With four games under its belt and 3-1 record to show for it, Penn State enters Big Ten play this Saturday on the road against Indiana. It’s time to grade Penn State’s performance through its nonconference schedule. Here’s our evaluation:
Consistency is the name of the game when it comes to being a successful signal caller, and true freshman Christian Hackenberg’s lack of that is the only thing keeping this 18-year-old out of the A range. In his first three games, Hackenberg posted fantastic numbers, recording a 72 percent completion rate and looking exceptionally comfortable in the pocket considering his inexperience. But Kent State came to town and Hackenberg had his first down game of the season, in heavy wind and rain, dropping his overall completion percentage to 62 percent after completing 13-of-35 passes on 176 yards. He’s been sacked nine times, fumbled three and has thrown four interceptions. However, he’s already logged more than 1,027 passing yards this season and has shown maturity beyond his years.
Running backs: A
Penn State’s stable of running backs has been unofficially dubbed the three-headed monster, and for good reason. The unit is anchored by big, bruising back Zach Zwinak who’s hardly missed a beat since his 1,000-yard rushing season in 2012. But now, he’s backed up by junior Bill Belton, the speedy one, and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch, who is somewhat of a hybrid of the other two. Zwinak has rushed for 297 yards on 67 carries, Belton’s logged 253 yards on 33 attempts and Lynch has ran for 263 yards on 32 carries. Put together, these three are a potent corps and have proved they can provide solid pass protection for Hackenberg in addition to their running duties.
Evaluating the receiving corps as a whole is a difficult task, as wideout Allen Robinson has been game-changingly stellar and deserves an A+ for holding this passing offense on his shoulders. But across the board, the rest of Penn State’s receivers have been less than impressive. After losing Matt Lehman for the season to a knee injury, Penn State’s tight end unit hasn’t lived up to expectations. Kyle Carter, a 2012 first team All-Big Ten pick, has posted just 68 yards on five receptions and Jesse James hasn’t been much more productive. When it comes to wide receivers, Brandon Felder, Geno Lewis and true freshman Richy Anderson have each been targeted by Hackenberg, but none have solidified themselves as a viable second option to Robinson. The 2012 Big Ten Receiver of the Year has caught for 448 yards on 26 receptions (17.2 yard average), both second in the conference. He has grabbed three touchdowns, as well.
Offensive line: B-
Penn State’s coaching staff admitted after the season-opener that the offensive line played less than stellar against Syracuse, but the line has since then shown improvement in both pass protection and creating holes for running backs. The right tackle position has been in flux all season with Adam Gress and converted tight end Garry Gilliam sharing first team reps at that spot, and while none of the interior linemen have blown anyone away, they’ve also not shown any major lapses. Under the guidance of offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, we expect this unit to continue improving.
Defensive line: C
This unit is having trouble clicking and can’t seem to generate a solid pass rush, while 2012 Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes has been quiet all season. At one defensive tackle position, DaQuan Jones’ stats have surprised many who followed the team in past years and never saw him as a major contributor. The senior defensive tackle has logged 25 tackles over four games with 5.5 of those being for loss. Next to him, redshirt junior Kyle Baublitz and redshirt freshman Austin Johnson have split time on this first team and neither have proven themselves as huge assets, but both appear to be improving. Defensive end C.J. Olaniyan has been quiet, but has the stats to prove he’s a force, logging 15 tackles (three for loss) and a sack. The front four have the potential to be a great unit, they just need to find consistency on the same day.
We have to be a bit harsh when we’re grading linebackers at Penn State, as they’re held to a totally different standard. The guys took a huge hit when outside linebacker Mike Hull was injured during the season opener, leaving converted 205-pound safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong to fill in. Undoubtedly the star of this group is returning middle linebacker Glenn Carson who’s led the defense in tackles, recording 29 and 3.5 for loss. At the other outside linebacker position, Nyeem Wartman has had several just OK games and has expressed frustration with his own play. The redshirt freshman has had a number of passes slip through his fingers, and he knows they would have been picks had he gotten there a split second sooner. With a healthy Hull, this unit should finish the season with a higher-than-average mark.
While several members of Penn State’s secondary have showed glimmers of hope and glimpses of improvement, the defensive back unit is easily the most inexperienced and inconsistent group on this team. Young corners Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas had solid games against Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, but totally broke down when dealing with the talented receivers UCF brought. Heading into Big Ten play, these teams are going to present much better deep threats than Syracuse, Eastern Michigan and Kent State brought to the table, so Williams and Lucas will have to be better if they hope to limit the opposition. In front of them, strong safety Adrian Amos, who was expected to be a defensive leader this season, has been relatively quiet. On the other side, Ryan Keiser shared time on the first team with Malcolm Willis, but Keiser, who had a dominant game against Kent State, suffered a hand injury and is expected to be out at least through the Indiana game.
Special teams: B-
Placekicker Sam Ficken has been stellar and absolutely deserves an A all on his own. The junior has drilled every PAT attempt and all but one field goal, which was a 57-yarder. We forgive him. But the rest of the special teams unit has been decent at best, with punter Alex Butterworth averaging just 39 yards per punt. For context, Hackenberg averaged more than that on his two pooch punts so far this season. The return game hasn’t been spectacular, but Geno Lewis, Von Walker and Jesse Della Valle each show potential. While none of them have been explosive, none of them have made any noteworthy mistakes.
Anna Orso can be reached at email@example.com or (814) 865-1828. Follow her on Twitter at @anna_orso.