A pretty good coach once said that a football team makes its biggest improvement between the first and second games of the season.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien subscribes to his predecessor Joe Paterno’s theory.
“I agree with that,” He said earlier this week. “I think that’s been proven out that you do.”
Well, heading into Saturday’s home opener with Eastern Michigan, the Nittany Lions certainly have some room for improvement.
Sure they knocked off Syracuse last week 23-17, doing it with a true freshman quarterback. But, that contest certainly left plenty of concerns — maybe not against Eastern Michigan (a 24-point underdog Saturday) — for down the line once the Big Ten season kicks off.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg certainly did as well as could be expected. He handled himself well, threw for 278 yards and two scores. He’s taken the starter’s job from Tyler Ferguson and made it his own.
But it wasn’t until Allen Robinson came off the bench from his first-half banishment by O’Brien that Hackenberg really found his legs. Robinson caught seven balls for 133 yards and a score and was the real difference maker in the game.
Penn State needed Robinson to make things happen.
Syracuse sold out its defensive backfield to stifle Penn State’s running game, and while Robinson was on the pine it worked. The Nittany Lions had just six points at the half as the Orange seemed determined to make the freshman beat them.
Running back Zach Zwinak was as ineffective for the entire game. His 61 yards on 28 carries was his worst effort since becoming a starter late last season. He averaged 2.5 yards per carry against the Orange, about half of his 4.9 average from a year ago.
Because of the running game’s ineffectiveness, Penn State was a wretched 1-for-16 on third down conversions. Several were short yardage situations in which Zwinak was hit in the backfield. Zwinak suffered four yards in losses — which doesn’t sound like much — but he only lost seven yards in 203 carries all of last season.
Even Robinson’s presence in the second half didn’t help the third-down numbers.
O’Brien claimed the problem wasn’t the offensive line, which was considered to be one of the team’s strengths coming into this season. He fell on his sword, saying that he needed to call better plays.
You’d think that the unit and the 240-pound Zwinak could get at least a yard. Or if the Zwinak running between the tackles wasn’t good enough, that the speedier Bill Belton (6 carries, 19 yards) or Akeel Lynch (who did not touch the ball) would have found a niche.
Possibly another reason for atrocious third-down numbers was that Hackenberg didn’t target the tight ends often. Kyle Carter, who was Matt McGloin’s go-to guy in those situations last season, didn’t catch a pass against the Orange. Matt Lehman, before he suffered a season-ending knee injury, and Jesse James caught just two balls apiece for small gains.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions looked good up front. DaQuan Jones (nine tackles) was a beast, making the sting of losing Jordan Hill to the NFL a distant memory.
And the unit as a whole gave up just one touchdown drive. Syracuse’s other score came after Hackenberg threw the ball directly to a Syracuse lineman who dropped in coverage on a zone blitz and returned the ball to the Penn State 1-yard line.
The big concern on defense is at linebacker, the thinnest unit on the team. Mike Hull left with a knee injury and, according to O’Brien, this week is listed as day-to-day. Since he was in street clothes in the second half, it would be a surprise to see Hull against Eastern Michigan.
Hull is the big-play guy from that unit, but even before he was hurt he had just one tackle.
Middle linebacker Glenn Carson was his steady self and proved himself in pass coverage, something he often wasn’t allowed to do last season. Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman, a new starter, made three tackles, none memorable. Ben Kline, injured much of fall camp, came off the bench and played more than expected.
The Nittany Lions were forced to play safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong at linebacker and to his credit he turned in a spectacular game. He had to. Several of the names at linebacker we heard before the season (Gary Wooten, Brandon Bell, Charles Idemudia) did not see action on defense.
The good news for Game 2 is that Eastern Michigan should give O’Brien and his staff the opportunity to experiment and get some different players some experience. The Eagles (2-10 last season) haven’t had a winning season since 1995.
Eastern Michigan actually trailed Howard 24-13 in the second half before rallying to a 34-24 win.
So the Penn State fans who show up Saturday — chatter is that Beaver Stadium will have many empty seats — should see an opportunity for Penn State to improve on some things from Week 1.
Even if that not is evident, they and O’Brien can look back to last year. The Nittany Lions, who lost to Ohio in the opener, certainly weren’t much better against Virginia in a Game 2 loss.
That team made much bigger strides as the season continued.