Penn State Football

Penn State football: Travis Johnson’s mid-season report card for Nittany Lions

Penn State's Mike Hull leads a defense that is keeping things together through the first half of the season for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State's Mike Hull leads a defense that is keeping things together through the first half of the season for the Nittany Lions. CDT file photo

At the midpoint of the season, Penn State’s football team is idle, resting up for the second half.

It’s been an up and down first half for the Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) who will come off their second bye week with a two-game losing streak. They’ll continue conference play against Ohio State after the Buckeyes demolished Rutgers 56-17.

Penn State’s defense has largely carried play for Penn State while the offense has been inconsistent and ineffective at times. The Nittany Lions still have an outside chance at playing for the Big Ten championship but they’ll have to make a big turnaround against East Division leader Ohio State to do so.

A regular season finale against Michigan State (6-1, 3-0) also looms but so does a critical contest with fellow East Division hopeful Maryland (5-2, 2-1). Right now, no game is a “gimme” for the Nittany Lions looking to rebound.

Offensive Line

Nearly all of Penn State’s offensive struggles begin and end here. Up front, the Nittany Lions haven’t made much progress and the offensive line still appears to be out of sync. Guards Brian Gaia and Brendan Mahon, center Angelo Mangiro and right tackle Andrew Nelson continue to struggle in their first years as starters. Left tackle Donovan Smith has been slowed by nagging ailments and hasn’t played great either. An inability to run the football has dogged this group all season as evidenced by their conference-worst 93 rushing yards per game. And that average was heavily aided by a 228-yard performance against lowly Massachusetts. What is more concerning is Penn State’s inability to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He’s been sacked 20 times in just six games. Communication and coordination have been problems with this group as they’ve run into each other and even blocked each other out of plays at times this season. Grade: D-

Quarterbacks

Hackenberg’s play has undoubtedly been hampered by the shaky blocking in front of him. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to think the hits he’s taking every game are starting to add up. Hackenberg’s mechanics haven’t been the best the last three games and he’s completed 55 percent of his throws in that time. The strong-armed sophomore has thrown just five touchdowns at the midpoint where he had 11 last season. Hackenberg has made a few big throws this season and is plenty capable of lifting Penn State’s offense to new heights if protected. But he hasn’t been and his tendency to hold onto the ball in order to try throws down the field has caused him to take even more hits. Checkdowns — like running backs out of the backfield — have been open but Hackenberg has kept his eyes downfield. Hackenberg’s interception total of seven is just three shy of his 12-game total from last season. D.J. Crook played a few serviceable series against UMass. Grade: C

Running Backs

Halfway through the season no Penn State back has reached 100 yards rushing in a game. It’s a major concern especially considering the depth and skill Penn State has at the position. Bill Belton has been Penn State’s most-used back and has continued to excel in pass protection. He leads Penn State with 258 yards on 63 carries. Belton and Zach Zwinak both have three touchdowns. Zwinak hasn’t been able to get anything going behind a sluggish offensive line. He’s had a few vintage Zwinak carries this season where he’s carried defenders along with him but he hasn’t gotten as many opportunities as Belton and hasn’t been able to shake first contact for most of the season. Akeel Lynch may actually be the best option for Penn State right now as his North-South quickness has been on display for most of his 23 carries. His size allows him to move piles, too. Belton has been a weapon out of the backfield and he’s been open plenty. Penn State needs to get him the ball in the passing game. Grade: C

Wide Receivers

DaeSean Hamilton has arguably been the offense’s Most Valuable Player to this point. He’s made a few spectacular grabs and has been consistent throughout the first half. He leads the team with 43 catches for 560 yards but has scored just once. Hamilton has been a factor in every area on the field. Penn State coaches have worked to get him the ball in the open field with short passes, have used him to the outside on intermediate routes and have sent him deep where he’s hauled in jump balls. Geno Lewis is right behind him with 32 catches for 512 yards and a touchdown. Lewis’ catch total would be higher but he’s dropped a few passes — at least one in every game. His playing time being cut should be a concern as Lewis is a physical receiver, who is good in the clutch. Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall have played a lot for true freshmen but have largely looked like true freshman doing so. They haven’t gotten much separation and have combined for 13 catches and 122 yards. Grade: B

Tight Ends

Penn State’s tight ends haven’t helped much in the run game and have missed blocks in pass protection as well. Jesse James has been the only consistent receiving threat out of this group and leads Penn State’s tight ends with 18 catches for 203 yards and two touchdowns. Kyle Carter has yet to reestablish himself as the sure-handed receiver he looked like in 2012 and drops have limited his stat line of seven catches for 70 yards. Mike Gesicki has made use of the snaps he’s earned in the wake of Adam Breneman’s season-ending injury and Gesicki has six catches for 43 yards. Brent Wilkerson hasn’t been much of a factor. Both of his catches — one for a touchdown — came in mop-up time with Crook at quarterback. Grade: C

Defensive Line

Anthony Zettel has been on fire and he’s benefitted from playing next to the always-solid Austin Johnson. Zettel has been an offense-wrecker and his seven tackles for loss lead the team. He’s got three sacks and is tied with a resurgent Deion Barnes for the team lead in that category. Johnson doesn’t have a dominant stat line but he’s done his job well, occupying offensive lineman and forcing them backward to make room for the linebackers to clean plays up. C.J. Olaniyan has also played solidly. The depth up front for Penn State has helped, too. Parker Cothren has emerged as a physical tackle while Tarow Barney, Carl Nassib and Brad Bars have played well in relief roles. Grade: A

Linebackers

Mike Hull has been the defense’s MVP and has 64 tackles. His 10-plus tackles per game average is among the national leaders. Meanwhile, Hull also has two sacks and a forced fumble. He’s made use of Bob Shoop’s aggressive schemes as have Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell. Wartman’s responsibilities have expanded and he’s seen more of a coverage role. Bell has been the unit’s most effective blitzer at times and has two and a half tackles for loss and a sack. He’s also got an interception. There isn’t much depth here, however. The linebackers struggled to defend against Northwestern with Wartman out with an injury. Gary Wooten, Von Walker and Jason Cabinda have all played as reserves with Cabinda having a pretty solid outing against the Wildcats. Grade: B

Secondary

Penn State’s pass defense has been pretty solid. Although the Nittany Lions are allowing a middle-of-the-pack 222.5 passing yards per game, they’ve allowed a league-low three touchdown passes. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas have brought a lot to the defense as both have played multiple positions. Amos has primarily lined up at safety but has also been a factor as the team’s star backer on passing downs. Lucas has played the field and boundary corners and also lined up as a nickel back on slot receivers. Trevor Williams has put most of his 2013 struggles behind him and has been pretty consistent on the outside. Ryan Keiser made an un-Keiserlike play against Michigan when he waited for an interception rather than attacking the ball. It ended up as a touchdown pass for the Wolverines. For the most part, this group hasn’t had those sort of hiccups. Amos and Williams each have two picks while Keiser has one. Grant Haley, Christian Campbell and Malik Golden have all contributed as depth options. Grade: B

Special Teams

Sam Ficken continues to kick well and his only two field goal misses have been blocked. He hit a clutch kick in the season opener to send Penn State to a win in Ireland and has hit two kicks from a long of 42 yards so far. He’s improved his kickoffs and has driven more into the end zone for touchbacks. Penn State’s return units and punting team have plenty of room for improvement, however. Chris Gulla is averaging a Big Ten-worst 37.2 yards per punt and the Nittany Lions have returned just nine punts for 68 yards. Haley has had a few nice returns on kickoffs but has yet to break free. Grade: C-

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