Not every player played and not every play was called but Penn State’s Blue-White game still served a valuable purpose for a still-adjusting squad looking to take the next step under a new head coach.
Blue rolled to a 37-0 over White as James Franklin watched from 10 yards behind his offense. Afterward, Franklin strolled into the media room at Beaver Stadium following Penn State’s Blue-White game confident in the Nittany Lions’s progress at the conclusion of 15 spring practices.
“We got a lot of work done this spring,” Franklin said. “I think everyone can tell, we still have a long way to go.”
Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage included a handful of highlight plays, a dominant effort from the team’s deepest position group and a few cringe-worthy moments.
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Quick bursts from walk-on running back Cole Chiappialle and a double-reverse option pass for a deep touchdown from Geno Lewis brought an announced 72,000-plus fans to their feet and the starting defensive line attacked furious results all afternoon.
The Blue Squad — stocked with returning starters from last season — benefitted from those plays from the opening snap. The first- and second-teamers forced four turnovers, seven punts, notched six sacks and held White to minus-25 yards rushing.
Meanwhile, Chiappiale added touchdown runs of one and 23 yards in the second quarter before State College native Matt Baney returned an Austin Whipple interception 28 yards for a third-quarter score. Wideout Matt Zanellato hauled in Lewis’ pass for a 56-yard score and Akeel Lynch added a three-yard run in the waning seconds to cap the scoring. Kicker Sam Ficken hit a 26-yard field goal to open the scoring in the first quarter.
“I think the defense is ahead, I don't think there's any doubt about that,” Franklin said. “It was either that or we really wanted to work on our punting game, we wanted to get (Chris) Gulla a lot of work. I don't know if that necessarily was it. ... We have a little bit better depth right now on the defensive side of the ball, especially up front, kind of where the game is played.”
Senior end C.J. Olaniyan picked up 2 1/2 sacks — awarded when a defender touched the opposing quarterback — while defensive tackles Anthony Zettel and Tyrone Smith and end Deion Barnes each picked up a sack for the Blue squad. Ryan Keiser and Trevor Williams each picked up interceptions.
Senior linebacker Mike Hull said he was satisfied with the defense’s progress.
“The first couple of weeks were hard because they were throwing so much at us,” Hull said. “But after that, all the walk-through and all the coaching sessions, we started to pick it up and kind of run with it. I think I’ve gotten more comfortable throughout the spring calling where the blitzes are coming from, where to line up everybody and I think that’s really been the biggest thing.”
Keeping players healthy was also a focus for Franklin and his staff. There was no contact on special teams and the second half featured a running clock.
But not everyone escaped injury.
Center Wendy Laurent appeared to hurt his left leg late during Chiappialle’s second touchdown run of the second half. Chiappiale eluded defensive end Carl Nassib who fell into Laurent’s leg at an angle. Laurent limped off the field and did not return. Guard Brian Gaia also left the field and did not return for the second half.
Laurent started the game at center for the Blue squad while Gaia started at right guard.
“We’ll come out there and do what we do and make the best of everything,” redshirt freshman tackle Brendan Mahon said. “People step up where they have to step up and we roll with it.”
Franklin does not talk about injuries but he did address his team’s need to find more contributors along the offensive line.
“I'm not sure that I've ever been in a situation where you don't even have a scholarship two-deep,” Franklin said. “With that, we're talking about guys that we've moved over from the other side of the ball. We're talking about guys we've moved from one position to another, tight ends that we've converted. I don't know if we've ever been in this situation before, but again, it is what it is, we're going to find a way to make it work.”
The already-thin offensive line was without tackle Andrew Nelson and left guard Miles Dieffenbach. Both players watched from the bench with their left legs wrapped up. Converted defensive tackle Derek Dowrey played most of the scrimmage at left guard while Mahon started at right tackle. Angelo Mangiro got playing time at right guard and stepped in as the Blue team’s center when Laurent got hurt.
Meanwhile, running back Bill Belton had just one carry while his backfieldmate Zach Zwinak didn’t play at all. Zwinak got hurt in last season’s Blue-White game and although he suited up for this one and has practiced in full all spring, yielded most of the carries to Chiappialle.
Starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg played just three series. Last fall’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year completed four of 10 passes for 43 yards. He was sacked once. Hackenberg turned over Blue quarterbacking duties to true freshman Michael O’Connor who completed 11 of 16 throws for 81 yards. He was sacked twice.
Franklin said he’s confident Hackenberg has grasped a lot of the offensive concepts that have been introduced. In the meantime, Franklin wanted to get a better look at O’Connor.
“I think he has a pretty good mind when it comes to the game. It comes natural to him,” Franklin said. “There's a lot of areas, from a fundamental standpoint, that we have to work on. A lot of things you're looking at with young quarterbacks are do they panic or not? He's not a guy that panics. He's very, very comfortable. He has a good feel of where to go with the ball and why.”