In the words of iconic funnyman Fred Willard, "Wha happen" you ask? Well, Penn State got its ears kicked it by a lowly-regarded team it hadn't lost to in 10 years, that's what happened. In a game reminiscent of 2010 Illinois or 2013 Indiana, Penn State entered as the clear favorite on paper only to be outplayed in every facet of the game in a debacle nearly from start to finish.
The first half seemed to be filled with missed opportunities that would allow Northwestern to capitalize and build an early lead. Penalties, dropped passes, blown coverages, poor special teams play- it seemed as though Penn State had just woken up and realized there was a game on the schedule. Even a defense whose performance ranks among the very best in the nation looked completely our if sync. Blitzes were ill-timed, allowing Trevor Siemien an opportunity to survey the field, often leaving the middle wide open. True freshman Grant Haley was picked on regularly, demonstrating that this team needs to rely on many freshmen who may not quite be ready for prime-time. Even a rushing defense that was incredibly allowing less than 50 yards a game looked rather pedestrian.
Despite a lackluster effort, Penn State was only down 14-3 at the half, then 14-6 at the end of the fourth quarter. The defense seemed to have Northwestern figured out and the offense was becoming more comfortable. It looked as though we may be in store for more late-game heroics from the boys in blue and white. Then the wheels came off. To open the fourth quarter, Hackenberg threw a pick-six directly to freshman linebacker Anthony Walker, a star in the making who was all over the field on Saturday. In a panic, Penn State then attempted to gamble and go for a fourth-and-one from their own 29. Bill Belton was dropped for a 2-yard loss in a play that saw our right guard block our right tackle. Yes, you read that right. That play was the official death knell for Penn State on an otherwise beautiful Homecoming weekend, where 100,000-plus fans witnessed the first loss of the James Franklin era.
Three Completely Unrelated, Probably Useless Thoughts
1. The offensive line is historically bad. You have years where things don't come together, whether it be players not panning out, ghosts of recruiting failures coming back to haunt you, injuries or just plain ol' bad luck. This is much worse than that. After showing some progress against an overmatched UMASS squad, it's now evident that the offensive line will struggle to open holes or give Hackenberg much time for the remainder of the season. The failures can't be blamed on poor coaching or lack of effort from the players. This goes back to the sanctions as Penn State is relying on a group of players who under normal circumstances would be focusing more on bulking up and preparing for the collegiate game from afar.
2. We need to temper our expectations. The 4-0 start was a complete blast, and there was no reason not to be excited about this team. But without an established running game, this team could lose any game the rest of the way (they can also win any game based on its defense and playmakers, but we can address that after a win). I'll admit I even started to picture Hackenberg as a Heisman finalist, but that's at least a year away. Hackenberg only has four touchdown passes and six interceptions in five games, a stat line that won't garner any postseason accolades. Even Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year is clearly in the hands of Ameer Abdullah, Connor Cook or Tevin Coleman. On the rare occasions where Hackenberg had time, he often misfired on open receivers. He's clearly a huge talent, but the consistency needs to improve for him to be among the elite in college football.
3. The sky isn't falling. Hey, this team isn't perfect but the future is still very bright. With byes in two of the next three weeks, Penn State has an opportunity to get better and heal. The returns of Miles Dieffenbach and Nyeem Wartman alone could make a major impact in extremely thin units. With two more victories on the season, Penn State finds itself bowl-eligible and the team will get to remain together for another 15-20 practices- something that will pay dividends for such a young team. Nearly all of the starters will be back next year and be more comfortable under Franklin's system, with a new batch of talented freshmen and a full allotment of 85 scholarships for the first time in years. While Saturday was truly awful, there's no reason not to be very excited for the future of the program.