Saturday’s matchup between Penn State and perennial whipping boy Temple was supposed to be a tune up game. Sure, Temple has improved over the years and boasts a strong veteran defense. Nobody expected the game to be quite as easy as the cream puff season openers JoePa used to schedule, but Temple is the type of team Penn State is supposed to warm up it’s Big Ten muscles on before getting to the heavy lifting of the regular season. Not so, this year.
For the first time since 1941, when Joe Paterno was just shaving his first whiskers as a 14 year old in Brooklyn, a Temple squad defeated the Nittany Lions. After a solid start Penn State found itself ahead 10-0 with 6:34 remaining in the first quarter, only to watch Temple methodically pound out 27 unanswered points and 10 sacks over remainder of the game. At this point in the week you’ve surely seen the highlights and read the box score, so let’s get straight into dissecting this bloated whale carcass of a game.
The first thing that stands out right away is just how unimproved the Penn State offensive line is from last year. College football is a game of ups and downs, as inexperienced players take the place of those who graduate or move on to the NFL. Maintaining one position group as a dominant unit is difficult on a year in, year out basis. However, having multiple down years in a row is a poor reflection on recruiting, coaching, or both.
With Mangiro, Gaia, Nelson and Mahon all returning from last year, a step forward was expected. All four players started games last year, and although none are seniors there should be some kind of progress from year one to year two as experience in the scheme and more time in the weight room take effect. That simply didn’t seem to be the case on Saturday, as all five members of the offensive line missed assignments, lost individual battles, and were generally bullied by a smaller and less athletic Temple squad.
Paris Palmer seemed to be the most victimized member of the offensive line, even with RB/TE support on some plays. As the only member of the unit that wasn’t a Nittany Lion last year, perhaps we can give him a pass. Even Coach Franklin admitted that Palmer "Played like a guy starting his first game." However, he will need to be on a short leash until he proves that he can use his hands and feet like a big boy. Too often he seemed slow to react, slow to recognize his assignment, weak in his stance, and hesitant with his hands.
Most of Hackenberg’s sacks came on delayed blitzes and nearly all of them in the shotgun, but perhaps the worst was on a two man rush. Temple showed LB blitz early, but dropped into coverage before the snap. With three men on the line, they only rushed two, 50% of whom made it to the quarterback. Nate D. Smith (#35) blasted straight between Palmer and Mahon, who seemed to have temporarily forgotten why the were on the field in pads. Hack tried to scamper behind TE Brent Wilkerson (#11) for safety, but Wilkerson was too busy defending against the empty right side of the field to notice Smith until it was too late.
Penn State’s problems are bigger than the offensive line, though. There is a fundamental flaw in the way the coaching staff is managing this team, and it will be Franklin’s ticket out of State College one day if he keeps it up. This is a coaching staff that is unable to adjust, both in the short term and the long term. This game was a microcosm of the Franklin regime thus far: Hackenberg flat on his back, with a coach on the sideline saying “Didn’t expect that, let’s run that one again!”
All in all, Saturday’s game was a massive embarrassment for Penn State, and even former players had something to say about it. Bill Belton, Donovan Smith, and Adam Gress all expressed frustration via Twitter, but Gress was by far the most blunt.
Although James Franklin may switch up the front five for next week, it is still hard for this PSU fan to believe that 8 months after the Pinstripe Bowl, we are still scrambling to find the answers.