Penn State’s offense has had plenty of time to improve, but Nittany Lion coaches are still searching for answers as to why it hasn’t.
Forget the fact that the Nittany Lions (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten) are entering Week 14, have had two bye weeks and a full training camp to introduce concepts and dial things in.
They’ve had plenty of opportunities on gamedays.
Penn State is actually 16th in the country in time of possession among FBS teams.
The Nittany Lions have held onto the ball for a total of 353 minutes and 14 seconds and are averaging 32 minutes, 7 seconds of possession time per game. But, Penn State hasn’t been efficient or effective. The Nittany Lions have scored just 21 offensive touchdowns — or one every 16 minutes, 48 seconds.
Christian Hackenberg, like his teammates and coaches, has tried to put his finger on the team’s offensive issues. He tried again after Penn State managed just two red-zone trips on 13 possessions against Big Ten bottom-feeder Illinois.
“It’s frustrating,” Hackenberg said, his words nearly inaudible thanks to the team’s bus idling nearby outside of Memorial Stadium. “But it comes with the territory in terms of having to play with guys being hurt, out of position, moving people around, being the second-youngest team in the country. Guys just haven’t been there and done that. You can’t really rely on experience.”
Maybe that’s the case.
Miles Dieffenbach chimed in, too. Hackenberg’s fellow offensive captain insisted Penn State just hasn’t executed when it’s had the chances.
And thanks to a defense that has forced 20 turnovers and 48 three-and-outs, Penn State has had plenty of opportunities to stay in games and mount offense, a primary reason the offense has had all the possession time. But the great defensive performances have been for naught most of the time. Penn State’s offense has turned the ball over 21 times — one fumble came on special teams — and has gone three-and-out 42 times.
Their starts haven’t been good, either.
The Nittany Lions have scored touchdowns on just two opening drives. They ran a beautiful 10-play drive that went 80 yards in 5:07 to start the season in Ireland and didn’t open with a touchdown drive until Saturday’s nine-play, 52-yard sequence.
Minus those two drives, on average Penn State burns eight possessions before scoring its first touchdown.
Offensive coordinator John Donovan, the team’s primary play caller, has not been available to reporters since before the season.
“Am I disappointed? Yes,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “But where we are numbers wise and at this point in the season, getting banged up, losing guys, not being able to have the consistency that we have across the board. I want to get it fixed as bad as everybody, I truly do. … This is on me. Nobody else is responsible. Don’t blame the assistant coaches, don’t blame the players, it’s on me.”
Akeel Lynch has emerged as Penn State’s most productive back and that bodes well for the offense as Lynch has two more years of eligibility after this season.
Meanwhile, the sophomore has shown off his big-play ability when he’s gotten the opportunity and did so again on Saturday. He began the fourth quarter for Penn State with an electric 47-yard touchdown run that showed off not only his speed and cutting ability but also his vision. Lynch read his downfield blocks well, ran with balance and made all the right cuts.
He’s now scored four career touchdowns coming from 15, 18, 38 and 47 yards out.
“It’s good seeing big plays,” tight end Jesse James said. “Akeel, he’ll hit them and he just keeps pounding them. The safeties made a lot of tackles and then he made them miss and got down the sideline. It was a good play by him. That’s what he does.”
For the first time in what seemed like ages, Penn State’s defense couldn’t come up with the stops when the Nittany Lions needed them.
Despite forcing six three-and-outs, tackling and the lack of a consistent pass rush were big factors on Illinois’ four scoring drives that extended for 12, six, 11 and seven plays.
The tackling was so bad even stalwart Mike Hull struggled to bring down Illinois players on first contact. Illini running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson picked up a good portion of their yards after initial hits while slot receiver Mike Dudek also kept his feet under him to bounce off of shoulder tackles.
The three Illini players totaled 216 total yards, with a good portion of them coming after Penn State defenders whiffed.
“It was a big issue,” linebacker Nyeem Wartman said. “If you look at all the plays they had on the ground most of them were explosive because somebody didn’t wrap up. Myself included. Everyone. So we’ve just got to come out ready next week.”
Meanwhile, without pressure in his face, Illini quarterback Reilly O’Toole to get comfortable and went through his progressions with ease. As a result, Penn State’s secondary struggled to stop the gritty Dudek and allowed other targets to get free. Penn State only allowed five passes of 10 or more yards but two came on Illinois’ final drive, including a 25-yard dart to Dudek who split Penn State’s defense to set his offense up at midfield.
“We were in a coverage where that could potentially happen,” junior cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “He just made a good play. The quarterback made a good read.”
Everything about Penn State’s start was promising.
But it all fell apart soon thereafter and the offense went back into Ugly Mode.
Following a nine-play touchdown drive to open the game, the Nittany Lion offense crossed midfield just three more times. Their very next drive ended on a botched hold that nixed a field goal try after three-straight running plays, two inside the six-yard line.
Hackenberg threw just five passes in the second half.
“We didn’t finish the game like we should’ve,” James said. “It should’ve been ended on the offensive side of the ball.”
Day to Remember
Before Saturday’s game, Illinois kicker David Reisner had made just one field goal. The sophomore got a chance to play hero for Illinois’ seniors and made three of four against Penn State including the game-winner from 36 yards out.
Day to Forget
Franklin insisted after the game that all criticism should be directed at him.
Penn State was not ready to play and it’s up to the coaching staff to prepare the players. Illinois had won just two Big Ten games under Tim Beckman entering Saturday’s game and it’s a pretty tough loss to take when you’re out-coached by someone with that rough of a track record.
The big question that lingers after this game — why did Penn State not go for it on fourth-and-one from its own 41 with 1:54 to play?
“Our defense has been playing well all year long,” Franklin said. “You punt the ball, you make them go earn it. If we go for it on fourth-and-one, we don’t get it, then everybody is in here right now talking about how stupid I am. So I thought the best decision for our program the way our defense has been playing all year long is to punt the ball in that situation Hopefully you don’t need to.”
Franklin is right. It’s one of those “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” situations. And sure, it’s easy to play armchair quarterback with the benefit of hindsight. But consider the circumstances: Penn State coaches had plenty of time to draw up a play — against the conference’s worst rush defense no less — as referee Todd Geerlings was busy for about two minutes reviewing the previous play, a Hackenberg rush that came up about a foot short. As Franklin said, you let the Illini “earn it.”
They did. But that could’ve been a chance for Penn State’s offense to earn it, too.
You Already Forgot
Penn State called timeout with five seconds left in the first quarter to give Daniel Pasquariello a chance to punt with the vicious wind at his back.
It was a good call to be mindful of the field-position battle. But Darius Mosely got a running lane and broke a tackle before Pasquariello made his first stop of the season with help from Garrett Sickels. It was a critical stop as there was no one behind the punter and Mosely would’ve most likely been gone for six. Instead, he got just 14 yards
Hidden Stat That Matters
Penn State’s tight ends hauled in just two of eight targets with Jesse James and Mike Gesicki catching just one pass each. Kyle Carter was targeted four times and managed one catch, but it didn’t count as the Nittany Lions were called for an illegal formation on the play. Meanwhile, Carter dropped two passes and had no chance on another. Hackenberg misfired on two throws to James.
A position group that was a perceived strength before the season has not helped the offense move the ball in the passing game. Gesicki and James have combined for just seven catches over the past three games. Carter, who was so sure-handed before an injury ended his 2012 season, has caught just six passes for 45 yards in seven conference games.