Christian Hackenberg and the Penn State offense took over 41 yards from the end zone and tried to get downfield through the air.
Instead, with prime field position, the Nittany Lions went backward.
Hackenberg saw no open receivers on first down, so he rolled right and fired a short pass to running back Akeel Lynch for a modest 1-yard gain. The quarterback threw a quick screen pass out to wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton on second down, and he was dropped immediately by Michigan State safety Demetrious Cox for a 6-yard loss. Hackenberg then went deep for wide receiver Geno Lewis, but the pass fell incomplete as cornerback Tony Lippett stuck with Lewis stride for stride.
The drive ended with a punt and Penn State remained scoreless in the second quarter.
Penn State’s passing game stalled once again in the Nittany Lions’ 34-10 loss to the No. 10 Spartans on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Hackenberg completed 21 of 45 passes for 195 yards and one interception. Penn State coach James Franklin said Hackenberg was protected fairly well — he was sacked three times — but the receivers couldn’t get open consistently against the Michigan State secondary.
“We knew going into the game that they were going to overload the box and force us to make plays on the perimeter, in the one-on-one and we weren’t able to do that today,” Franklin said.
Hamilton paced Penn State with six catches for 55 yards. He has 75 catches, making him just the second player in program history to reach surpass 70 receptions in a season — a feat Allen Robinson achieved in each of the last two years.
Hamilton’s standout season started with an 11-catch game against Central Florida as Hackenberg racked up a program-record 454 yards through the air.
But that game was a distant memory as the passing game got off track by the regular season finale. Hamilton racked up plenty of catches on screens — like the one that went for a loss of 6 yards Saturday — en route to his 75-catch campaign.
Penn State failed to connect on a deep ball intended for a receiver Saturday. Tight end Mike Gesicki hauled in the longest pass for Penn State, a 30-yard gain when he was left wide open along the sideline.
For much of the day, Michigan State’s Lippett and fellow cornerback Trae Waynes locked down the Penn State receiving corps.
“It comes along with time and really comes along with the type of routes we’re doing,” Hamilton said. “If we’re going deep, obviously we’re not going to get separation right away. As long as the wide receivers get time to work somebody, we can get open against almost anybody.”
But Hamilton and his teammates only managed to provide one highlight against the Spartans.
With Penn State trailing 27-3 in the third quarter, Hackenberg completed 4 of 7 passes to account for 50 yards on a 79-yard touchdown drive.
Hackenberg hit Lewis over the middle for a 12-yard gain on third down. After a 26-yard run by Lynch, Hackenberg pump faked to his right and fired back toward his left to Kyle Carter for 16 yards.
Back-to-back slants to Saeed Blacknall and Hamilton moved Penn State to the 3-yard line. Lynch punched it in for the Nittany Lions’ lone touchdown.
“We were able to get into a rhythm,” Hamilton said. “Like anybody has seen all season, when we get into our rhythm nobody can really stop us.
“Once Hack really just starts slinging that thing around and we’re hitting our targets and things like that, picking up first downs and keeping our defense off the field, we’re a great team.”
But Penn State was only in rhythm for 2:54 — the length of the 10-play, 79-yard touchdown drive. For the rest of the game, the offense struggled and couldn’t make the big play.
Perhaps the best opportunity came at the end of the half with Penn State down 13-3.
Hackenberg lobbed a pass to the back right corner of the end zone for wide receiver Chris Godwin. Godwin adjusted to the ball and got in position to make the grab over Waynes.
But it went off Godwin’s hands and Waynes pulled it in for an interception.
“Chris is going to make that play for us down the road and I think give them a lot of credit,” Hackenberg said. “That’s a very good defensive football team. That's a great team in general.”
Franklin called it a nice throw and a nice adjustment by Godwin, but Penn State couldn’t make what may have been a “momentum-swinging” play.
Instead, Michigan State rolled to victory as Hackenberg and the offense failed to produce. Franklin said his quarterback is frustrated by the struggles, but the coach also assigned plenty of blame to his receivers.
“We need to get more separation,” Franklin said. “You look in the passing game and the one-on-ones on the outside, we got to be able to get more separation either by running by people but also with our route running.”