Zach Zwinak slowly rose from his seat on Penn State’s heated sideline bench, tucked his crutches under both arms and slowly rocked forward.
With his left foot in a boot and elevated off the frozen ground, the once bruising running back paused to pull his puffy winter gloves a bit tighter. On Senior Day, Zwinak wore them to keep his hands warm. Usually, they’d much thinner, fitted with tacky palms to help him hold onto the football.
Brian Gaia quietly patted Zwinak on the back, then continued with the rest of the team toward the end zone to sing Penn State’s alma mater. Zwinak stopped again. He couldn’t move that quick on crutches. Bill Belton — wearing Zwinak’s usually grass stained, ripped up No. 28 — stood from the bench slowly, too. He walked gingerly, his face completely obscured by a cold weather mask, his left hand appeared to be bandaged.
Then there was safety Ryan Keiser who underwent numerous operations to repair a torn bowel suffered the same week Zwinak was hurt. Looking much thinner than his playing weight of nearly 200 pounds, Keiser emerged slowly from the tunnel during Senior Day introductions and got a gentle hug from head coach James Franklin, then walked back through it just as slowly.
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To see three of Penn State’s top seniors in their current conditions — Zwinak still hobbled from a lower leg injury suffered on Oct. 25, Belton completely clean, not a grass stain on him as injuries prevented him from touching the ball more than twice, and Keiser taking care to not bump into anyone as he walked back through the tunnel, Michigan State’s 34-10 scoreline still burning on the scoreboard — it said plenty about Penn State’s 2014 regular season.
It hurt for those with a hand in it.
It was a season of imbalance and head-scratching polarity. One of offensive ineptitude and defensive excellence.
It was one of close calls and near misses that will leave Penn State players to think, at least for a while, what could’ve been. Close games that could’ve been won — at Michigan and Illinois and against Ohio State — were lost. On the other hand, close games that were won — in Ireland against Central Florida, at Rutgers and Indiana — weren’t cinched up until very late.
It’s the primary negative side effect of inexperience. They expected something like this to a degree.
“In a way, I came into the season with a ‘whatever happens, happens’ type of mentality,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. “And whether it’s good or it’s bad, we’re going to take it with a grain of salt and we’re going to continue to get better from it and build off of it. That’s been good. I think we’ve had a lot of guys, whether we had a ton of success or we didn’t have a lot of it that week, we came back the next week and worked harder. I think that’s the testament again to the type of kids that we have on this team.”
And Penn State will get a lot of them back. The Nittany Lions’ senior class is relatively small at 17 players.
At one point this season Penn State was relying on a total of nine true freshman scholarship players with only eight senior scholarship players available due to injuries.
Hackenberg could’ve spoke in negative tones afterward. He didn’t.
Instead, he expressed gratitude. Hackenberg called his disappointing sophomore season that saw him complete just 54 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards with 15 interceptions and just eight touchdowns, “the best thing that could’ve happened.”
“It’s an experience,” Hackenberg said. “Some people don’t go through that type of adversity their entire college career. Some guys, even in their careers past that whether it be in the NFL or in the business world. So I think it’s just one of those things you can take away and apply to every facet of life and it’s one thing I’m extremely grateful for.”
And despite a report early last week in which Hackenberg’s dad Erick didn’t deny that Hackenberg would consider transferring out of Penn State, the quarterback insisted he plans to stay at Penn State.
“This is where I’m at, this is where I want to be,” Hackenberg said. “This is the team that I love, the guys that I love, the university I love to be at. I wouldn’t rather be at anywhere else.”
Nyeem Wartman appeared fine after throwing his body around like a heat-seeking missile for most of the game.
Wartman delivered a handful of demolishing tackles that pumped up the crowd and offered more of glimpse at the young linebacker’s potential. He chipped in with eight tackles, one for a loss. His jarring hits drew praise from his teammates, especially one on Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook in the first quarter when Cook scrambled for three yards but couldn’t give himself up with a slide before Wartman teed off.
“I saw a few of them,” defensive tackle Anthony Zettel said. “Nyeem’s one of those big linebackers, a lot of strength, speed, has it all. Stays low, pad level, everything. When he hits people they know they got hit. There’s a lot of noise and it builds the momentum up. He’s a game-changer.”
Senior team captain Mike Hull had a different perspective of Wartman’s play as Hull lined up farther away from him than usual. Injuries to Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda forced the coaches to move Hull to the outside and Gary Wooten to the middle.
Hull said he thought Wooten “played well” and raved over Wartman’s play and his ceiling.
“He played a really good game today,” Hull said. “I saw him making a lot of plays and that’s encouraging. He’s going to be the next guy that’s going to kind of carry the torch. He’s had the most experience and I think he’s going to do really well for us.”
The comments meant a lot to Wartman who has tried to style his preparation after Hull.
“It means a lot because I fully respect Mike,” Wartman said. “He’s a role model for me. Ever since I came here Mike Hull’s been that guy that’s worked hard so he’s kind of molded me to work harder.”
The Penn State passing game’s exciting start in Ireland — Hackenberg finished with 454 yards on 32 of 47 passing with 11 and eight completions to DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis respectively — ended the regular season on a down note. And it didn’t happen suddenly, rather it’s been a long slide into ineffectiveness for the Nittany Lion air game.
Hackenberg finished with a completion percentage below 50 percent for the fifth straight time and Hamilton and Lewis went largely unnoticed against a strong Michigan State secondary.
Penn State hasn’t been able to move the chains with deep or even intermediate throws. Hackenberg and his targets succeeded on just 18 of 54 third-down pass attempts, or on 33 percent of their tries, over the last five games. In those situations Hackenberg was sacked five times and intercepted once.
It’s hard to maintain stability when you can’t keep your quarterback upright, of course. Hackenberg ended the regular season with 42 sacks, the most any one Penn State quarterback has taken in a season. That’s not counting the other hits and knockdowns he’s suffered. While they don’t go down as sacks, the various hits including vicious roughing the passer calls against Illinois when Ralph Cooper popped Hackenberg in the chest and when Joey Bosa ripped his helmet off against Ohio State, take their toll too.
Maybe this portion should be dubbed ‘The Lucky?’ Hackenberg is still standing and perhaps miraculously, didn’t miss any time despite the constant besiegement.
The Bright Side
Penn State will finally get back to a bowl game and the Nittany Lions have earned some much-needed practice time for its young roster in the process.
“Those practices will be valuable in terms of getting ready for our bowl opponent but also for building for our future and development,” Franklin said.
In many ways, Penn State has already started building for the future. Nine true freshmen played with six of them starting at least one game and six more — defensive backs Christian Campbell, Grant Haley and Marcus Allen, receivers Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall and tight end Mike Gesicki — playing in nine or more games. In addition, 13 more first-year players got their first action including redshirt freshman wideout DaeSean Hamilton, offensive linemen Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon, defensive linemen Parker Cothren and Garrett Sickels, punter Chris Gulla and tight end Brent Wilkerson who all played in at least 11 games.
“It’s going to be huge for the young guys to get reps and experience,” Hull said. “It’s really gonna be their first taste of football after they’re settled in. The first time in camp, they’re just trying to figure things out. Now that they kind of know the defense, know what their role is, they’re going to really gain a lot from these 15 practices.”
Day To Remember
Zettel was all over the field again.
He made five tackles, three of them for losses and sacked Connor Cook once. In addition, he corralled his third career interception on an incredibly reflexive play in the second quarter.
Day To Forget
When you’re a kicker you only have so many opportunities to impact a game. Penn State’s Sam Ficken said he messed up on his first chance of the afternoon.
Ficken lined a wobbly kickoff that bounced short of R.J. Shelton who caught it off a hop and ran it back 90 yards as the coverage team had little time to set up. Ficken missed a tackle on the return, too. Later, the kicker who has made it from 54 yards in the rain and hit an 50-yard field goal earlier this year, kicked the ball the same way to end Penn State’s opening drive with a 51-yard miss.
You Already Forgot
Cook lined up in the shotgun looking to convert a third-and-three from Michigan State’s 35-yard line, the Spartans up by 17.
With just just under 1:30 to play in the third quarter, center Jack Allen snapped the ball before Cook was ready for it. But the Spartan quarterback reacted nicely to avoid a complete disaster when he snagged the football out of the air and quickly settled in the pocket. He tossed to Aaron Burbridge for a gain of four to move the chains and keep his team’s possession going into the fourth quarter.
Michigan State would go on to punt but not before running eight more plays that ate 4:33 off the clock. Overall, with a snap over the quarterback’s head avoided, it turned into an 11-play sequence that burned 6:03 of game time, critical time considering Penn State trailed by three scores heading into the fourth quarter.
Hidden Stat that Matters
Thirty-seven percent — more than a third of Zettel’s tackles have come behind the line of scrimmage in his career including 42 percent of them this year.
Moving to the inside hasn’t hindered him, either. His eight sacks give him 16 in his three-year career, four more than Tamba Hali had in four years.
Penn State picked up a pair of recruits over the weekend.
Quarterback Jake Zembiec (Aquinas Institute, Rochester, N.Y.) verbally committed on Saturday and is the third prospect for the 2016 class to make the call. Listed at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds by 24-7 Sports, Zembiec is a pro-style, pocket-passer and is considered at four-star prospect by 24-7 Sports.
Cornerback Garrett Taylor, also a four-star prospect as rated by 24-7 Sports, committed to Penn State on Sunday. A member of the 2015 class, the St. Christopher’s School (Richmond, Va.) senior is the fourth defensive back in the current class and pushes the current number of players in the current group to 19.