Penn State Football

Column: Midseason musing find Saquon is ‘special,’ Hackenberg is ‘patient,’ Zettel is ‘motivating’

I think Anthony Zettel playing against San Diego State just days after losing his father to cancer is, on a personal level far-removed from the unbiased rules of being a beat writer, one of the most motivating things I’ve witnessed, writes Penn State beat writer Jourdan Rodrigue.
I think Anthony Zettel playing against San Diego State just days after losing his father to cancer is, on a personal level far-removed from the unbiased rules of being a beat writer, one of the most motivating things I’ve witnessed, writes Penn State beat writer Jourdan Rodrigue. CDT file photo

I think a lot of things, about my life and my next sandwich and my dog, but mostly I think about college football.

Now that Penn State, at 5-2, (2-1 in conference play) is halfway through the season, there’s a lot to think about.

I think this is the best defensive line I’ve ever seen, followed by a linebacker unit and secondary that has truly impressed. Remember the shakeup of the ‘backers when Nyeem Wartman-White, slated to fill in at the lofty ‘Mike’ role, went down with a knee injury against Temple? Jason Cabinda was shifted over, and essentially one quarter into his first start at the position, and in speaking to him after, it became clear he was born for the role, both physically and mentally. I think it’s pretty dang cool when those things happen; and to good people, as Cabinda truly is.

I think “Crazy” Carl Nassib has been ready for this season, after years spent on the second and third strings of teams, years spent becoming comfortable with his own self-expressed “weirdness,” for his entire life. I also think Nassib hasn’t simply “exploded” onto the scene to lead the nation with 11 1/2 sacks in seven games and 15 1/2 tackles for loss. He was there the whole time, in the weight room and in his own head, working harder than everybody else. He just needed a shot.

I think that Austin Johnson’s big-man-rumble for 70 yards into the end zone against San Diego State was one of the best things I’ve seen in college football, based on merit and hilarity alone, and later, reflecting upon that game, I think he saved Penn State’s blue-and-white behind by placing a 325-pound band-aid over what had, prior to the score, been a dismal offensive showing.

I think Anthony Zettel playing against San Diego State just days after losing his father to cancer is, on a personal level far-removed from the unbiased rules of being a beat writer, one of the most motivating things I’ve witnessed. Scared to death. Saddled up anyway, as Clint Eastwood says.

I think a No. 111-ranked total offense, with the level of athleticism of the players within it, is pitiful on paper, and probably quite frustrating internally. I think a quarterback who completes an average of 13.4 passes on 25.3 attempts per game, despite proving two years prior that he is capable of much more, is like taking a racehorse, hitching it to a wooden cart, and walking it down the street — no matter how many turnovers the staff thinks they have saved in the process. I think cautious football is no fun.

I think I have not seen a level of patience out of anyone, ever, that Christian Hackenberg has displayed through these seven games. He plays each week, and whether he plays poorly or well, whether he’s gotten taken down 10 times or not at all, he sits up in his chair or speaks up via teleconference, and owns it. I think I, and the rest of the people who write about him, would probably understand if one day, he just chose not to show up. I also think that his own nature wouldn’t allow him to do so.

I think Saquon Barkley, and his 585 rushing yards in just five games and bulldozer-meets-ballet style, is special. Like, do-not-blink-when-he-has-the-ball-because-you-are-lucky-to-see-a-talent-like-this-and-may-not-again-in-this-life, special.

I think head coach James Franklin lauding his own competitiveness as a reason to keep a player like that, fresh off an injury that sat him for two weeks, in a game until the end, down four touchdowns against the No. 1 team in the country, is ridiculous. I also recognize that it’s a bit unfair of me to think that, as I of course was not down there on the sideline undoubtedly listening to Barkley tell Franklin that he was OK to stay in.

I think nobody notices punters or kickers unless they weigh 259 pounds, or start to make big mistakes. I think more attention should be paid to specialists universally, because in college football, field position can mean everything. I think Penn State’s lack of a specific kicking coach has hurt it more than it has helped in these last two years.

I think we haven’t truly been able to see what Penn State can or cannot do so far.

It’s pretty late in the season to be saying this; usually a team’s true test comes much earlier, after the opening opponents, picked to build the home team’s confidence, are toppled easily.

But Penn State has had a strength of schedule that, other than a now 7-0 Temple (who really saw that coming, aside from Temple?), has not boasted fair tests of skill. No, Rutgers, without its top receiver, string of suspended players and a head coach to boot, was not a true test. No, Indiana, with its crippled quarterbacks and absent star running back, was not a test. No, visiting No. 1 Ohio State, with its loaded offense and packed, blacked-out house and 19-game win streak, was not a true test.

I think how the team performs against Maryland will show who these Nittany Lions are on offense. I think the defense has itself pretty much figured out. The Terps have a full roster with plenty of options on offense, despite using an interim head coach after Randy Edsall was unceremoniously fired. They also have a defense just mediocre enough to allow Penn State’s own offense to show what it could be made of, if given the chance.

I think it’s sort of fitting, too, that, week to week, time spent trying to dissect and interpret coach-speak and vague prognosis, vaguer talk of “internal” conversations and the like, has not really revealed much about this team and its directional progress, be it forward or backward.

Is Penn State simply playing reactionary, big-picture football for now, biding its time as a slowly-developing cog, in turn developing the young athletes within it by using the older as a whetstone on which to sharpen them, all a part of the “master plan” machine, or is the “1-0 each week” mentality all-consuming?

There are no true specifics outlined. That’s fine; it’s the prerogative of those running the program to share them as they wish. But the vagueness is mirrored, in turn, in the non-cohesive offensive play shown by Penn State throughout the first half of the season.

But, I also think an identity takes time, especially one that must be built in the wake of a truly awful and explosive moment in Penn State’s history, and the dark, ashy fallout that followed it.

I think I don’t know yet whether Franklin is the right coach to build that identity. I think knowing that takes more time than a season-and-a-half of football shows. I think he’s still building his own identity within the program. I think we’re going to start to see what it is.

I think, now, I’ll go back to being a beat writer without an opinion.

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