The luck of the Irish ran with Penn State in its season opener last week.
Sam Ficken’s 36-yard game winner put a happy face on the Croke Park Classic and gave James Franklin a thrilling win in his debut as the Nittany Lions’ head coach.
More importantly, the 26-24 triumph provided Franklin and his staff a blueprint of what was working and what wasn’t as the Nittany Lions head into Saturday afternoon’s clash with Akron.
At the beginning of the season, everyone knew Christian Hackenberg could throw the ball, but who would be there to catch it on the outside was a little more in doubt. Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton put any fears to rest with a record-setting afternoon. No two receivers in program history had more than 150 yards receiving in the same game until Hamilton (11 catches, 165 yards) and Lewis (8 catches, 173 yards) pulled it off against a veteran Central Florida secondary.
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Throw in seven catches from tight end Jesse James and Hackenberg has three targets that should have any defense worried.
Hackenberg was the offense, piling up a school-record 454 yards through the air. He was tough as the pocket collapsed around him and used his feet, especially on a key fourth down in the final drive, to make a huge play.
The offensive line allowed just two sacks and considering Hackenberg threw it 47 times, that wasn’t too bad.
But bad could very well describe other parts of the offense.
The Nittany Lions rushed for just 57 yards in 28 attempts. That’s about two yards a carry and not going to cut it once the Big Ten season rolls around.
There were no consistent holes for Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton to run through, even with the Wildcat formation. Neither could get into a rhythm and it appeared that there was confusion on how and when to use each one.
While Hackenberg had time to throw, the line couldn’t keep the sophomore from getting hit. Hackenberg came up limping on a couple of and getting hit after a throw. The Nittany Lions have no experience to back him up.
Hackenberg also threw a pair of interceptions, both trying to fit the ball in a tight window. Maybe it was a little of trying to do too much since the run game was non-existent.
But the number that counted the most was the one on the scoreboard.
And for all of the passing yardage the Nittany Lions racked up, they only scored two touchdowns. By failing to capitalize in the red zone (1 for 5), Penn State allowed Central Florida to hang around, which nearly proved costly when the Knights took a one-point lead with 73 seconds left.
The Nittany Lions finished with a 24-11 edge in first downs, a 75-51 advantage in plays a 511-246 edge in yards and a 7:14 margin in time of possession, but still needed heroics at the end.
Defensively, Penn State did some great things, too.
The Nittany Lions completely shut down the Central Florida ground game, holding the Knights to 29 yards on 24 carries. They came up with a key defensive stand after the Knights had first-and-goal at the 4.
Led by Anthony Zettel,who had six tackles with half of them for losses, the defensive front did a solid job. It record two sacks and several hurries.
Mike Hull had no trouble moving from the outside to middle linebacker and led the team with 11 tackles.
Of course, there was a flip side.
Once George O’Leary decided to bench starter Pete Dinovo (who looked like a deer in the headlights) after two full quarters, Justin Holman carved up the Penn State secondary. Holman threw for 204 yards after taking over following the first series of the second half.
Holman picked on Da‘Quan Davis and Trevor Williams, something you can bet other teams are going to try since Jordan Lucas looks so solid.
And when it needed the key stop, Penn State watched Central Florida march down the field to take the lead.
Ficken was 4-for-4 to highlight the special teams and Grant Haley was scintillating in his debut as a kickoff returner.
But, the Nittany Lions gave up a 68-yard kickoff return that could have gone for a score if not for a tackle by Williams.
Certainly, there were many teachable moments and according to the players they started with the review of the film on the flight home from Dublin.
Akron, a pick by the MAC coaches to finish second in the league’s Eastern Division, should give Franklin some more insight on how much the Nittany Lions have learned.
If not, there’s always Nittany Nation’s favorite analyst Ed Cunningham, who will be calling the action for the second straight week. The former NFL center certainly wasn’t short on opinions last week.