PSU-NU Live Game Notes and Post-Game Recap
By Brian Cooper
Disclaimer-These notes are taken live as I am watching the game on the BTN. I do not have All-22 footage or stat sheets, so what you will read in the live game notes are just things that I notice, impressions of how the game is unfolding, etc. If that doesn’t interest you, I suggest skipping to the half-time and post-game analysis sections.
1st Quarter Notes:
-The only thing getting PSU’s defense off the field right now is Trevor Siemian-by scoring touchdowns. PSU’s streak of scoreless 1st quarters is being wrecked by the NU crew. Siemian is looking like Aaron Rodgers in purple. Poor tackling and some blown coverages by PSU are helping. 14-0, NU leads.
-PSU’s offense hasn’t done much either. If you can’t score on NU, you can’t score. This has historically been a team with a strong offense and a weak defense, despite being coached by all-time great former NU linebacker Pat Fitzgerald.
-Anthony Walker from NU has been involved in a lot of plays so far. Mostly they seem to be fairly easy plays from near the line, but if you’re a NU fan it’s nice to see a freshman linebacker who can make the plays that are available.
-Speaking of plays near the line of scrimmage, it’s hard to tell from the television feed why Hackenburg hasn’t been taking more shots downfield. It’s hard to believe Northwestern’s DBs are covering both Lewis and Hamilton that tightly, but Hack keeps holding the ball or trying to give it to blanketed TEs.
-Pressure by Barnes was what caused the sack during NU’s third redzone possession. Good to see the former B1G Defensive Freshman of the Year get some pressure, but it took long enough. Siemian is getting way too much time in the pocket.
-Hull is a monster. He took out a lot of frustration playing cleanup on that assisted tackle on Northwestern’s fake field goal attempt.
-Northwestern either got greedy by attempting that fake field goal, or the coaches realize that the odds of them sustaining this success are slim. It was a gamble, but NU will need all the points it can get early if Hack and the PSU offense ever get rolling, and it’s hard to imagine Penn State’s defense won’t clamp down eventually.
2nd Quarter Notes:
-This Penn State offensive line is terrible. A lot of people have been jumping on the Penn State bandwagon after a 4-0 start, but so far this line hasn’t impressed against any team not named UMass. Northwestern isn’t exactly a destination school for top D-line prospects, but the PSU line can’t open any holes and Hack is taking a lot of hits. Part of that is his inability to get the ball out to a receiver, but this line has been weak all year and it doesn’t seem to be improving fast enough to be ready for the B1G conference schedule.
-Walker is still showing up huge. If Pat Fitzgerald wasn’t the whitest guy in the world, you’d think he suited up and snuck onto the field.
-The Penn State defense has finally forced two Northwestern punts in a row. Let’s see if the 17th nationally-ranked passing offense can get anything done against a perennial B1G bottom-feeder…
-What an unbelievable throw and catch by Hackenburg and Hamilton. That’s the kind of play that big-time players make, and it’s not something Penn State fans ever got the chance to become used to under the traditional Penn State blueprint of dominant defense and running attack with 3 star QB and WR recruits. Perfect execution hitting Hamilton between two defenders, and excellent control and strong hands by Hamilton to bring in a contested catch.
-This PSU line can’t even hold back Northwestern long enough for a field goal attempt. If they can’t find 5 players capable of blocking like big boys, PSU is going to be in for a rough rest of the season.
-Penn State’s defensive line is finally finding some pressure, but the defense is still leaving the middle of the field way too open. Baby steps.
-Hackenburg finally decides that his WRs and RBs aren’t getting it done, so he takes the ball for a jaunt upfield himself, only to have it brought back by an atrocious hold from Andrew Nelson.
-Sloppy and over-aggressive on the punt, NU gets a personal foul and PSU gets another chance this quarter.
-Ficken gets another chance to score, and he puts it straight between the pipes from 42 yards. It’s hard to believe that this is the same kicker we saw almost single-handedly destroy the first half of Penn State’s 2012 season, but Kickin’ Ficken has quietly become one of Penn State’s most reliable players.
This has been an eye-opening first half for B1G fans. We knew Penn State’s offensive line was inexperienced and struggling early in the season, but today it is being exposed as one of the worst in the Big Ten. Last week’s 228 yard performance against UMass is proving to be a fluke from the 117th ranked rushing offense in the nation. It is frustrating watching the television feed on BTN, because they rarely show what is going on downfield, but it seems like Penn State is really struggling to get receivers open. Hackenburg is holding the ball for way to long, hoping for something to develop, and by the time he checks down to a RB or TE, they are already being blanketed by linebackers as Hack is engulfed in a wave of purple behind his JV caliber offensive line.
The other thing that really stands out so far is Northwestern flashing some athleticism and discipline on defense. One thing you can usually count on from Northwestern is inconsistency in their defensive play, and I’m not sure we can expect them to look this good all year. That being said, this Walker kid looks like he might be the real deal, and Northwestern’s defensive backs are doing a phenomenal job of shutting down two of the leading receivers in the nation in Hamilton and Lewis. Early in the Pat Fitzgerald coaching administration, we saw Northwestern start to become competitive in the B1G through a powerful passing attack and quick, pass-catching running backs. Bafflingly, the legendary linebacker seemed to have difficulty recruiting and coaching the type of defensive athletes it takes to compete in the Big Ten. In the last year or two, Northwestern has made some strides, but they have still been streaky with their defensive play. It’s just one game, but today they are looking like they are starting to find some footing.
3rd Quarter Notes:
-Deion Barnes got himself a nice sack early this quarter. Barnes is a player who started his career with a splash as a redshirt freshman, but had a very quiet sophomore campaign. It would be a huge help for this PSU defense if this is the year that Barnes starts to truly fulfill his potential at the DE spot.
-As PSU’s offense continues to sputter and choke, tensions are rising on the sidelines. Belton and Hackenburg, both of whom are guys with a lot a passion for the game, seem to be exchanging words. Clearly frustrated, Hack doesn’t seem to appreciate Belton’s criticism.
-Huge interception by Amos there. Amos is a player I’ve always liked, and I think he would be much better known within the B1G and maybe nationally if it weren’t for being switched back and forth between CB and safety (and even a brief experiment at linebacker!) during his PSU career. Lots of athleticism, great size, and solid ball skills make him a well-rounded safety. With Lucas and Williams emerging at CB, keep an eye out for Amos as he settles into his natural position and quarterbacks will have to pick their poison in the PSU backfield.
-Still hit-and-miss from Hackenburg. Some pinpoint passes, some misses. Christian is a tough kid and holds strong during pressure, but this shaky line is having a definite impact on his confidence in the pocket.
-Austin Johnson has a nice pass block there. He’s a kid I need to watch more closely, as he is the “1” in the 1-2 punch of PSU’s defensive tackles. Johnson has the size and power to take on multiple blockers, which gives Zettel the ability to use his freakish power and small size to burrow himself into the backfield like an angry badger.
-WHAT THE HECK WAS DELLA VALLE DOING THERE??? Thank goodness for the interference call, but seriously, why didn’t Della Valle call for the fair catch?! That’s one kid who’s lucky not to be breathing through a straw today…
-Hackenburg is not helping out his offensive line right now. He is taking way too long to identify targets and go through his reads. His WRs are having a difficult time getting open since NU doesn’t need to send blitzers to pressure the QB, but Penn State really needs to develop some sort of rhythm on offense if they are going to have any chance in this game.
-Clock is stopped for an injury as Christian Hackenburg lowered his noggin and put his hat squarely into the temple of CB Matthew Harris from Northwestern. Hackenburg is surprisingly fast at 238 pounds, and this was a devastating blow on the much smaller Harris, who is taken off the field on a stretcher. Nobody likes to see this type of injury, and both teams get up off their knees to applaud Harris and the medical staff as he is carted off the field. There is a big sigh of relief as Matthew Harris gives the crowd a thumbs-up from his stretcher.
-Penn State’s defensive line continues to collapse the pocket, and Siemian is forced to throw much sooner to avoid sacks. The Penn State defense seems to have rounded back into form, which is good news. PSU needs every opportunity to keep its offense on the field and get something clicking.
4th Quarter Notes:
-Interception by Hackenburg is returned for a touchdown. This game could not be going worse for the Nittany Lions on offense. The interception came from Walker, who ran it 49 yards for the TD. This kid is having a HUGE game.
-Lions get the ball back after the NU touchdown, and Hackenburg is immediately taken down for a sack-fumble. NU brought some outside pressure that time, but it wasn’t needed as Hackenburg’s O-line allows penetration straight up the middle and Hackenburg is absolutely mauled and NU recovers the ball. NU score on the field goal, 23-6.
-Penn State is in a rough spot right now-they can’t run the ball, and they are playing from behind. The usually potent passing attack has been completely nullified thus far, but with one quarter left to play, they have to keep the ball in the hands of their best offensive player, which is Hackenburg. He took off for a nice run as I typed this, as once again his receivers can’t find a way to get open.
-Penn State fails to convert on 4th and 1. I’ll save the rant, but if you can’t run for one stinking yard, you are not a Big Ten offensive line, and you certainly aren’t a true Penn State team.
-Northwestern marches down the field, feeding the ball straight down the throat of Penn State’s exhausted defensive line. Siemian gets his third rushing TD, making it 29-6 as NU fails to make the PAT.
-Belton finally gets a nice run, as the Penn State line is able to open a hole for what seems like the first time all season.
-After two positive runs, the BTN announcers are already asking why Penn State isn’t passing the ball. Maybe because the inability to run is what has kept the passing attack from working, fellas? Let’s just get some positive yardage, then worry about clock management.
-Belton heard footsteps and dropped an easy catch. That was Walker again, who is having a monster game. Without having the stats in front of me, I’m guessing he has to be leading the NU defense in tackles, along with an interception. This kid is looking like the best player on the field today.
-Not much else to say as the 4th quarter ends. Penn State goes out with a whimper, and the Northwestern squad looks dominant as the Lions are embarrassed on the B1G stage.
Final Recap and Analysis:
Penn State came into today’s game 4-0 and hoping to enter the national rankings with a win over B1G opponent Northwestern in their Homecoming game. In a nod to tradition, Franklin’s squad suited up with nameless jerseys like those the legendary coach Joe Paterno’s teams famously wore. Unfortunately, today’s Penn State team looked nothing like the storied teams of the past, as they were beaten in every phase of the game to the tune of a 29-6 homecoming loss.
Here are some things that stood out from this game which I feel are worth talking about:
1. You may have noticed that Anthony Walker made it into a lot of the live game notes. There’s a reason for that-this kid is a beast. A quick Google search shows that he was a 3-star recruit who played WR and safety in high school. Walker came to NU running a 4.48 second 40-yard dash and weighing 200lb. Now 6’1” and 225, let’s just say that the switch to linebacker seems to suit him. Walker played a great game today by making every tackle he was presented with and knowing when to break off in coverage to make a play against the run. This kid made his impact felt immediately by playing with speed, poise, and a lot of power. It seemed like his name was being called on every single play in the first half, and his interception for a 49 yard touchdown was just the icing on a phenomenal outing. NU has had a solid linebacking corps of no-names for the last few years, but Walker may have stolen himself a starting job today filling in for the injured Ellis. It was just one game, but I can’t say enough about how well this kid played today. He’s definitely a player to watch as he continues to grow, both in size at his new position and in experience.
2. Penn State really needs to fix its problems with running the football. Belton, Zwinak, and Lynch comprise a talented stable of running backs who have proven that they can produce yardage and points behind a capable line. This offensive line, however, has been shaky in pass defense, and utterly incapable in the rushing attack. There are barely even words for how poorly they are playing in that phase of the game. If this isn’t fixed, teams are going to spend the entire year knowing that if they can shut down Christian Hackenburg’s top two or three targets, PSU doesn’t have the ability to run the football well enough to score.
3. I believe that we are really seeing the impact of the NCAA sanctions right now. Although the sanctions were reduced and PSU will get a full allocation of scholarships next season, the delayed impact of impaired recruiting these past few years has really manifested itself this season. PSU came into this game 4-0, but it has been obvious every week that depth is going to be a problem for this team. Despite the fact that Penn State has a handful of potential stars on the field (Hackenburg, Hamilton, Lewis, Hull), there is a serious lack of talented, experienced players on this roster. If Penn State can’t get stronger up front and find receiving threats outside of Hamilton and Lewis, the Lions are going to struggle to pick up wins for the rest of the season.
4. I will come clean as a Penn State fan, but I can’t be much of a homer with this team. The 4-0 record they carried into this weekend was a poor indicator of their quality of play, as anyone watching or listening to the games should have known. Penn State showed serious flaws in its first three games, and has struggled to find any offensive success beyond its top two receivers. Luckily, this is a young team and there is still a lot of season left for them to grow and gel together. The sooner this O-line matures and some third and fourth receiving options emerge, the sooner Penn State will be ready to compete with quality opponents on a weekly basis. Until then, expect more of the same-a defense that keeps them in the game, and an offense that runs hot and cold.