There’s no opponent for Penn State to prepare for this week but that doesn’t mean the Nittany Lions won’t be busy.
Right now their biggest foe is themselves.
With an Oct. 11 game at Michigan looming, the deficiencies that have dogged Penn State (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) to varying degrees against weaker non-conference teams were exposed, front-and-center in a 29-6 debacle against Northwestern (2-2, 1-0) on Saturday.
Penn State can’t run the ball, struggles to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg, missed handfuls of tackles against the Wildcats and is still looking for sparks on special teams.
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Improving in nearly every phase is the team’s focus in its first of two bye weeks.
“The bye week couldn’t come at a better time, especially after this game,” Penn State receiver DaeSean Hamilton said after Saturday’s homecoming loss. “We’re not taking it as a week off. We’re taking it as a work week, a week to get better as a team so we can come out and play a lot better than we did today.”
By now, they’ve already gotten started.
James Franklin, his staff and players start every week on Sunday mornings, spending an hour breaking down the performances of each unit. They’ll hand out grades from zero to two for each player.
“A zero for us is, you didn’t get the job done. We didn’t win with what you did on that play,” Franklin said. “A one is you got the job done but we would’ve liked for your technique or your execution to be a little bit better and a two is a clinic tape, this is exactly how I’d want it done.”
There were most likely more zeros and ones as a result of Saturday’s effort.
Penn State was held without a touchdown and didn’t meet its desired threshold in three of the four areas Franklin considers most crucial. The Nittany Lions won the penalty battle — they committed four to Northwestern’s eight — but lost the turnover battle 2 to 1.
Meanwhile, Penn State didn’t come close to its goal of executing eight explosive plays — runs of at least 15 yards and passes of at least 25. The Nittany Lions had just one, Hackenberg’s 51-yard pass to Hamilton in the second quarter. On the other side, Penn State’s goal is to hold opponents to three explosive plays per game. Northwestern had four and nearly had a fifth with a 22-yard pass in the first quarter.
“I actually think you look how we’ve played all year long and we’ve started some games slow and we’ve been able to come back and rally late in games,” Franklin said. “You can only do that so many times. before it comes back to haunt you.”
More young players continued to see action while another made his debut.
True freshman linebacker Jason Cabinda was used and finished second on the team with eight tackles. Cabinda, who was a candidate to redshirt, was used heavily due to an injury to usual starter Nyeem Wartman. Sophomore Von Walker started in Wartman’s place and made three tackles.
“I thought Jason did some nice things for his first game,” Franklin said. “He was out there getting some action. ... I was pleased with him.”
Fellow true freshman Christian Campbell made a career high two tackles while sophomore Evan Schwan also made a career-best two tackles.
Penn State’s offense is a predictable, one-dimensional machine right now and it is due to an inability to run the football or protect the quarterback.
Despite a good performance against an overmatched Massachusetts team, Penn State is averaging just 101 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. So far, Penn State has been held to less than 65 rushing yards in three of its five games. Meanwhile, Christian Hackenberg is on pace to be sacked nearly 34 times. He was sacked 21 times last season.
Due to Penn State’s one-dimensionality — the Nittany Lions called 56 passing plays to just 15 runs — the Wildcats had a pretty easy time on defense. Northwestern defenders weren’t falling for play fakes and were sniffing out Penn State’s screen passes. The Nittany Lions haven’t been able to throw down the field either as there is not enough time for those plays to develop.
Penn State’s offensive line is a mess.
The first running play of the day — on second and four — went for two yards and Bill Belton was crushed by three defenders who were unblocked. Center Angelo Mangiro and right tackle Andrew Nelson could not get into the second level and occupy Northwestern’s linebackers and middle backer Anthony Walker hammered Belton.
It got worse.
Left guard Brendan Mahon did little to prevent Xavier Washington from putting a crushing hit on Hackenberg early in the fourth quarter. Hackenberg fumbled, Northwestern recovered and the Penn State quarterback was slow to get up.
“That’s our guy,” Mangiro said. “He’s our leader. He’s our captain and we don’t want to see him get touched at all.”
It got downright embarrassing.
Penn State had to convert a fourth-and-1 trailing 23-6 in the fourth quarter and instead of surging into their opponents, Nelson and right guard Brian Gaia ended up locked up with each other. Gaia shoved Nelson forward as the man they should’ve been blocking — Greg Kuhar — flew into the backfield and brought Belton down for a loss of two.
Day to Remember
Mike Hull continues to be Penn State’s most consistent player and had another monster afternoon. The middle linebacker made a career-high 16 tackles including a nice open-field stop on Northwestern running back Justin Jackson to prevent a touchdown. Hull also teamed with Trevor Williams to prevent holder Christian Salem from sneaking in on a fake field goal two plays later.
Hull is currently ninth in the country with 53 tackles.
Defensive end Deion Barnes also had a nice afternoon and continues to be a threat each week. Barnes tied his career high with six tackles and added a sack.
Day to Forget
A lot of Penn State players probably want to forget this one but it was the second tough outing for Hackenberg in a row. The sophomore quarterback threw his first pick-six, lost a fumble and completed just 48 percent of his passes.
Hackenberg fired a pass directly to Anthony Walker who outran the Penn State quarterback to the end zone to start the fourth quarter then was drilled and lost a fumble on the very next play.
You Already Forgot
When Miles Shuler fielded Penn State’s first punt of the game, the Nittany Lions’ coverage unit appeared to have him cornered. But poor tackling coupled with Shuler’s vision set the Wildcats up in prime real estate.
Cole Chiappialle and Hull were the first two on the scene but whiffed on tackles. Grant Haley was next but his diving effort at Shuler’s ankles was for naught. Shuler then ran through arm tackles from Evan Schwan and punter Daniel Pasquariello before Jesse Della Valle knocked him out of bounds at Penn State’s 31-yard line. Thanks to the big return, the Wildcats needed just four plays to score the game’s first touchdown.
Hidden Stat that Matters
44 — as in the Northwestern 44-yard line. It’s where the Wildcats began every possession on average Saturday. Starting from midfield allowed Northwestern to score quickly and not exhaust much of its playbook early. The Wildcats started in Penn State’s territory five times and came away with 16 points as a result. They could have had more points but Fitzgerald opted to try a fake field goal in the first quarter that failed at the Penn State 3-yard line.