Passing-Christian Hackenberg (21/40 for 205, 1 INT)
Receiving-Chris Godwin (8 rec., 104 yards)
Rushing-Saquon Barkley (25 carries, 120 yards, 2 TD)
Defense-Brandon Bell (8 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks)
Passing-Zack Oliver (11/24 for 111 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT)
Receiving-Dan Vitale (4 rec., 40 yards)
Rushing-Justin Jackson (28 carries, 186 yards)
Defense-Anthony Walker (10 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack)
Coaching is still an issue:
A week after giving the offensive coaching staff good marks, I have to ding them for their decisions against Northwestern. Penn State's offense has struggled in games were rhythm and identity aren't established early. That continued on Saturday, as predictable play calling was once again evident. Even our trick plays were easy to read and defend. How many times will we run the exact same direct snap to Saquon or jet sweep to Bell?
Perhaps worse was James Franklin's inability to manage the clock within the game. Northwestern gained a first down on third-and-5 to reach the PSU 24 yard line with 1:06 remaining, and Franklin stood by as 40 excruciating seconds ticked by before calling his first timeout with 22 seconds left in the game. By then, it was too late. PSU got the ball back with just 9 seconds left after the inevitable NW field goal, and were unable to conjure up a miracle on a last-second heave. Even that final play call was baffling. Rather than have Lewis, Hamilton and Godwin all streak for the end zone, they called an intermediate pass and tried to lateral their way to victory. Unfortunately, not even an ACC officiating crew could have made that possible.
Hackenberg was 1/10 to start the game, and very little of that was his fault. Northwestern was mostly playing man defense and loading the box to stop Barkley or blitz on passing downs. Penn State receivers, for the most part, struggled mightily to get open. That has been a consistent theme this season. Most passing plays, one can watch Hackenberg read his first, second, and third receiver options before checking down, throwing it away, or getting sacked by whoever Paris Palmer was supposed to block.
Most of the blame for this rests squarely on the shoulders of the receivers. Players make plays, and their job as a receiver is to 1) get open, and 2) catch the ball. Other than Godwin, few of them have been able to accomplish that first feat this season. However, some of the struggle could be alleviated by coaching decisions. Not only does Hackenberg throw better on the run, but because he is athletic enough to make plays with this feet, defenders are drawn forward, opening more space downfield. This also buys more time for players like Godwin and Hamilton to use their speed to create space. Franklin has been working a few more plays in that use Hackenberg's feet, but I would still like to see a little more movement.
No doubt about it, the NCAA sanctions following the Sandusky scandal are still having an impact on this young team. Still not up to their full allotment of scholarships, Penn State has been able to field a decently talented starting lineup at most positions. However, less premium positions like punter, kick returner, and special teams are still being filled by walk-ons. While they give it their best, some of these players are a bit outmatched on the Big Ten stage. Giving up field goal range or field position through poor special teams is a slow, constant drain on the effectiveness of an offense. This particular offense cannot afford such a drain.
1. Prediction: Barkley breaks 150 yards. Verdict? Correct.
Barkley ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns and caught 6 passes for another 50 yards on Saturday, giving him 170 yards on the day.
2. Prediction: Hackenberg throws for 2 TDs, 1 INT. Verdict? Half-right.
Hackenberg threw his first interception since September 19th, ending a remarkable streak of 202 passes without an interception. However, he did not throw any touchdowns.
3. Prediction: Nassib breaks PSU sack record. Verdict? Correct.
This was an easy one. Nassib has registered at least one sack in every game this season, so it wasn't exactly brain science or rocket surgery to predict that the trend would continue. With that sack, Nassib reached 15.5 for the 2015 season, breaking the record of 15 held by Larry Kubin (1979) and Michael Haynes (2002).
Penn State finally has a bye week, then closes out the season with Michigan and Michigan State. We will keep you posted on any important goings on, and remember to check back for the Michigan preview!