Lions unearth balance after early struggles, beat Eastern Michigan handily - The Daily Collegian: Football

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Lions unearth balance after early struggles, beat Eastern Michigan handily

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Posted: Saturday, September 7, 2013 6:32 pm | Updated: 4:34 pm, Sun Sep 8, 2013.

Penn State, after forcing an Eastern Michigan punt, took over on its own 12-yard line for the offense's opening series.

Right off the bat, a 24-yard scamper by Zach Zwinak gave the offense and announced crowd of 92,863 fans a jolt of energy.

That is, until those celebrating realized the yellow laundry on the field — a flag for holding on tight end Adam Breneman that silenced the Nittany Lions' momentum, and set the tone for the Lions' initially shaky offensive performance Saturday. However, after a slow start from Christian Hackenberg and company, the Lions did well to rebound against their lesser opponent in the 45-7 victory over the Eagles.

The 38-point margin of victory and 574 yards of total offense speak for themselves, but the first three series served as a confirmation that the true freshman quarterback and his offense are not finished products.

"I think we're still a work in progress," coach Bill O'Brien said after the game. "We have to execute better, especially at the beginning of the game...They're resilient. It's a resilient football team."

Following Breneman's penalty, Hackenberg misfired on three consecutive incompletions for a three-and-out. The next series was no real difference, as the Lions failed to gain a first down.

On Penn State's third series, it didn't even get to three plays, as Hackenberg coughed up the football untouched, before Eastern Michigan's Hunter Matt picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown.

O'Brien said his young signal caller was overly excited and he had to be reminded by an assistant coach that it was Hackenberg's first game playing at Beaver Stadium.

"He was jacked up," O'Brien said. "You can take 5,000 recruiting trips here, but it ain't like playing here... He was amped up, but I thought he settled down obviously pretty well."

Hackenberg and the offense found a groove towards the end of the first quarter and sustained it until halftime with help of diversified play-calling by O'Brien.

The first touchdown — a two-yard run by Zach Zwinak — was set up by a 43-yard connection between Hackenberg and Allen Robinson.

A five-yard, stop-and-go run by Bill Belton for Penn State's second score followed two passes and a finishing rush by the back that went for 15 yards. Penn State capped the first half with a 39-yard field goal by Sam Ficken.

The offensive attack was almost even on the Lions' three first half scoring drives (nine passes, seven rushes), a credit to O'Brien, Zwinak said.

"On offense you want to be able to run any type of play — run, pass, play-action," Zwinak said. "It's a matter of [O'Brien], what he wants to call and when he's going to call it. That's all him."

Despite a 17-7 score at halftime, the Lions launched similar balance and used it to pull away from the Eagles in the second half.

Zwinak, who finished the day with seven carries for 43 yards, scored another touchdown, making it a 24-7 lead for the Lions in the third quarter.

Eastern Michigan had a brief, ineffective drive following Zwinak's score, and the Lions wasted little time scoring again.

With more than 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, a 45-yard touchdown throw from Hackenberg to Robinson put it out of reach, with the Lions then leading 31-7.

Hackenberg finished with 311 passing yards — the most ever by a Penn State freshman — on 23-of-33 passing, and Robinson hauled in seven catches for 129 yards.

For good measure, Belton beefed his stat line with a 51-yard dash up the middle for a touchdown, pushing his rushing totals on the day to a career-high 108 yards.

Freshman rusher Akeel Lynch, who carried the ball 13 times for 108 yards as well, tacked on an 18-yard touchdown run with less than four minutes to go in the contest.

Despite the occasional ups and downs, O'Brien said he was proud of his team for winning the day, but made sure to note there was more work to be done.

"We’re just trying to take it one day at a time," O'Brien said. "I told them we won the day today, we have to try to win the day tomorrow. Just take it one day at a time, try to get better everyday."

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