Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan admitted to being frustrated with a subpar season.
Donovan, who spoke to the media on Saturday for the first time since before the season opener, looked back on his unit’s performance and saw a lack of execution. The Nittany Lions, Donovan said, didn’t make enough big plays. And Donovan lamented there were opportunities for the offense to win two more games for the team.
Donovan is hoping the frustration from Penn State’s year as the Big Ten’s worst offense serves as motivation for the future.
“When you have to go through tough times and tough experiences, you gotta fight through it,” Donovan said. “You gotta fight through it. And we had fight through some stuff this year, and that’s the bottom line.
“And when you’re going to be able to draw from those experiences and what not as you move forward, the competitive guy in you is going to want to work to get the good experiences in and that’s going to happen next year.”
But the highlights were few and far between for the Penn State offense in a 2014 season that concludes in the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College (7-5) at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 27.
The Nittany Lions (6-6) ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring (19.8 points per game) and total offense (325.5), and they ranked 112th in scoring and 114th out of 125 teams in the country, respectively. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg endured a tough sophomore campaign, throwing for just eight touchdowns and 15 interceptions while completing 54.4 percent of his passes. The Penn State rushing attack was the worst in the conference and among the worst in the nation, accounting for just 103.6 yards per game.
Donovan was criticized throughout the year for the team’s offensive woes.
“It’s like a buddy of mine in coaching says everyone can do your job better than you can,” Donovan said.
Running back Akeel Lynch expressed confidence in Donovan.
“We love to follow him because he’s a players’ coach,” Lynch said. “He also worries about what’s going on off the field.”
On the field, the offense got off to a strong start in a season-opening 26-24 win over Central Florida.
Hackenberg threw for a program-record 454 yards that day, but the Nittany Lions struggled to hit on big plays the rest of the season.
“You make those plays, it’s a whole different story,” Donovan said. “Whole different story. And you guys may or may not have seen it, but we see and we recognize them and you just make this, the whole game changes. And we just didn’t make as many plays for one reason or another.”
Donovan boiled down the offensive issues to the lack of a playmaker.
At Vanderbilt, Donovan could scheme around star wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who finished his career as the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leader in receptions (262) and receiving yards (3,759). Matthews hauled in 112 passes last season before being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round of the NFL Draft.
“That was easy to figure out,” Donovan said.
Penn State lost its own talented wide receiver to the NFL in Allen Robinson. Robinson was picked by the Jacksonville Jaguars after being named the Big Ten Receiver of the Year two years in a row. He caught 97 passes for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton led Penn State with 75 catches for 848 yards this year, but he had just one touchdown reception.
“Long story short, we don’t have a true exceptional veteran difference maker to try to get him the ball,” Donovan said. “So we’ve gotta do whatever we have to do per defense, per week, wherever we’re healthy or whoever is playing and go from there.”
Without Robinson and a reliable offensive line, Hackenberg took a step back.
He threw 12 fewer touchdowns and was sacked 42 times this season.
The quarterback lost his cool on the sidelines at times as the unit struggled.
“He’s just a competitive guy that gets his juices flowing,” Donovan said. “He can get frustrated at times. We get it. There’s certain ways you’ve got to handle yourself because you know the camera’s on you or whatever, the team’s looking at you and you need to be positive when you need to be positive and you can’t always show frustration.
“But there’s times where, hey, you gotta be who you are and show your emotions, but there are times where you’ve got to understand that you’ve got to keep it in check and handle them, too. And he’s learning that. And he will, he’ll just get better.”
Donovan expects his unit will be better after a humbling season, too.