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Penn State Football: What We Learned, Midseason Review

by on October 04, 2014 6:00 AM

It seems like only days ago everyone was writing about Dublin and how Penn State's first game under James Franklin would go.

Now five games later, the time for predicting is long gone. Penn State is 4-1 and has gotten to this point thanks to a lot of help and a lot of big plays with the clock winding down. How the Nittany Lions made it to 4-1 will be remembered far less than the fact Penn State started the James Franklin era on the right foot.

But if this season is going to be remembered for anything other than another "first" it's going to take the Nittany Lions plenty of self-evalutation, improvement and probably a few more big plays.

And that's what Penn State has done this past week. Franklin and his staff spent the majority of the bye week to self-scout. To figure out what the Nittany Lions have been good at and what they have struggled to do well. Michigan preparations will begin on Sunday, but for the past week it has been nothing but Penn State focusing on Penn State.

What have they learned?

Franklin's conclusions are undoubtedly more specific, but here are five things that Penn State fans and media have learned since things all got started back in Ireland.

1. The running backs will struggle:

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On a certain level Penn State's struggles to run the ball aren't entirely the running backs' fault. It is true that Zwinak isn't very shifty, Belton isn't very physical and Lynch hardly ever gets to carry. None of these things are improved by the fact there have been very few running lanes to take advantage of. All three have shown they're capable of gaining yards when a hole opens up but so far that hasn't happened very often. A lot of factors are responsible for Penn State's failure to do much of anything on the ground but that's not hard to see given the issues up front.

2. Allen Robinson is replaceable: 

Heading into this season there was worry about who Christian Hackenberg would throw to in the clutch. Penn State has had players all along, but when your freshman quarterback throws nearly 50% of his yards to a single teammate there is reason to raise an eyebrow when said teammate heads to the NFL. But DeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis have proven capable of picking up the slack, in many respects giving Penn State a more balanced attack through the air than when Robinson was on the field.

Neither of them have made quite as incredible of a catch as Robinson did in the final minutes against Michigan last year, but both of them have made key catches that have directly led to scoring and winning drives. Hamilton has puled down 36 catches for 502 yards while Lewis has hauled in 29 catches for 495 yards. Both of those stats are far better marks than perhaps anyone expected heading into the year.

3. Hackenberg can only do so much:

If anyone ever writes a book about this season, this bullet point should be the title. Hackenberg has been a good sport about the fact that he can't stand in the pocket for very long without getting hit. He's made big throws, he has made bad throws, but for as much as the offensive line has hurt Penn State's chances to win, Hackenberg has helped. Hamilton and Lewis, the tight ends and the running backs have all been there for Hackenberg but very rarely have they all been in their best form at the same time. Hack has gone 119-for-206 and 1,534 yards so far this year but one has to imagine those numbers could be a lot better if Hackenberg had gotten more time to throw and a receivers made a few less drops. Hackenberg is every bit as good as has been advertised, but he can only make up for so many shortcomings at once. 

4. The offensive line isn't very good:

You try not to blame any single unit for Penn State's issues. But nothing else the Nittany Lions have done wrong stands out more than the issues confronting the front line. It isn't strictly speaking the players' fault for being young and inexperienced but it's a fact of life. The shortcomings have been more or less expected since the season began. It's a testament to their hard work and the play calling so far this season -- considering that Penn State was able to overcome the offensive line issues until losing to Northwestern in Week 5. With limited bodies there are limited options for this bunch. How they manage to improve will largely determine the rest of the season.

5. Bob Shoop is a keeper:

The fourth defensive coordinator in four years may have finally turned out to be the one to finally get things sorted out for Penn State's ever-changing defense. Players love playing for him, the schemes have largely adapted to a limited roster and Penn State hasn't lost a game this season because Penn State's defense wasn't good enough. Northwestern scored 14 early points before the Nittany Lion defenders shut the Wildcats down for nearly three straight quarters. Rutgers' turned the ball over five times and neither UMass or Akron could do anything on the ground. The UCF game wasn't pretty, but for the first game under a new coordinator they did just fine. Penn State is outscoring opponents 71-23 through the 2nd and 3rd quarters giving the Nittany Lions plenty of chances to try and get a sputtering offense going.

This might not be the best defense in Penn State history, but this season would be a lot worse if it wasn't for this unit.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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