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Penn State Football: This Too Shall Pass …Just Not Right Now

by on October 12, 2014 10:00 PM

This, too, shall pass.

Just not right now.

Not when you’re sacked six times in one game and 20 in a half-season.

Not when your QB went down all of 22 times in a dozen games last season. And every defender these days is J.J. Watt incarnate.

Not when your wide receiving corps – sans Geno Lewis – had never played a down of college football until six weeks ago. Or less.

And not when you can’t run the ball, as in 94 carries for 154 yards over the past two games

Or when you rush for all of 559 yards over a half-dozen contests – officially the worst first six games of Penn State’s 22 years in the Big Ten. (In 2000, the Nittany Lions ran for 713 yards through the first six games of its 5-7 season. In 2001, they ran for 589 yards for the first six games of a 5-6 season.)

James Franklin is not in Kansas (State), Maryland or Vanderbilt any more. In Nashville, Franklin and Co. were 6-6 in their first regular season. They were hailed as conquering Commodores. "They loved us," said part of the Vandy-to-Penn State contingent. At Penn State, that love has lasted all of four games.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS DESPITE 62%

At Penn State, the expectations – right or wrong – are higher. Much higher. Part is a history of winning, albeit redefined. (Since the turn of the century, Penn State has been a 62% team. And over his final 200 games, Joe Paterno’s teams were 125-75. That’s 62.5%.) Part is the very short memory. The 2014 season was supposed to be the nadir of the Sandusky Sanction Era.

And part is Franklin’s unbridled optimism upon taking the job in January. Two weeks ago, in the minutes after a 29-6 loss to Northwestern, Franklin promised that he would “get it fixed.” And he repeated it eight times for emphasis. This is not a quick fix situation. Franklin may bring electricity, but this is a total rewiring job that is more HGTV than BTN.

There are pieces of a strong foundation. Christian Hackenberg heads that list. As a football player, he’s borne more of the sanction brunt than anyone. He stuck with Penn State as the top high school quarterback in the country, even though Bill O’Brien made no assurances about starting or otherwise. He was Penn State’s first true freshman QB to start an entire season. And he stuck with PSU when OB, his Yoda, did not. Now he's stuck with this year's O-line.

Oh, and BTW, The Kid still leads the Big Ten in passing yardage (272.8 yards per game) and completions (134), and is No. 3 in total offense (272.8 ypg).

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On defense, Mike Hull has been in the middle of it all – on (a team-high 64 tackles, 15th in the nation and second in the Big Ten) and off the field. The D-line is an A list group. Guys like Jesse Della Valle and Ryan Keiser epitomize the old-time Penn State walk-on. Adrian Amos’ 31 career starts are close to the 41 combined of the other three starters in the secondary.

Sam Ficken has been kicked all over the place, but he remains fairly solid and quite stoic. Belton, by saying a lot, and Zach Zwinak, by saying nothing, have been leaders.

YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS

But, soon – now, even – youth is being served.

While left with the scholarship-challenged vestiges of the past, Franklin must somehow manage the present and build for the future  - the latter is by far his most favorite task. In many ways, especially with a roster that is the second-youngest in major college football, the future is playing now.

Wide receivers Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall have seemingly passed over Lewis. Tight end Mike Gesicki, playing with confidence, is playing more than that incredibly shrinking man, Kyle Carter – who had 36 catches in 2012, 18 in 2013 and, midway through the schedule, six in 2014. Freshmen defensive backs and special teams players Grant Haley, Marcus Allen and Chris Campbell have been playing extensively.

Even the vilified offensive line has its future – and Penn State’s – in front it. The Nittany Lions’ top six linemen have a dozen seasons of eligibility remaining after 2014 season, and that’s not even counting Noah Beh, Wendy Laurent and Chasz Wright.

Franklin’s strategy is clear. Mix in the young guys where the straits are dire, keep the redshirt on those he can, sell Penn State like he’s Ron Popeil and use his many off-weeks (and, quite possibly, pre-bowl practices) to develop his younger players. And keep them engaged.

And, somehow, keep Hackenberg healthy.

THE DEFENSE NEVER RESTS 

Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense keeps the patient alive. And boy, do they have patience.

Nationally, the Nittany Lion defense ranks in the Top 10 in six key categories: rushing defense (No. 2, 60.8 ypg), first downs allowed (No. 2, 14.1 pg), red zone defense (4th), total defense (No. 5, 283.3 ypg), scoring defense (No. 5, 15.2 ppg) and fourth-down conversion rate (No. 6, 16.7%).

Reminds you of some of those Tom Bradley-led defenses of the 2000s, doesn’t it? From 2004-09, Bradley guided the Nittany Lions to six consecutive Top 15 finishes in total and scoring defense. Seems so long ago. Now, after a Roof and a Butler, Penn State has returned to those days of glory in one fell (Bob) Shoop. If Penn State’s defense continues to keep it close, a bowl berth – Penn State’s first since that TicketCity nightmare on Jan. 1, 2012 -- is still within reach. All that’s needed is a 6-6 record. That’s all.

All but one of Penn State’s next opponents have winning records thus far, for a combined 65.7% winning percentage. In order, there’s Ohio State (4-1) in a Beaver Stadium Whiteout on Oct. 25, followed by Maryland (4-2) at home, at Indiana (3-3), Temple (4-1) at home, Illinois (3-4) in Champaign and Michigan State (5-1) two days after Thanksgiving in Beaver Stadium.

ZZ: AWAKENING THE GROUND GAME

For the Nittany Lions, it would be a real rush if they got their running game going early in that stretch. That there are five games in November could be a very good thing, at least in that regard. So far, through six games Zwinak has carried the ball 40 times for 123 yards. For the Red-Bearded Rusher, that’s not even a single day’s work come cold and crunching time in the Big Ten.

In his final four games of 2012 and his final games of 2013, Zwinak rushed for 1,152 yards. Broken down, that’s 21 carries for 134 yards, 21-141, 29-135, 38-179, 26-150, 29-149, 35-149 and 22-115.

With numbers like those, plus the way Zwinak carried all those Akron players on that 18-yard bulldoze early in the season, maybe he doesn’t need a stellar offensive line. As it is, he’s had just 18 carries over the past 16 quarters.

It may not come against Ohio State and Larry Johnson’s Buck’ing D-line, but Zwinak may yet be an important key to the Penn State offense. A breakout game by Zwinak would give him, Hackenberg, the beleaguered offensive line, O-coordinator John Donovan, a couple thousand irate message-boarders and #107kstrong some much-needed confidence.

It’s not that risky.

As it is, subtracting out Belton’s first carry of the Michigan game, Penn State is averaging 1.33 yards per carry over the past two games. In other words, four feet. Or 48 inches.

So, why not Zwinak? Yes, his future will soon be passed and there may not be any holes to run through.

But it’s hard to believe that ZZ has topped out.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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