft pool any time. He’s on pace to graduate early and is coming off back-to-back record-setting seasons. Robinson has not spoken with reporters since Nov. 5.
Meanwhile, Carson and fellow senior DaQuan Jones have made it clear – they play to chase NFL dreams.
Carson said he’d start training with hopes of becoming the most recent Penn State linebacker to make an impact at the next level. NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny and Cameron Wake have been standout players for their respective NFL teams over the last few seasons. Dan Connor, Nate Stupar and Josh Hull have also continued to find steady work in the pros. Carson led Penn State with 90 tackles and is currently rated as the No. 11 overall linebacker prospect by CBSSports.com. Jones is ranked No. 7 among defensive tackles.
Jones was one of a handful of players who felt the sting of a shoulder injury midway through Penn State’s season. He played through it and led the team with 5 ½ tackles for loss. He was fifth on the team with 56 tackles.
Carson has a degree and is working on a second. Jones will graduate in May.
“I’m going to try and enjoy this as long as I can to be honest with you,” Jones said. “I’m going to let all the NFL stuff come to me. I’m not going to sit there and look forward to it. I’m not going to rush it. I’m going to focus on my academics, finish up strong in school and then just let it come.”
Penn State’s offense was as explosive as it’s been all season, especially in the passing game where Hackenberg and Co. gashed the Badgers with four plays of 50-plus yards. Wisconsin had allowed just one 50-plus yard play all season.
Three of them came via the passing attack and helped set up Penn State’s running game as the Badgers’ defense started to back off in order to defend Hackenberg’s deep throws.
“Geno (Lewis) came down with a couple, Allen always comes down with them,” Breneman said. “I think a big part of our offense executing pretty well is being able to make plays downfield. And before, the last few weeks we weren’t making as many big plays.”
While Penn State’s kickoff coverage improved drastically — the Badgers lost two yards on their lone punt return and managed just 13 yards per kickoff return — the kicking game ended the season with a whimper.
Sam Ficken had a 34-yarder blocked in the first quarter and missed a 31-yard insurance try with 31 seconds left. He did hit a 28-yarder in the third, however.
But overall, Ficken made just two of his final five field goals over the last quarter of the season.
With the exception of the Illinois game earlier this season when the Nittany Lions committed 11 penalites, Penn State had played relatively clean football and averaged just four infractions per game before Saturday.
But Penn State committed penalties galore against the Badgers with eight of nine coming on false starts. Penn State’s offense lost 40 yards alone on early jumps from its offensive linemen and every starter flinched early at least once.
“It’s not good,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got to make some changes and make sure we get that coached up better. That was bad football.”
Day to Remember
Hackenberg put on quite a show in the final game of his true freshman season.
His 70 percent completion percentage was his best showing since he completed 75 percent of his throws against UCF in Week 2 while his 339 yards were the most he’s thrown for since the Indiana game. His four touchdowns were a career high.
More importantly, Hackenberg showed off his arsenal of throws. Hackenberg’s power, precision and touch were on display for much of the evening. He threw with force and zipped passes into tight windows and hit receivers in stride all afternoon, rarely missing a target. He stood strong in the pocket and delivered a touchdown to Lewis over two defenders while taking a heavy shot from Wisconsin’s Brendan Kelly.
“It seemed like he stood in there pretty good and he understands the pocket better,” O’Brien said. “I thought he did a good job of delivering the football and being accurate with the football.”
Day to Forget
Donovan Smith had a particularly rough evening as he was guilty of four of Penn State’s eight false starts. Smith was yanked midway through the second and threw his helmet down the sideline after taking an earful from offensive line coach Mac McWhorter.
You Already Forgot
The potential for another big Penn State play was there on the Nittany Lions’ second drive of the game but it never happened.
It was second-and-six from Penn State’s 18-yard line and the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Robinson trotted out of the huddle and lined up in the slot across from Wisconsin’s 5-foot-9, 172-pound freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton.
It was a mismatch from the get-go but Penn State couldn’t get off the ball as Smith jumped and Penn State was backed up five yards. The drive would end with a blocked field goal.
“I don’t even know what that song — what is that? House of Pain? They’re from Boston? I didn’t have any idea about that. My wife’s laughing at me right now probably.” — O’Brien on Penn State players joining Wisconsin fans jumping up and down when the hip-hop song “Jump Around” by House of Pain was played.