In the crowded Penn State media room, I turned to a colleague and asked, “How good are these guys?”
I didn’t really get an answer.
Through two football games, there isn’t a consensus opinion.
Sure, the Nittany Lions are 2-0 following Saturday’s 45-7 victory over Eastern Michigan, a complete turnaround from last season’s 0-2 start.
But Saturday’s win wasn’t quite as dominating as the final score would indicate.
Eastern Michigan trailed just 17-7 with less than four minutes to go in the third quarter before a 20-yard draw to Zack Zwinak on 3rd-and-24 and a fourth-down gamble set up a Zwinak touchdown run to begin the rout.
Until that drive, Penn State had struggled to run the ball, had turned the ball over twice (one going for a touchdown), had given up three sacks and had been penalized five times. They once again struggled on third down conversions, going 1-for-10 to bring its season total to 2-for-26.
Penn State is actually better on fourth down conversions (4-for-4).
Even the season-opening 23-17 victory over Syracuse lost some value as Northwestern slaughtered the Orange on Saturday night.
Certainly, Christian Hackenberg looks like the recruiting gurus were right in their assessment. After a 1-for-5 start, Hackenberg rebounded finishing 23-of-33 for a school freshman record 311 yards.
On Saturday, he fit several throws into tight windows. He found secondary receivers and even audibled on a key fourth-down play. That’s something Rob Bolden, the last true freshman to start at Penn State, never seemed to grasp.
He did throw his third interception of the season Saturday and had a fumble returned for a score.
Still, he seems like a special player.
The big concern is the play of the offensive line. The Nittany Lions struggled for nearly three quarters before their sheer numbers (nine different linemen played) overwhelmed Eastern Michigan.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “We have to execute better, especially at the beginning of the game.”
Defensively, the Nittany Lions are possibly playing better than expected. The defense didn’t give up a point Saturday and really gave up one scoring drive against Syracuse.
The unit, led by tackle DaQuan Jones and linebacker Glenn Carson, has overcome an injury to linebacker Mike Hull.
“I think we’ve got a good core group of guys,” defensive coordinator John Butler said. “We have maybe 15 to 18 guys we can rely on. People still talk about us and it’s almost like they ignore the fact that we only have 65 scholarships. What these kids are doing is amazing in that we’re doing it with so few players. We’ve got to keep them healthy and we’ve got to play them to get them experience.
“They’re really not going to be ready until next year, but they may have to be ready this year.”
So are these guys any good right now?
They believe so — certainly better than last fall.
“I think we’re moving along light years ahead of last year,” offensive tackle Donovan Smith said. “It’s just two games down. We have 10 more to go.”
“We’re definitely ahead of where we were last year,” offensive tackle Garry Gilliam added. “Obviously, there’s a lot of room to grow and we know that. We left a lot of points out there on the field (Saturday). Every position has improvements to make. Obviously, if you get two wins that’s something to build off of, a good base. As we go into the future, obviously we want to get better each week.”
Defensive players also feel the same way.
“I feel like everyone knows the defense,” Jones said. “Right now, it comes down to the technical aspect of it. I feel like we’re further than we were last year. Now, we have to fix the small stuff.”
The small stuff hasn’t hurt the Nittany Lions so far.
They could face their stiffest challenge next week with Central Florida. The Knights are unbeaten so far, albeit against weak competition. They’ve outscored Akron and Florida International by a combined 76-7.
Maybe we’ll have a better idea about this team after that game.
“We’re looking forward next week to UCF,” Smith said. "They’re coming in here 2-0 as well. We’re just ready to fight.”