It was truly nice to get back to a more-traditional football game in the spring scrimmage--though the stacking of starters for both offense and defense on one squad (Blue) didn't make for much audience enjoyment. The game started out incredibly slow, with the only first quarter score coming from a 26-yard Sam Ficken field goal on Christian Hackenberg's second of three offensive series; the returning B1G Frosh of the Year went 4 of 10 for 43 yards on the day. Once Hack hit the bench, Michael O'Connor led the Blue for the rest of the day, going 11 of 16 for 81 yards with no turnovers but no TDs. Walk ons DJ Crook and Austin Whipple took turns for the White, going a combined 11 of 23 for 75 yards and three interceptions. Ooof (for all stats of the game, check out the GoPSUSports box score).
Head coach James Franklin wasn't on the sidelines for the game--he was on the field, behind the quarterback, taking notes and whistling the stoppage of play for every sack. He had to do this nine times on Saturday, as no quarterback was immune to the defensive line's pressure, and the coaches were rotating through different formations in the offensive line to see what stuck. The o-line's documented depth issues were further hampered when presumed-starting center Wendy Laurent limped off the field in the second quarter and didn't return to the game.
Overall, the defense was leaps and bounds ahead of the offense--to be expected. The first string defense looks solid so far, including a rotation of linebackers that was surprising even a few weeks ago; State College native Matt Baney got the start, and notched a pick six. Gary Wooten also saw significant time at MLB for Mike Hull, who presumably had little to prove; Nyeem Wartman was out with an injury suffered earlier in the spring, and Ben Kline is still working his way back. The starting defensive line looks incredibly solid, and the rotation of defensive backs seems to be a very early strength for the Nittany Lions.
The offensive skill positions were most difficult to judge, as Kyle Carter seemed uncharacteristically sloppy and Jesse James was limited in his role (Adam Breneman, the third major TE in this offense, still out with a bone bruise). The wideouts have some work to do with Hack in the offseason, but flashes of brilliance from DeAndre Thompkins and RS FR DaeSean Hamilton were apparent. The starting trio of Geno Lewis, Matt Zanellato, and Richy Anderson seem, for now, to be solidified--and with good reason--but that all could change once summer practice, and the incoming freshmen, hit. Running backs were even stranger, as Zach Zwinak didn't take a single snap (after reportedly not seeing time in the most recent practice scrimmage as well); Bill Belton only logged one carry, and Akeel Lynch had four. That's...perplexing, since none of those three had the starting job well in hand at the end of the 2013 season, and the competition will only get tougher from here on out.
BSD Player of the Game
Cole Chiappialle, and it isn't even close. The walk-on running back from Beaver Falls (home of Joe Namath!) proved himself in spring practice; as running backs coach and special teams coordinator Charles Huff put it, "The thing about Cole is he does the little things right and the game of football rewards people who do the little things right. He's not the fastest, he's not the biggest and he's not the strongest, but he does the little things right and when you can do that you can create opportunities for yourself. It's no different than life...today I was excited for him, definitely proud of him, but I kind of expected that from him."
Huff and the coaching staff might have expected it from Chip, but those of us in the stands definitely didn't. After not taking a snap last season, and losing his mother unexpectedly last month, Chiappialle wowed in Beaver Stadium on Saturday to the tune of nine rushes for 63 yards (7 ypc) and 2 TDs. He took a number of direct snaps, and also played a part in the passing game, logging two receptions for 17 yards. Franklin said that they had four good backs, and at this point it might still be hyperbole, but it's still wonderful to hear.
Three Completely Unrelated, Probably Useless Thoughts
1) WILDCAT (not Wild Lion). Coach Franklin showed a lot of trickeration this spring game (when's the last time you saw a reverse that actually worked for a Penn State squad?) but the one that he used most consistently this week, for both squads, was lining up a running back to take a direct snap. According to Lynch, the three top running backs are looking forward to the expanding of this package--even though Franklin won't be changing the name.
That will be a part of our offense. How much? I'm not sure. It depends how camp goes. We'll probably limit how much we run [Christian] Hackenberg, obviously, so a way to get that package into your offense is to do it out of the wildcat. You're able to do true 11-on-11, offense vs. defense. Every other offense you run, the defense has an advantage of plus-one on you. I think it makes sense. We've had a lot of success with it in the past. It will be a part. How big of a part it is will wait to be seen.
It also helps that you have multiple skill position guys who played QB in high school, like Belton and the only person to pass for a touchdown in this year's spring game--wide receiver Lewis.
2) Special teams will obviously be a big focus for this coaching staff, and for good reason--Penn State couldn't have gotten much worse last year. Adrian Amos was back for Blue on kick returns--a bit of a surprise. For punts, a trio of players fielded returns in the spring scrimmage--and only one was really expected (Gregg Garrity, who spent time on special teams last year--and who also did kick returns for the white team). Starting CB Jordan Lucas was the first one back to take punts for the Blue squad, and Thompkins replaced him about halfway through the game--nary a white safety to be found (Jesse Della Valle and Von Walker, we hardly knew ye on special teams apparently). Also surprising on special teams--in a good way--were the number of starters getting reps--in particular, Anthony Zettel and his awesome pseudo-half-jersey being in on punt protection of Gulla whenever he was punting for the Blue. Special teams is serious business, and here's hoping there won't be any returns given up for TDs next year.
3) Three is for third downs. It's also the number of third downs converted by both squads combined in the spring scrimmage...not really a good statistic considering that was arguably the worst offensive statistic the team had in 2013. Just keep telling yourself that it's only spring ball, and the defense is always in front of the offense. Maybe then we can all sleep at night, despite the horrendous lack of depth on offensive line.