Penn State Football

The Best, the Worst and the Ugliest: Penn State football’s 2015 season

Penn State’s Austin Johnson (99) recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown in the Nittany Lions’ 37-21 win over San Diego State back in September. Johnson declared for the NFL Draft after the Nittany Lions’ 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday.
Penn State’s Austin Johnson (99) recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown in the Nittany Lions’ 37-21 win over San Diego State back in September. Johnson declared for the NFL Draft after the Nittany Lions’ 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday. Centre Daily Times, file

Penn State’s season ended with a 7-6 record and on a failed comeback attempt against Georgia, capped by a looping, wobbling Hail Mary pass by backup quarterback Trace McSorley.

A half-hour later, the new season and new regime began as quarterback Christian Hackenberg announced his intent to enter the 2016 NFL Draft, forgoing his senior season.

While some may have been disappointed in his decision, many on social media voiced their gratitude for Hackenberg’s time at Penn State and their hopes for the year ahead with a new quarterback, new offensive coordinator and slew of young athletes — after all, the fans haven’t celebrated a win since Oct. 31.

The Nittany Lions’ 2015 season was full of ups and downs, goods and bads — and “uglies,” as often documented here.

To me, amid all the chaotic neutral in-between, there has been a best, a worst and an ugliest moment. And most surpisingly, they weren’t too hard to separate from the rest of the pack.

The Best

Austin Johnson declared his intent to enter the 2016 NFL Draft just minutes after Hackenberg, and it’s hard to imagine anything that helped wake up scouts more than his 71-yard scoop-and-score Big Man touchdown.

Here is the excerpt from my recount in the Centre Daily Times of Johnson’s first-ever touchdown, and best moment of Penn State’s 2015 season:

“Austin Johnson, a Penn State defensive lineman who is 325 pounds after a sandwich, wrapped his sizeable mitts around a ball fumbled by San Diego State quarterback Maxwell Smith after he was sack-and-stripped by ‘Crazy’ Carl Nassib.

Johnson evaded Aztec offensive lineman Pearce Slater (Slater was also one of the linemen who let Nassib drag down Smith). Slater, at 6-foot-7, 335 pounds, actually had a good angle at which to try to take down Johnson.

It’s just that Johnson outran him. And then, he carried his can 71 yards down the field to score.

‘I think people really underestimate how athletic he is, for his size,’ said linebacker Troy Reeder, who, grinning, described Johnson’s running style as ‘overweight fullback.’

‘He plays the one-technique, so you very rarely see him out in space, but he’s extremely athletic, and it was a great play that showed it.’

Reeder said he saw the ball hit the ground, and he broke toward it but was too far away. He saw Johnson pick it up and take off, and looked for players to block. After Johnson evaded Slater, there were none.

‘I was looking for skill players to block, because I knew nobody on the offensive line was going to be able to catch him,’ said Reeder. ‘We all know how athletic he is...

‘I knew he was gone.’

Johnson, who is normally quiet and reserved, albeit good-naturedly, around the media, couldn’t quite keep the ‘I’m going to act like it wasn’t a big deal but I am feelin’ myself”-grin off his face during post-game interviews. It was, after all, his first-ever touchdown.

‘I scooped it up, and I saw one man. I knew I had to outrun one man,’ he said. ‘So I did, and I started cruising from there...I was tired after, though...

‘When I was running, I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. It’s about to go down.’’

Safety Malik Golden jumped on Johnson in the end zone to celebrate.

‘I was just like, ‘You just ran 70 yards, how tired are you? Because you’re 300 pounds,’’ laughed Golden after the game. “It was awesome...I mean, I was in coverage, and I saw everybody stop. And then, everybody like, ran, like ‘What is going on?’ And the next thing I know, I see Austin sprinting. And I’m just like, ‘This can’t be possible.’”

The game ended in favor of the Nittany Lions, 37-21.

The Worst

I had never at the time, and still have never, seen a game like Penn State’s season-opening loss to Temple.

It came as a surprise to me, as I’d never really seen much of the Owls from my West-Coast home, and all of the players and coaches had spent the entire offseason touting how glaring problems on the offensive line would be fixed. I completely bought it, I’ll admit, of course not having seen last year’s unit in person.

Five sacks in, I realized just how big an issue Penn State could have on offense this year.

Not only was strong side linebacker Brandon Bell banged up quite a bit (he only just has returned to full health),but starting middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White also suffered a season-ending ACL tear. The offense looked lost, the offensive line (with hyped newcomer Paris Palmer at left tackle) gave up a record 10 sacks (three of which came within a series of five snaps), and the team scored just 10 points.

It was the beginning of the end of then-offensive coordinator John Donovan’s career at Penn State, and the sacks were a double-digit start to a season that would see Hackenberg take the 100th sack of his career in a loss to Michigan.

The Ugliest

To this day, I disagree with head coach James Franklin’s decision to leave Hackenberg in through the entirety of a blowout loss to then-No. 1 Ohio State.

Penn State was down four touchdowns in the fourth quarter against the Buckeyes, Hackenberg was limping and gimping around the field, and hardly had any protection against Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington and the rest of Ohio State’s fearsome defensive front.

Still, there was Hackenberg, taking lick after lick. He said in the weeks after the game that he didn’t want to come out, but at that point in a blowout loss the coach has to make the decision for the health and safety of his quarterback, who’d already taken a couple dozen sacks in the weeks prior.

Franklin was asked to explain his decision a few times, and ultimately said he didn’t want to look like he was throwing in the towel by putting in McSorley.

“I think you guys are going to see that over time, that our staff and our players, and me specifically, are really, really competitive,” he said. “And I think it’s hard to put your backups in the game before the game is over, it’s almost like waving a white flag. And that’s not who I am, or who we will be. We’re going to fight until the last play of the game.

“What I’m telling you is, it’s hard, as a competitor, to say ‘I’m going to put the backups in at this point in the game and wave the white flag.’ That’s not who I am, or ever really will be, but I also understand, I get what people are saying.”

It was an underlying and unconfirmed rumor all season that Hackenberg and Franklin didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on many matters, and after Saturday’s announcement that the quarterback had decided to turn pro, he extended a long set of thank-you’s to his former coaches, including Bill O’Brien, Donovan and quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne, the fans, the media and even two members of Penn State’s media relations department…

… But not to Franklin.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue

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