Penn State Football

Walt Moody | Trying to gauge Lions a tough task

Penn State Jordan Lucas, left, and the Nittany Lion defense are looking for another big day on Saturday when they host Massachusetts at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State Jordan Lucas, left, and the Nittany Lion defense are looking for another big day on Saturday when they host Massachusetts at Beaver Stadium. CDT file photo

Three weeks into the season and it’s still tough to pass judgment on this Penn State football team.

Is it really good?

Is it just OK?

Is it really lucky?

Has it been the beneficiary of a weak schedule?

Or maybe a combination of the above?

The bottom line is that entering Saturday afternoon’s game against Massachusetts, the Nittany Lions are 3-0.

James Franklin is on the verge becoming the first rookie coach since Dick Harlow in 1915 to win his first four games at Penn State.

His team is on the brink of rejoining the Top 25 and is being thought of as a legitimate contender in the Big Ten’s Eastern Division. And thanks to deliverance from the NCAA’s sanctions, the Nittany Lions will be bowl eligible with three more wins.

Sounds great, right?

And yet, they’re two Christian Hackenberg plays — a fourth-down scramble against Central Florida and a rainbow threaded into double coverage versus Rutgers — from being 1-2.

So what’s the answer?

We may have to wait a few more weeks to know.

From what we have seen so far, some things are pretty evident.

If you have a quarterback like Hackenberg and you’re in a close game, you always have a chance. He’s proved that twice already with late drives to beat Central Florida (26-24) and Rutgers (13-10).

It’s a good thing the sophomore put on some extra pounds since last fall because he’s shouldering a heavy load. Throwing behind an offensive line that to be kind you’d call “spotty,” Hackenberg has taken several big hits, but has gotten up and kept throwing.

After three games, he’s on pace to throw more than 500 times for more than 4,300 yards in the regular season. Those numbers would shatter the school marks of attempts (446) and yardage (3,266) set by Matt McGloin in 2012.

And while he has thrown five interceptions, he’s not alone in the Big Ten. Through three games, Big Ten starting quarterbacks have thrown 50 picks. That’s about twice as many as the SEC (26) and more than twice as many as the Big 12 (20) and Pac-12 (20).

It appears Hackenberg is going to have to keep chucking it up, since the offensive line has not proven in any game that is capable of opening any holes to run through. The Nittany Lions are 13th in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging less than 76 yards per game. That’s down almost 100 yards per game from last season’s average of 174.

The inefficiency of the line — and to a certain extent the way he has been used — has rendered Zack Zwinak, a career 2,000-yard rusher, basically useless so far. Zwinak, who had 11 100-yard rushing games the past two seasons, has just 24 carries and 69 yards so far this season.

Bill Belton, who gained more than 800 yards last season, hasn’t fared any better, averaging 2.6 yards per carry in his 34 attempts.

And maybe that’s the reason why Penn State has struggled to score.

Even with Hackenberg’s record pace, the Nittany Lions are 13th in the league, averaging just 20 points per game. And we’re talking about a bad league here. The Los Angeles Dodgers (17 runs) equaled or scored more than six of the conference’s 11 teams that were in action last Saturday.

Thanks to the Penn State defense, 20 points could be enough to win each game. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten, allowing just 12.3 points per contest.

The front seven has been stout. The Nittany Lions are giving up just 68 yards per game on the ground and are second in the conference with nine sacks.

Tackle Anthony Zettel leads the league with 2.33 tackles for loss per game and linebacker Mike Hull is third in the league, averaging 10.3 tackles. End Deion Barnes looks to be over the sophomore jinx and playing like an all-Big Ten candidate.

The secondary came up with five interceptions last week against Rutgers (and still Penn State needed a late touchdown to break into double figures against the Scarlet Knights).

Certainly, the schedule has worked out for the Nittany Lions.

You certainly don’t expect UMass (0-3 this season and 2-22 in the previous two seasons) to put up much of a fight.

Then comes Northwestern (0-2), which has been a train wreck thus far. Pat Fitzgerald has been “embarrassed” by his team.

Certainly 5-0 is not out of the question, heading into games at Michigan (where Brady Hoke is fighting for his job) and at home against No. 23 Ohio State, one of only two ranked teams on the Penn State schedule.

Those two games may truly be where we find out where the Nittany Lions stand in the grand scheme of the Big Ten.

If not, Maryland (which gave West Virginia a tussle), Indiana, Temple, Illinois and No. 11 Michigan State will close out the season. The Spartans obviously are the big test there.

And this conference race is wide open because the Big Ten has been so bad. The league is 1-10 against the other four of the Big 5 power conferences (ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12). Big Ten teams are just barely above .500 (5-3) against the MAC.

Lot of questions there, too.

Can’t wait for the answers.