It was at the beginning of the fourth quarter, after Christian Hackenberg made yet another one of those eye-poppingly "Hi, I'm Christian Hackenberg, 5-star QB, nice to meet you," type plays--this one in particular a step-up-into-the-pocket-to-avoid-pressure-while-keeping-his-eyes-downfield-and-hitting-a-wide-open-Allen-Robinson-in-stride-for-a-45-yard-touchdown--when it became both hard to remember and increasingly irrelevant that he'd started off slowly; that in an ugly first quarter, he overthrew open receivers, couldn't complete anything but a screen, mishandled the ball on a playfake that led to Eastern Michigan's only points of the game, threw a tipped-ball interception that wasn't just behind his receiver, but that was thrown far too late to have a chance.
It's a hallmark that defined last year's team--a slow start before hitting cruising altitude, and watch out when we do--but more importantly, it's evidence that Hack might just be as good as we need him to be. When even some of the beat writers called for him to be benched, he responded by leading a touchdown drive that featured one of the prettiest passes we'll see a college quarterback throw this week, a bomb down the seam to--you guessed it--Allen Robinson. And he didn't look back. When we saw BOB turn Matt McGloin into an actual NFL quarterback, we salivated at the prospect of him working with someone with all the talent in the world. Two weeks in, and I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Any relationship starts with trust, and O'Brien proved that it's reciprocal when he asked Hack to lead a two-minute drill from the Penn State 12 as the first half ticked to a close, the Lions already up a score. If it weren't for penalties, that drive might've produced another touchdown; as it was, Penn State had to settle for a field goal from the suddenly automatic Sam Ficken. They wouldn't have to settle again.
Of course, it wasn't just Hackenberg spearheading Penn State's blowout win, which was far too close for comfort for most of the first half before Penn State's athletic and coaching and execution advantages snowballed into something Eastern Michigan had no answer for. Penn State ran the ball with aplomb, the three-headed ground attack we've all been waiting to see. The defense was the prototypical boring Penn State D--after some early missed tackles, they contained and swallowed up the EMU offense without needing to make a big play. On a day in which Penn State retired John Cappelletti's #22, there was some comfort in that.
On to the grades:
Quarterbacks: A-. It's very tempting to give Hackenberg an A+, if only because he's doing things that no Nittany Lion passer has since Kerry Collins; if we grade him on a freshman curve, he's making this look like MATH 021. It would be foolish to ignore the mistakes he made--most notably the two turnovers, early though they were--but they're fixable. Then there's the matter of overthrowing his receivers--like, say, Richy Anderson on a bomb down the right sideline--but there should be no doubt that he can develop more touch as he gains more comfort in the college game. He's already shown a prodigious ability to make multiple reads, to move the pocket, to know when to cut his losses. That is, the things he's doing are things a freshman shouldn't be doing, and it's kind of scary to think that he's only going to get better.
Running Backs: A+. Take out the sacks of Christian Hackenberg (how stupid is it that the NCAA counts those as rushing yards), and Penn State ran for 286 yards and 8.2 yards per carry. Zach Zwinak came in early, did his bulldozer thing, and gave way to Bill Belton--who looked as good as we've ever seen him, not just showing the patience and awareness to make the right cuts, but bursting into the open field and using his superior speed--and Akeel Lynch, who, yeah, that's what we were waiting for. Both put up 108 yards (Belton on just 9 carries), and Lynch, who'll be the last Nittany Lion to don Cappy's old number, looked like he might be a worthy successor. It's hard to imagine a better performance from this group.
Receivers: A. For this group, it was, once again, the Allen Robinson show--there he was catching a screen, laying out for a bomb, going over the middle, scooping up a fumble downfield to save a turnover. Brandon Felder (he dropped the Mosby-, apparently) played a larger role in the short passing game, and Richy Anderson played a larger role than we might have expected, but for me, one of the looming question has been the de-emphasis of Kyle Carter. A freshman All-American a year ago, Carter was only targeted twice by Hack. As Penn State faces opponents who'll be able to match up better against Robinson's big-play ability, using the tight ends, and the middle of the field, will be crucial for this offense.
Offensive Line: B. Four sacks, way too many penalties, and plenty of harried throws are the knock, and generally those would bump this rating far lower, but they seemed, generally, to be isolated incidents. Hackenberg had plenty of time to go through his progressions, the running backs had gaping holes to run through, and the linemen got out in front and showcased some athleticism on Penn State's plethora of screen plays. So you take the good, you take the bad, and yeah, a B? Seems about right.
Defensive Line: A+. I don't know how he does it, but every year, Larry Johnson turns some previously middling defensive lineman into a sure-fire first-day NFL draft pick. This year, it's DaQuan Jones, obviously, but where did this come from? Another sack! Another couple TFLs! Another few stuffs and more space eating, and leading the charge of a defense that hurried and hit and sacked Tyler Benz, that swallowed up Bronson Hill and the run game. It's only Eastern Michigan, like last week it was only Syracuse, but the returns are promising, none moreso than the second-half adjustment after being continuously beat by play-action bootlegs early.
Linebackers: A-. Penn State's defensive line controlled the front so well that the linebackers only really needed to clean up, and they did struggle to do that early, although the missed tackles were as much on the defensive backs as the linebackers. Without Mike Hull, (Obeng-Agyapong started at OLB) Penn State played it safe, but Nyeem Wartman took the next-man-up mantra to heart, and was around the ball early, nearly picking off a pair of passes. Early, this group failed to contain the tight ends, but like the rest of the Lions' issues, that was ironed out light.
Defensive Backs: B+. There wasn't much for this group to do, and EMU played into Penn State's strategy by slinging short passes, using the width of the field to its advantage. There were open receivers, but the secondary did its job by keeping everything in front of them, and daring Benz to be perfect. He wasn't, and the Eagles averaged just 4.4 yards per pass attempt.
Special Teams: A. I'm not sure there's a better redemption story in sports than Sam Ficken, who went from as singlehandedly losing a game as anyone can in a team sport to today knocking through his 14th straight field goal make to set a Penn State record. Not Bahr, not Gould, not Kelly, but Sam Ficken will go into the record books as Penn State's most consistent kicker. And there's no kid who deserves it more. If only that perseverance could be passed along to Alex Butterworth, who continues to be inconsistent at best. Like last week, the opponent's special teams betrayed them; Dylan Mulder missed his one field goal attempt and couldn't get off the other after a botched hold.
Coaching: A+. It wasn't the hardest call, but sticking with Hackenberg after his fumble required the confidence BOB's always had. The Lions connected on both fourth down attempts, kept EMU off balance with screens and draws, and playing it safe rather than panicking when Penn State failed to pull away early turned out to be the right decision as EMU just couldn't keep up once Penn State found its rhythm.