A combined lack of production in the first three games this season from two of Penn State’s breakout stars from last fall led to a few heart-to-hearts between Kyle Carter and Deion Barnes.
Carter got limited targets in the first three games and understood what Barnes was going through as the defensive end was held without a sack through the first quarter of the season.
After all, at this time last fall, Carter had come out of nowhere to establish himself as one of the Big Ten’s most vaunted tight ends. Barnes ascended quickly as Penn State’s best pass-rusher. Through four games Carter’s 16 catches for 190 yards and a touchdown and Barnes’ three sacks, two forced fumbles and nine tackles had earned each player reputations as playmakers.
Now Carter, with just five catches for 68 yards, and Barnes, with just 1/2 of a sack, are still looking to get rolling.
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Each player relieved a bit of stress in Saturday’s 34-0 win over Kent State at Beaver Stadium. Barnes got his first sack — shared with corner Jordan Lucas, who was credited with a forced fumble — and Carter made his biggest play of the season on a 29-yard hookup with quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
“We were in the same boat, honestly,” Carter said after Penn State’s 34-0 win over Kent State on Saturday. “We talked about that a lot. We just want to go out there and be able to make some big plays. We knew what we did last year and we just want to do it again.”
The duo’s lack of production hasn’t been for a lack of effort.
Carter was limited in Penn State’s games against Eastern Michigan and Central Florida with an injury he sustained in the season opener against Syracuse. Then, offensive tackle Garry Gilliam fell on Carter’s left arm, nearly breaking it. The sophomore tight end didn’t practice for much of the next week and had to find other ways to contribute to his team’s efforts.
“I knew I wasn’t really going to be in the game plan or anything like that so it was just talking to Adam (Breneman), talking to Jesse (James) and whatever other tight ends were playing and just trying to be positive and help them out,” Carter said.
Carter said he’s 100 percent healthy now and figures to be more involved in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Barnes has been the victim of opponents’ reinforced efforts to keep him at bay.
The sophomore defensive end has seen more double teams come his way this season. When he’s worked his way through or nearly around them, he’s been hit again by running backs who have stayed back in pass protection to bounce Barnes farther to the outside or suffocate his pressure.
Barnes saw the downside to being named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year last season — now, he’s a marked man.
“I expected a few chips and a few quick passes and things to get me to slow down my rush,” Barnes said.
Those tactics have had an up side, however.
Eight other Penn State players have factored in on sacks with tackle Kyle Baublitz and safety Ryan Keiser being the latest. Barnes made their jobs easier on both plays.
Barnes and fellow end C.J. Olaniyan beat their tackles to the outside, forcing Kent State quarterback Colin Reardon to step up in the pocket and run to where Keiser flew up from his secondary spot to bring him down for a loss.
On Baublitz’s sack of David Fisher, Kent State’s right guard slid over to help the right tackle seal off Barnes, leaving Baublitz singled up with the center and DaQuan Jones matched up with only the left guard. Jones easily beat one man and got to Fisher. Jones whiffed on the sack but Baublitz, still with just one man to beat because Barnes demanded two, brought Fisher down.
“You look at numbers but still, he’s creating pressure,” Baublitz said of Barnes. “He’s been in the quarterback’s face. He had a couple of knockdowns. So it might not be the stats, but he’s there in the play, disrupting the play.”
While Barnes can be his own harshest critic, he said he feels like he’s been a factor in some way, shape or form for much of the first four games.
“At first I was just chasing it, to make sure I get it,” Barnes said of his first sack. “Now I just feel like, I just let it come to me and it came to me. It felt like a relief. Now I got it done, so now let’s get more.”
Penn State continued its perfection in the red zone, going 5-for-5 with four touchdowns and a field goal against the Golden Flashes.
The Nittany Lions are 15-for-15 inside opponents’ 20-yard-lines so far this season with 12 touchdowns. A big reason for their success is Zach Zwinak’s bulldozing capability. Zwinak has six touchdown runs of four yards or less so far.
Save for a 10-play, 77-yard scoring drive to start last week’s game against UCF, the Penn State offense has started slowly and been prone to early mistakes on its opening possession. That trend continued against the Golden Flashes when Penn State ran just three plays for three yards with a five-yard penalty for illegal procedure mixed in before having to punt.
In games against Syracuse, Eastern Michigan and Kent State Penn State has run a total of 14 plays, gained just 40 yards and has been flagged three times totaling 16 yards on opening drives. The Nittany Lions also have burned two timeouts on their first possessions in each game.
A steady rain for much of the afternoon kept fans on their couches and the majority of seats were empty in Beaver Stadium’s upper sections.
The wet field caused dropped balls from receivers on both sides and prevented others from securing sure footing to make tackles. While Penn State players escaped injuries, Kent State players weren’t as lucky. A handful of Golden Flashes had to exit including running back Anthony Meray and nose guard Chris Fairchild, who was able to walk to the sideline but was later carted to the locker room.
Day to Remember
Ryan Keiser grew up not far away in Selinsgrove and envisioned himself making plays at Beaver Stadium.
His dreams became a reality on Saturday. Keiser finished the game with four tackles, three solo, his first career sack and an interception. His pick of Reardon helped turn the momentum right back in Penn State’s favor after Hackenberg was picked off on the previous play.
Day to Forget
For the first time in his young career, Hackenberg struggled as Penn State’s passing game never got into a groove.
The freshman came into the game completing nearly 72 percent of his passes, but hit just 13 of 35 for 176 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
“I think he had some good throws. I think he had some throws that he’d like to have back,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’ll get better from this. He’ll watch the tape. I think he’s probably a little frustrated tonight but that’s OK. That’s the mark of a fantastic player and that’s what he is.”
Key Play You Already Forgot
With just over a minute to play in the first quarter, Penn State faced a second-and-goal to go from Kent State’s 6-yard-line. Hackenberg dropped to throw but the wet ball slipped from his hand before his arm started forward.
Left tackle Donovan Smith, who had his hands full blocking linebacker Zack Hitchens as he was breathing down Hackenberg’s neck, was alert enough to see the loose ball. It bounced twice before dying at the 15-yard-line. Kent State’s Roosevelt Nix made a beeline for the ball, diving and sliding to try and recover the fumble. But Smith was quicker to preserve Penn State’s red zone opportunity, where Hackenberg hit Bill Belton on a 15-yard pass on the next play with the game’s first score.
“A couple of us started to not shave for camp and then it just is growing and at this point I’m used to it so I’m just going to let it go until I feel it’s time to come off. Hopefully the end of the season,” — Zach Zwinak on his beard as a possible good luck charm.