Penn State Football: Handing Out The Grades Following Penn State's Non Conference Schedule
With four games in the books for Penn State, fans can start to get an idea of what sort of team the Nittany Lions have heading into conference play. The level of competition will now greatly increase over the coming weeks but there is still plenty to take away from the first four weeks of the season.
Here are the grades for each unit heading into Big Ten play:
Christian Hackenberg has been stellar under center for at least three of the four games he has started so far. A 62-percent completion rate, 1,027 yards of passing and five touchdowns has earned him Big Ten Freshman of The Week honors twice this season. It will be interesting to see how the 18-year-old handles the challenge of playing against Big Ten defenses. He certainly seems more than capable of learning to manage that test. If Hackenberg can continue to take what the defense gives him and improve his decision making Penn State has a chance to be competitive in every game. The Nittany Lions are 15-for-15 in the redzone with 12 of those successful trips coming by way of touchdowns. So if Hackenberg can get the offense down the field points are a guarantee so far.
Aside from Hackenberg, Penn State has shown at least three running backs capable of handling the load. Zach Zwinak leads that group with 67 carries for 297 yards and eight touchdowns (A tie for the national lead) but Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch are not far behind.
Allen Robinson is his usual self with 26 catches for 448 yards and three touchdowns. His weekly contributions have helped Penn State into the Top 50 for both rushing and passing averages nationally per game (Ranked 50/40 respectively).
The Nittany Lions current problem is getting both of those things clicking together. Passing and running. Penn State has become a hit-or-miss team when it comes to generating long drives. Once the offense gets going it can be hard to stop, but mistakes and setbacks have doomed some drives before they ever started.
That will happen to some of the best teams, but at the end of the day converting 11-of-52 third downs is far too low to hand out a grade any higher. There isn't any doubt the pieces are there for a talented offense, but some of the little mistakes made in the non-conference schedule can spell defeat in Big Ten play.
John Butler may have been here last season, but having total control over the defense still opens the door for some growing pains. Penn State's defensive struggles aren't all Butler's fault though. The defense is shallow in many positions in terms of experience and depth of personnel. The Nittany Lions are 13th in overall scoring defense averaging 14.5 points a game, but some larger issues became more apparent in the 34-31 loss to UCF.
There are, however, a few bright spots on the defensive side of the ball. Glenn Carson has really stepped up his play at linebacker for a team high 29 tackles, 20 of which are assisted. Interestingly enough no other defensive player for Penn State has hit double figures for assisted tackles.
DaQuan Jones has also proven to be a force at defensive tackle with 5.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has also provided the defense with a nice safety/linebacker wrinkle.
If Penn State is going to win games in conference play though it'll be because young corners Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas have greatly improved. Both have shown moments of skill and youth. As they face some of the better quarterbacks their collective game will need to step up as well.
Probably the best way for Penn State's defense to improve is through experience and time. Both will come as Penn State dives head first into Big Ten play. The makings of a good defense are there, but like the offense, consistency is key.
Special Teams: A
Where special teams was a liability last season it's an asset today. Sam Ficken has been automatic, missing only one field goal of the 50+ yard variety. Alex Butterworth hasn't been fantastic at punter but has limited outright shanks that happened from time to time last season. Penn State is averaging 11 yards per punt return and 22 yard per kick return.
Ficken aside, how good Penn State's special teams have become won't really known until the punt defense and kick coverage are tested by talented return men in the Big Ten.
At the end of the day Penn State is an average team with the potential to be a lot more than that. Right now the Nittany Lions just have too few things as an automatic "go-to" when the defense needs a stop or the offense has to move the ball. That's not to say that Penn State is a bad team, but rather a team that could go either way as the season moves forward. If Hackenberg continues to grow and the offense becomes more consistent there isn't any reason they can't win 8-9 games. If the defense struggles to pressure the quarterback and defend the pass, it might be too much to ask of Hackenberg and Company to outscore teams in order to win.