Christian Hackenberg and the rest of Penn State’s players who made the trip last season remember all too well what the flight home from the Buckeye State after a numbing loss was like.
“I feel like we were prepared but we just fell behind and they had a ton of momentum,” Hackenberg said Wednesday. “It goes back to staying on track and we didn’t really get on track offensively.”
And Ohio State steamed right along.
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The Buckeyes cruised to a 42-7 halftime lead and won the game 63-14. So far this season, No. 13 Ohio State (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) has looked more and more like the team that steamrolled the Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2) last season. The Buckeyes are averaging 88 plays and just over 52 points per game over their last three.
“After that game we were basically embarrassed. We got it handed to us on national TV,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “And that wasn’t the Penn State team that I knew that we were.”
Ohio State’s offense has looked unstoppable in wins over Cincinnati, Maryland and Rutgers while Penn State’s offense has failed to move the ball with consistency. The Nittany Lions know they’ll have to exceed current trends — they’ve scored just one touchdown in the last eight quarters — to have a chance at Beaver Stadium.
“We have to execute, stay on track and limit the negative plays and try and continue to keep the sticks moving throughout the game,” Hackenberg said. “And I think we’ll be in a pretty good position if we do that.”
For the offense to find success, Penn State must get better play from its linemen.
To this point, Penn State’s big men are still finding their way. Center Angelo Mangiro, tackles Donovan Smith and Andrew Nelson and guards Brian Gaia, Brendan Mahon and Derek Dowrey posted a stellar outing against Massachusetts in Week 4 but have failed to set up Penn State’s running game since. Meanwhile, Hackenberg has been sacked 20 times.
“I wouldn’t say that’s our high point at all,” Nelson said. “I think we’ve definitely gotten better since then and although people may not see that because of the teams that we’ve played that made it look like maybe we didn’t have as good of a game, offensively and as the offensive line, we are getting better with each game.”
Nelson said improvements have been made on the field after lengthy film breakdowns where calls and protections have been simplified to make in-game communication easier.
Captains call meeting
A handful of players wanted to communicate a message to the rest of the team a week ago.
They didn’t want a two-game skid to turn into something worse — surrender. So captains C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Keiser, Jesse Della Valle, Sam Ficken, Hull, Dieffenbach and Hackenberg met with Franklin and then the rest of the team in a players-only meeting to discuss the future.
Hackenberg said he preferred to keep specifics of what was said between him and his teammates. It’s not rare for players to organize meetings such as the one the current team did. Players did the same thing last season after the loss to Ohio State.
“A lot of us had to get some things off our chests and we did so, I think that was good,” Hackenberg said. “I think that was just establishing the expectation again and making sure that we’re doing everything we can in that field to make sure that we get the job done.”
Franklin said he’s seen his players handle recent on-field futility well. They’ve responded in a positive maner with the players-only meeting serving as an example for the coaching staff.
“We’ve just got to continue to keep working at it,” Hackenberg said. “It’s something that we can’t give up on because when you know guys that’s when you lose all the progress that you’ve made. And these guys won’t do that. We’ve proved that we won’t do that. We’ve never done that before.”
Lewis looks swift at practice
Penn State’s practice Wednesday ended on a high note for one player in particular.
Sophomore receiver Geno Lewis took off on an outside route and hauled in a short touchdown pass against the scout team. Lewis, whose playing time was cut against Michigan, played most of the first-team reps during the portion open to reporters.
Hackenberg said getting Lewis the ball will be a priority for the Nittany Lions. Lewis is second on the team to DaeSean Hamilton with 32 catches for 512 yards and a touchdown.
“Getting him the ball and getting him back on track I think is going to be big and help us all moving forward,” Hackenberg said.
Donovan staying on sideline
Offensive coordinator John Donovan will coach from the sideline, Franklin said.
At his weekly press conference Tuesday, Franklin said Donovan would return to the press box where he’s coached from for the duration of his time on Franklin’s staff. Donovan moved from the press box to the sideline for the Michigan game hoping to get a new perspective.
But after further discussion with the rest of the offensive staff and Hackenberg, Franklin decided to keep Donovan on the field. It’s a dynamic that appeals to Hackenberg, who took on-field direction from Bill O’Brien who coached and called plays from the sideline.
“He’d like to have somebody being able to make adjustments with him on the sidelines so it really is different from the way we’ve done it in the past but it has to do with what Hack feels most comfortable with,” Franklin said.
Quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne will remain in the press box, where he’s relay down and distances before each play to Donovan.