Everything was set up so nicely.
Arguably the deepest position offensively (or on both sides of the ball, for that matter), Penn State’s tight ends were expected to replicate last season’s stellar campaign with a productive 2013.
With a true freshman quarterback, another year in Bill O’Brien’s system and increased attention on reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year Allen Robinson, the stable of big-bodied pass catchers should have remained an imposing and reliable presence in the Nittany Lions’ offense.
That hasn’t been the case so far. Not in the slightest.
Zero touchdowns and just one catch in the red zone is all the group has mustered through four games.
Senior Matt Lehman’s season-ending knee injury in the season opener certainly hurts. Penn State’s top receiver from a year ago not named Robinson, tight end Kyle Carter, has dealt with nagging injuries in the early going. Jesse James has created some plays down the field, but blue-chip recruit and freshman Adam Breneman has seen an equal amount of field and sidelines.
But one breakthrough performance can put the trio in the right direction, and Indiana presents the perfect opportunity for that on Saturday.
The Hoosiers can sling the ball around the field offensively, but they stop the run about as well as Cincinnati Reds’ pitcher Johnny Cueto handles the big stage.
Strolling in at 115th in the country out of 123 teams, Indiana has been porous at best against decent rushing attacks. Their average was brought down in the loss to Navy, who threw the ball five times and logged 70 rushes for 444 yards. That’s Navy’s style. But, even a balanced, traditional offense like Missouri dropped 280 rushing yards on the Hoosiers.
Penn State’s three-headed rushing attack of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch should have similar success. The trio posted 278 rushing yards against Kent State, a team that has defended the run slightly better than the Hoosiers this season.
What does this mean for James, Carter and Breneman?
If Penn State can establish the run early, which shouldn’t be a tall task, the play-action passing game will be a ripe option.
James understands the importance of building a foundation running the football.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore said the team is succeeding in the running game, causing linebackers to creep up and, consequentially, allowing the tight ends to sneak off the line and make a dent in the intermediate play-action passing game.
And against an Indiana defense that’s coming off a lapse in pass defense against Missouri (two receivers with more than 100 receiving yards, one with 77), Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg shouldn’t have an issue making an impact with a handful of targets.
They have the personnel to do so with James, Carter and Breneman. This is a group that was second nationally in receptions among tight ends in 2012.
Their role hasn’t diminished; the unit just needs something to go their way.
Indiana’s defense should do the trick.
John McGonigal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @jmcgonigal9.