Penn State's offensive line is not good.
Actually, that's far too kind. It is a raging tire fire. It is a catastrophe. It is a unit that wouldn't be out of place at most FCS schools. We've already seen it get overmatched by MAC defenses. But placing the entirety of the blame of this wet fart of a football game on such an already-maligned unit, though tempting, isn't quite fair.
Though he's not being put in anything remotely resembling a position to succeed, we're rapidly discovering that Christian Hackenberg might not be the quarterback we thought he would be; his incomprehensible, cross-field lob handed Michigan the ball in field goal range and provided what would have been the margin of victory for Michigan.* James Franklin, for everything he does so well, for all the recruiting prowess and off-field charisma and energy and bluster, simply isn't a very good in-game coach. In six games, we've already seen more clock management snafus and baffling 4th down decisions to make that abundantly clear.
The receivers aren't gaining separation. A horrendous misplay by Ryan Keiser turned what should have been an interception into an early Michigan touchdown. And, to put the finishing touch on it, on Penn State's last-gasp desperation onside kick, Dave Witvoet did what Dave Witvoet does, what Big Ten officials have done for decades, which is to manufacture a penalty, to invent, of his own volition, a call that will allow Michigan to survive.
It wouldn't have mattered, but it makes us feel better to think it might have. Penn State had 55 yards in the second half. Were they going to go 70 in a minute and a half?
It makes us feel better to think that Penn State was one bad call away from beating a Michigan team that any half-decent squad would have, a team that lost to Rutgers and got blown out by Utah and came in to this one amid calls and demonstrations for the immediate firings of the head coach and the athletic director, for boycotts, for every single thing a fan can do to effectuate change on a college football team. If there were planes flying banners over Michigan Stadium, it wouldn't have been out of place. Then they lost their best running back. Then their quarterback got hurt, and became immobilized.
Then they won.
This Penn State defenses deserves so much more than the dead weight offense chained to their leg. Anthony Zettel and Mike Hull--barring injuries--will both be All-Conference selections at the end of the year; Deion Barnes has continued his season-long resurgence; this front seven is so good and so deep that it held on a fourth down series with the backups in. Bob Shoop sured up the holes in the middle of the field that Northwestern and those before it gashed; he kept Gardner contained in the pocket; he dialed up blitzes and stunts and pulled out every trick in his playbook and almost every time found success. He has been almost every bit as good as John Donovan has been bad.
I feel like I'm alternatively repeating myself or pointing out the obvious, but what more is there to say? This has been the same Penn State team since they played UCF in Dublin. For a while, early, it looked like the bye week had produced real, tangible results: the offensive line even, momentarily, established the run! Bill Belton would find a hole and burst through, Zach Zwinak would power through a short-yardage gain, Akeel Lynch would attack and attack and attack. But by game's end--despite their relative success, the backs combined for 22 carries against 33 Hackenberg pass attempts. In the end Hackenberg had 10 carries, just four fewer than Belton: none intended, many sacks, all accounting for -34 yards, combined.
That's the recipe for a second-half collapse, for Michigan to gain an insurmountable three-point lead and never look back. And the worst part is, we all knew that would be enough.
Penn State is who we thought they were--and that's a bad football team. The good news is we don't have to watch them next week. It's a shame there's only one bye week left.
The road to Penn State's bowl eligbility now runs through Temple and Illinois. Wasn't this more fun when we weren't counting to six?
*That said, it's not fair to say that he's regressed. Hackenberg last year had the benefit of an offensive mastermind, in Bill O'Brien, running a pro-style scheme designed with a quarterback like him in mind; he had an offensive line that was more than capable; and, of course, he had Allen Robinson. He went from being a freshman in the best of circumstances to a sophomore in the worst of them. Hackenberg is a rhythm passer who, both of his own making and thanks to an overmatched offensive coaching staff, has not yet found a rhythm. I'm hardpressed to imagine a quarterback who could succeed under these circumstances. If anything, Hackenberg's personal struggles demonstrate that he's trying too hard to do it himself, and that he hasn't been discouraged from embracing this state of mind because it's actually true.