In retrospect, it was easy to see this one coming.
Sure, this was the home opener, the first time James Franklin got to lead his team out through the tunnel before 100,000 screaming Penn State fans. But it was also a noon game against a MAC opponent--prime letdown territory--and, what's more, it was a noon game coming off a short week, a long flight home, the emotional high of playing a UCF team coming off a BCS bowl win and all the pageantry that the Ireland game necessitated. And with a conference tilt coming next week, a hotly anticipated road game at Big Ten Powerhouse Rutgers, this was never going to be much more than a tune-up, an opportunity to get into the swing of Playing Football Every Saturday on American soil.
And so, it wasn't that Penn State sleepwalked through large swaths of this game--we've seen them, in recent years, play less focused football. It wasn't that they were particularly sloppy--there were mistakes, sure, but of the type that a young team learning how to gel together will necessarily make. Yes, Penn State was the better team, but that talent advantage was all they had to rely on. Here's the thing: the Nittany Lions struggled so mightily because they are, still, in a constant state of tinkering, of figuring out what works, and so the growing pains of today will pay off in successes tomorrow.
Good teams can fail to put away lesser ones. Good quarterbacks make mistakes. For all its frustrations, this game was never truly in doubt. And the fact that they had to grind away meant that the defense got to make key third- and fourth-down stops, it meant that John Donovan got to try running the wildcat with all three of his running backs, it meant that Christian Hackenberg got to muscle up and make big throws late in the game to help put this one, finally, away for good. There are concerns to take away, sure, but look around the country today. Hell, just look around the Big Ten. If we're going to be pushing the panic button after an uninspiring but comfortable win, then we're in pretty good company.
Hackenberg provided the quote of the day, when the ESPN cameras caught him on the phone with John Donovan. Stuck in the midst of a two-quarter long strength of offensive futility, Hack just shook his head, and said, matter-of-factly, "I don't know what the fuck we're doing." And, hey, neither did we. As he worked his way into and out of a funk that lasted through the middle of this game, it was a combination of factors that had the Lions stuck on 7 points. The line wouldn't hold. The running backs had no holes to run through. Receivers wouldn't get open, and occasionally dropped passes when they did. John Donovan kept reaching into his bag of tricks and kept coming up empty. And, of course, our stud pocket passer stared down receivers, suffered through miscommunications, and threw balls late, or high, or wide. But, here's what makes Christian Hackenberg so damn special: He can go from looking lost and frustrated and annoyed and confused to, oh right, throwing an absolute dart on 3rd and 25 to keep a drive going, a drive that would culminate in the touchdown that allowed us to finally exhale.
At halftime, Penn State was 0-5 on third downs. Their second best drive ended with a red-zone interception. We could focus on these; never mind the late recovery from Hack, who's somehow good enough to labor his way to a 320-yard, 3-touchdown performance. Or, we could shine a light on Bob Shoop's defense, which brought consistent pressure with four-man fronts, and even more so with exotic zone blitzes, which controlled the line of scrimmage, which bended, sure, but never broke, and, most crucially of all, gave John Donovan's offense a chance to work through all of its issues. Anthony Zettel may turn out to be fatally undersized when the Big Ten schedule commences in earnest, but he's surging through the early season and looks every bit an all-conference player. The defense wasn't perfect--it had big holes in the middle of the field, and needed a few drops and overthrows and miscues from an Akron team that, with its 4-wide spread base scheme, seemed designed to beat it. But Bob Shoop looks like a quicker study than our last defensive coordinator, and you schedule a team like Akron to iron out the kinks.
There are seven days, four hours, and thirty eight minutes until kickoff in Piscataway. Time for James Franklin to get ironing.