With two wins and one loss, you certainly could characterize Penn State’s start to the 2013 season as a fairly positive one.
The Nittany Lions' 34-31 loss to Central Florida on Saturday had its bright spots, but you better not be defensive about it. UCF was better than many people thought.
Bill O’Brien’s second season as head coach is one-quarter over, and Penn State’s 2-1 start is better than the 1-2 beginning of 2012. Not that they're aren't significant issues to tackle, especially on defense.
So, with Kent State (1-2 following a 45-13 loss to LSU) slated to play Saturday in Beaver Stadium and an open weekend after that, let’s take a look at areas of Penn State football where the glass is two-thirds full and one-third empty. And remember, at that percentage rate, the glass measures 8-4.
THE RUNNING GAME
Two-thirds full: 1.) The Nittany Lions have had three backs gain over 100 yards this season. Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch both had 108 yards against Eastern Michigan, while Zack Zwinak got untracked with 128 yards on 21 carries against Central Florida. 2.) Zwinak pounded home touchdown runs of 4, 9 and 1 yard vs. UCF, the last coming behind a gargantuan hole opened up by his offensive line. The other one-third: Zwinak lost a fumble on the UCF 27 on a crucial late fourth-quarter drive that had already covered 53 yards and would’ve pulled Penn State to within 34-31 with a TD. The Lions eventually got the score, but only after almost three more minutes ran off the clock. Zwinak has a penchant for such things; he lost four fumbles over a five-game stretch in 2012.
Two-thirds full: 1.) PSU can put points on the board, averaging 33 per game with efforts of 23, 45 and 31 points. That’s 12 more points per game than they had after three games last year, the result of another year of knowing O’Brien’s offense – rookie QB Christian Hackenberg excepted. 2.) Penn State is perfect in the red zone, scoring points all 10 times it has been inside the opponent’s 20-yard line – scoring touchdowns on eight of them. Along with 21 other teams, PSU is No. 1 in the RZ. The other one-third: Penn State’s defense is (im)perfect as well. Opponents have reached the 20 seven times in 2013 and they’ve scored on all seven trips.
THE RETURN GAME
Two-thirds full: 1.) Penn State may have found its kick returner in Geno Lewis, who returned four kickoffs for 106 yards on Saturday – including a 44-yarder. 2.) PSU’s punt returner, Jesse Della Valle, keeps on getting better. He’s averaging 13.3 yards per return – almost six yards above his average last season. He’s ranked No. 20 in the country. The other one-third: Punter Alex Butterworth is netting only 33.8 yards per punt, putting him at No. 101 in the nation in that category.
THE PASSING GAME
Two-thirds full: 1.) Hackenberg has been better than promised and it was a big pledge to begin with. He ranks in the Top 30 in the country in completions per game (24), efficiency (157.3) and yards per game (a whopping 283.7). He’s thrown just three interceptions and is completing 71.7 percent of his passes (Matt McGloin was at 60.5% last season). The other one-third: Hackenberg has been sacked eight times for 67 yards, a rate of nearly three a game that is among the highest in the country.
THE RECEIVING GAME
Two-thirds full: 1.) Allen Robinson has been a monster, grabbing 23 passes for an average of 17.6 yards per catch. His 135 yards per game (even though he’s played only two-and-a-half) rank fourth in the nation, while his 7.7 receptions per game is 17th. 2.) Wide receiver Brandon Felder – with 12 receptions for 96 yards in the first two games – and freshman tight end Adam Breneman, who had four grabs against UCF, have emerged as Hackenberg favorites. Freshman wide receiver Richy Anderson looks good, too. The other one-third: The Nittany Lions definitely miss tight end Matt Lehman, out for the season with a knee injury sustained early in the season-opener against Syracuse. Tight end Kyle Carter, a first-team freshman All-American in 2012, has just four catches in three games, although he was also nicked up against SU.
Two-thirds full: 1.) A-Rob is as big-play as you can get. He has seven catches for 23 yards or more (23, 25, 43, 44, 45, 46, 51) and is well on his way to beating the 16 plays over 20 yards he had in 2012. 2.) In three games, the PSU offense has had 14 plays of 20 yards or more – “chunk plays,” O’Brien calls them. That’s twice as many as they had at this point in 2012. The biggest difference is rushes over 20 yards. In all of 2012, PSU had just seven runs over 20 yards. In just three games, they already have five, by Zwinak (20 and 38 yards), Belton (21, 51) and Lynch (27). The other one-third: While the Penn State defense allowed Syracuse just three chunk plays and Eastern Michigan none, it was a clunker against Central Florida. UCF reeled off runs of 21, 22, 49 and 58 yards, and pass plays of 20, 25, 26, 28, 36 and 44 yards.
One-half full: 1.) One interception a game by a true freshman quarterback is a terrific average, and a credit to his coaches, receivers, offensive line – and, most especially, his play-caller and himself. 2.) Penn State is among the least penalized teams in the country, at just 33 yards per game. One-half empty: 1.) While the Nittany Lions’ offensive line didn’t open up the UCF game with a penalty, which it did against Syracuse and EMU, it did make its share of mistakes. To wit: A pair of second-quarter penalties that cut an A-Rob catch in half and helped turn a first-and-1 into a third-and-20. 2.) Penn State is minus 3 on turnovers, losing the ball seven times to just four for the opposition.
Two-thirds full: 1.) PSU’s offense is 5 of 6 on fourth downs, 10th in the nation. 2.) PSU’s defense has yet to yield a fourth down in four tries, tops in the country with 23 other teams. One-third empty: The Nittany Lion offense ranks 112th (last in the nation) converting third downs, making only 4 of 34.
Two-thirds full: 1.) Sam Ficken has made field goals of 46 and 47 yards this season and is 5 of 6 overall. 2.) Tackle DaQuan Jones has been a bear on defense, leading Penn State with 23 tackles, 15 of them solo, with five tackles for a loss and two sacks. And Glen Carson is right behind, with 22 total tackles as the steady, every-down hub of the linebacking corps. One-third empty: Other than 1-2 Purdue, Penn State’s 2013 Big Ten Conference opponents have a combined record of 17-4.
Two-thirds full: 1.) After Saturday’s game against Kent State, Penn State will be one-third of the way there (16 of 48 games) until its games have a direct bearing on its ability to go to a bowl game and compete for Big Ten championships. 2.) Penn State ranks fourth nationally in home attendance in 2013, with an average of 92,859 per game – behind Michigan, Ohio State and Texas. Six of the next eight are from the SEC. Also telling: Attendance for the Sept. 7, 2013, Eastern Michigan game (92,363) was just 3,273 people less (a drop of 3.4%) than the attendance for the Sept. 24, 2011, Eastern Michigan game (95,636). Pre-scandal. One-third empty: Thud. Matt Lehman’s out. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong at linebacker. Mike Hull hurting.
Emptiest of all: Fifty-seven games – at the very least – until Penn State can get back to a full roster of 85 scholarship players.