Penn State barely — again, barely — fended off Army West Point on a rainy, cold Saturday in Beaver Stadium, winning 20-14 behind a touchdown apiece from tight end Mike Gesicki and freshman running back Nick Scott, as well as two field goals from kicker Joey Julius.
A win, as head coach James Franklin made sure to remind media post game, is a win, no matter how it looks. Penn State, he said, is 1-0 this week.
Penn State’s defense was largely responsible throughout for bailing out the offense. Too often this season, that has been the case. Army fumbled the ball seven times, and three were recovered by Penn State. Just one was turned into a Nittany Lions’ touchdown and one resulted in a field goal for a total of 10 points off turnovers throughout.
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Against Army, the Nittany Lions were missing their two top backs, in Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch, who have combined for over 500 rushing yards and five touchdowns this year. Prior to Saturday’s game, without the top two backs, Penn State had 133 yards rushing with two touchdowns (which came from receivers on jet sweep handoffs), and averaged 1.2 yards per carry.
And without them, Penn State’s offense lacks an identity. Unless, of course, that identity is to rely on the defense.
One of the most telling signs of how badly the offense struggles without the “1-2 punch” of their top backs on the field, came in the first half. Or maybe, it was a sign of how much confidence the team lacks on offense without Barkley and Lynch.
Penn State had the ball on the Army 20-yard line. It was fourth down and three.
The Black Knights had previously allowed 294.5 yards rushing against them per game in four games, from teams like Eastern Michigan, Wake Forest and Fordham. They also ranked No. 116 in the country in fourth-down conversions allowed against them this season, and had won just one road game in their last 24.
Penn State, up by just seven points with 2:54 left in the half against a team they were projected to beat by three touchdowns, decided to kick.
Julius made the field goal, and the team headed into the locker room up 10-0.
After, Franklin had little comment on his offense.
“We have a long ways to go and I am not happy with where we’re at,” he said.
Penn State is now ranked No. 116 in the nation in total offense, out of 127 FBS teams, and averages 5.45 yards per play, with 13 touchdowns.
Note: The writer attended Army’s post game press conference in order to speak with quarterback A.J. Schurr for a column, which can be found on centredaily.com. Penn State press conference recounts come from videos taken by Centre Daily Times staffers, and transcripts of players and Franklin alike, courtesy of Centre Daily Times sports and Penn State Athletics.
• Quarterback Christian Hackenberg did take a nice shot down the field to Chris Godwin, who, stretched out, pulled down a “how-the-heck-did-he-catch-that” 49-yard grab. It was Hackenberg’s longest completion of the year.
“(Godwin) is just a really consistent guy in everything he does,” said Franklin. “In school, he’s consistent, in terms of his approach and work ethic, he’s consistent, we watch it on film, and we see it in practice every single day. You know when you throw the ball in his direction good things usually happen. You’re going to see him get more and more opportunities, but that’s just kind of who he is.”
• Gesicki, after several miscues so far this season, finally connected with Hackenberg for his first touchdown of the season, a 33-yarder. The score came on Gesicki’s birthday, to boot.
“It was great to see Mike Gesicki come out, on his birthday, and get a touchdown catch,” said Franklin.
• The defense played as consistently as they’ve been. As a unit, Penn State’s defense racked up 74 tackles, led by sophomore middle linebacker Jason Cabinda, who had a career-high 14 tackles. Cabinda also made the play of the game, in the fourth quarter, in which he sacked Schurr on fourth down to stop Army’s attempt at an upset drive.
“It was on us at that point, 20-14, if they scored a touchdown and kicked the extra point that’s basically the game there,” said Cabinda. “So I think it was awesome that was on us and the defense to get that stop, so our offense could run their format and run the clock out. Being able to get that stop on fourth down was just awesome.”
Carl Nassib also recorded his eighth sack of the season, and ranks No. 2 in the nation in sacks, as well as fifth in tackles for loss and forced fumbles.
Penn State’s defense ranks No. 3 in the nation in sacks.
• After a week spent lauding the improvement of the receiving corps, Penn State’s wideouts struggled to get open against an Army secondary that had previously allowed 1,047 passing yards by opposing offenses through four games.
On at least four separate occasions, Hackenberg looked to throw deep, but found no receiver open and completed just 10 passes on 19 attempts. Four of those incompletions were drops.
“We got to be better, we got to get better in all of those areas there’s no doubt about it,” Franklin said. “I think we have to throw the ball more consistently and take some more shots to give those guys opportunities.”
Franklin was asked about separation issues with his receivers.
“Whether they’re getting separation or not, I’ll check the film to see that, but you look at Chris Godwin,” he said, “he’s coming down with contested catches and making them with people on his back. So whether he gets separation and runs away from people or whether he makes contested catches, the most important thing is that when you have an opportunity to make a play, he makes it.”
Except, there are at least four other options at wideout who did not, or could not, or did not get a glance their way.
• Center Angelo Mangiro went down with what appeared to be a lower body injury in the second half, and limped off the field after being attended to by trainers. He got up, and walked off under his own power, and then went to the locker room as backup center Wendy Laurent took his place.
Mangiro is the most experienced of any player on the still-developing offensive line. If he does not return as Penn State’s schedule of Big Ten opponents approaches, the offense will struggle.
• Punter Chris Gulla struggled for the second week in a row.
Gulla averaged just 32 yards per punt. His first two punts, both in the first quarter, combined for just 25 yards, and one went for 11 yards and out-of-bounds. He finished with five punts for 160 yards, and just one landed inside the 20-yard line. Gulla also had to leave the game after taking a hard hit in the second half, and headed to the locker room with trainers.
Penn State ranks No. 97 in the country in net punting, with an average of 35.3 yards per punt.
• Army finished the game with 293 yards on offense to Penn State’s 264.
This total includes just one pass on one attempt from Schurr, who, by the way, is Army’s backup quarterback, for 32 yards, and 261 rushing yards.
Army’s total offense eclipsed Penn State’s in the third quarter. With 5:36 left in the period, the Black Knights had 141 yards to the Nittany Lions’ 139, after three of Army’s six fumbles to that point were recovered by Penn State in the first half. Army fumbled the ball seven times throughout, but still finished with 17 first downs to Penn State’s 12.
Hackenberg averaged 2.5 completions per quarter. Penn State’s rushing attack, featuring Scott and freshmen Jonathan Thomas and Mark Allen, finished the game with an average of 3.2 yards per carry.
TV station set
Next week’s matchup with Indiana will appear on ESPN2.
The Hoosiers, who are coming off a 34-27 loss to Ohio State, will look to play spoilers on Penn State’s Homecoming.
Kickoff is set for noon.