Penn State Football

Penn State football: Concern over inability to protect Hackenberg growing

Penn State's Christian Hackenberg (14) was under pressure all night long in the Nittany Lions’ 18-13 loss to Michigan on Saturday.
Penn State's Christian Hackenberg (14) was under pressure all night long in the Nittany Lions’ 18-13 loss to Michigan on Saturday. CDT photo

James Franklin is worried about Christian Hackenberg.

He has been since Week 3 when Hackenberg took a beating — five sacks in Piscataway, N.J. — but still managed to lift Penn State to a win. Franklin’s concern has grown with each and every hit his quarterback has taken since — 12 in the last three games capped by six in an 18-13 loss to Michigan on Saturday.

That’s not counting the blows Hackenberg has taken after he’s thrown the ball behind Penn State’s shaky, often-permeable offensive line that has allowed 20 sacks so far. The 19-year-old Hackenberg was sacked 21 times all of last season.

Franklin’s concern was easy to measure following Penn State’s loss Saturday. He mentioned his quarterback’s safety and the urgent need to protect his health 11 times in just over seven minutes. It almost sounded like a scratched CD and you’re helpless to hit the “next” button because you’re across the room, occupied with another task.

Hackenberg, who appeared to hurt his left elbow and returned to the game with a protective sleeve on it, was not available to reporters after the game.

“I think he’s frustrated,” Franklin said. “Obviously he’s had some success since he’s been here at Penn State. And he’s getting way too many pressures and taking way too many hits. And when those things happen, that’s where you really have to be mentally tough and you have to be physically tough and you’ve got to make sure that you’re not starting to fall into bad habits. And that’s easier said than done.”

So is improving up front. Franklin said it needs to happen fast and a second bye week is again “coming at the right time” for the Nittany Lions. Their offensive linemen primarily but tight ends and running backs too have to make big strides in pass protection.

Senior linebacker Mike Hull knows the hits are adding up. He’s played football his entire life with the mindset that they eventually will and they should. That’s why his and other defenders’ primary goal is to hit, hurry and bother opposing quarterbacks every chance they get.

“It weighs on him eventually throughout the season,” Hull said. “We worry about it but it’s not something that’s going to get fixed overnight.”

With recent history as evidence, Hull’s proclamation is probably a realistic one. But with a game against Ohio State looming in two weeks, Penn State players know they need to make a miraculous turnaround as the Buckeyes will send a vicious pass rush at Hackenberg.

“We have to do a better job of protecting him,” Belton said. “The line will continue to get better but it has to happen now. We can’t just keep saying, ‘We’re going to get better’ and nothing’s improving. We have to get better and protect Hack.”

The Good

Penn State’s defense — ranked fifth nationally in scoring and total defense — continued its sturdy play.

And it seems like Penn State defenders will keep the team in games no matter how sluggish and ineffective the offense may be. That was the case Saturday in a one possession game where Penn State’s offense sputtered to just 60 yards on 35 plays.

“I thought our defense played solid,” Franklin said. “We were able to get off the field on a bunch of third-and-long situations which was valuable. They made some plays when they had to.”

Michigan converted just six of 15 third downs and only two of seven third-and-long situations.

Hull insisted he and the rest of his defensive partners haven’t lost faith in the offense. In fact, Hull said the defense could improve by creating more turnovers, thus giving Penn State’s offense more chances. Penn State’s defense has two fumble recoveries and seven interceptions.

Defensive end C.J. Olaniyan echoed Hull’s sentiments. He’s hoping patience pays off and has faith that a unit that has scored a Big Ten worst 13 touchdowns will get it going.

“I wouldn’t say it’s frustration toward the offense,” Olaniyan said. “We play this game as a whole, as one team. There’s going to be a time this year where the offense is going to help us out. We know as a defense every time we go out there we have to try and dominate and we know the offense is going to have our back just like we have their back.”

The Bad

Penn State’s sideline seemed out of whack at certain points throughout the game and a handful of calls were baffling.

Instead of using Hackenberg — a strong-armed thrower adept at throwing into tight windows — on a second-and-goal from Michigan’s 11, offensive coordinator John Donovan opted to use Belton to throw the ball out of the Wildcat formation. It fell incomplete and Penn State settled for a field goal after Hackenberg was sacked on third down.

A fake punt in the third quarter was poorly designed and executed. Akeel Lynch, who lined up as a protector on the play, waved his left arm frantically trying to signal Grant Haley, about five yards to his left, in motion. Before Haley even started running, Michigan linebacker Allen Gant saw Lynch’s gesture and was already pointing to the left side of Penn State’s flank where Jesse James, not a typical gunner, was lined up tight. Haley took the handoff and was swarmed for a loss of three yards.

“Obviously you’d like to have that one back,” Franklin said.

Timeout management was a problem too. Penn State had to burn one on its second drive when Franklin said he called for an offensive play on fourth-and-2 from the Michigan 15. Seconds later, after the offense ran onto the field, Penn State used the timeout to move its field goal unit out instead.

The Ugly

The punting couldn’t be much worse than last season when Penn State finished 117th out of 125 teams could it?

So far it has been.

Penn State is currently ranked 126th out of 128 FBS teams with a 35.9-yard average per kick. That is nearly two yards less than last season. So far, freshmen Chris Gulla and Danny Pasquariello have shown plenty of room for improvement. Gulla punted five times against Michigan including 26- and 29-yarders that set Michigan up in Penn State territory.

Franklin said his team’s inability to punt the ball well led to his calling of the fake punt in the third quarter.

Day to Remember

Hull continues to be the primary cog of Penn State’s defensive engine.

The senior linebacker led the team again with 11 tackles and made a team-best two for losses. He also broke up a pass and notched a sack. His play of the game — Hull recovered the onside kick that would’ve kept Penn State’s chance for a win alive — was nullified by a missed offside call on the kick.

Jesse Della Valle was flagged but was actually two yards behind the line — legal positioning — when Sam Ficken kicked the ball.

Day to Forget

Again, it is hard to single any one player out on the offensive line and Penn State’s tight ends have to be included here.

Blocking across the entire front line must improve. Six sacks allowed is overkill on your quarterback and the other hits and pressure Hackenberg was forced to absorb will take their toll eventually. Hackenberg lost 34 yards on 10 carries.

Key Play

You Already Forgot

Michigan third-stringer Russell Bellomy’s second pass of this season was nearly a disaster.

On first down from Penn State’s 46, Bellomy telegraphed a short throw to his left where running back Dennis Norfleet waited. Having seen the play on film, Hull anticipated how it would unfold and decided against blitzing. At the snap he moved into position and nearly snagged Bellomy’s pass with nothing but empty field in front of him. A pick-six there would’ve broken a 13-13 tie and could’ve been the momentum boost Penn State needed to hold on heading into the fourth quarter.

Hidden Stat That Matters

Being able to establish a running game requires some sort of proficiency at running the ball on first down to begin possessions. The Nittany Lions averaged just 1.4 yards per carry on 12 first-down carries, however.