Once again, Penn State played football this weekend. It didn't rain, finally. The offense looked alive, finally. Here are your regularly scheduled random thoughts, finally:
1. So, it was homecoming. Finally.
2. I'm still waiting on those pink and black alternate uniforms. They really would look good on a crisp October day where they can match the Homecoming S-Zone.
3. As we mentioned, it didn't rain. Finally. I'm fairly certain that whatever entity or deity is in control of the weather had planned for a torrential downpour over State College, Pennsylvania this weekend, only to have someone stop it and go, "Listen, you just can't do that to these poor people again."
4. I know the joke has been said about a thousand times, but based on the completely different tone that this game took on, it remains worth wondering if Keegan-Michael Key took James Franklin's place on the sidelines. The impersonation really was that good.
5. We've discussed the weather plenty of times in this young season, but most critics have been quick to blame either personnel or (more often than not) playcalling for the Lions' offensive struggles. After watching Penn State slice Indiana's defense with explosive play after explosive play, it's worth wondering if, somehow, we actually managed to overlook the aforementioned awful weather for the season's first 5 weeks.
6. Despite Random Thought #5, it appeared that the offense was being run with an entirely different playbook. Taking a shot downfield on the game's first play was the right idea, particularly with Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch on the DL. Tactically, it loosens up Indiana's already porous defense and gives the three freshmen running backs (Nick Scott, Mark Allen, Johnathan Thomas) room to move. Even though that's the best reason to make that call, it may have paid greater dividends mentally and emotionally. This team bought in to the notion that they were capable of breaking big plays against Indiana. The first pass showed the players and the crowd that the coaching staff believed that too.
7. I'm doubling down on my comment from last week that each of these freshmen backs does certain things well, but none are the complete package just yet. Nick Scott is the closest of the three. That 35-yard burst showed off a pretty cutback and was a nice piece of running. He's certainly an asset in the screen game, as well. That will come in handy against defensive lines that will be told to pin their ears back and charge.
8. Mark Allen is a unique player. He's small, but not frail, and he's lightning quick. Outside of Akeel Lynch, he might be the best pass protector out of all of the backs. That's going to keep him on the field and a part of the game plan.
9. I found it hard to tell who was at fault for that Allen fumble on the exchange with Hackenberg in the shotgun. The announcers wanted desperately to put it on Hack, but it didn't look like the coaches felt that way.
10. Not for nothing, but ripping Allen off the field by his collar after that fumble is an ugly look. I'm not particularly offended by it, but that's a moment that looks a lot worse in hindsight if we're on the losing end of this game.
11. This game was much closer that the final score indicates during the first 15-20 minutes. A penalty saved Penn State from a fumble that looked like a horrific momentum swing. These are the kinds of breaks that teams need to get in order to win. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
12. But most of the time, it's better to just be good. Like Christian Hackenberg on his pair of 39-yard touchdown passes to Brandon Polk and DaeSean Hamilton.
13. Speaking of Polk, plenty of calls prior to this week to get him into the open field and use him on plays other than the vaunted jet sweep. That fake-sweep/wheel route works if the offensive line can hold up long enough for the play to develop. It was a pleasure to see that it did. I don't care what team we play, there is no one who can keep up with Brandon Polk on that play. He had at least 5 steps on the Indiana coverage.
14. By the way, the reason Polk hasn't caught many passes isn't because of the coaching staff's stubborn refusal to put him out there to run "normal" routes. It's because he's a 5'9, 170 pound true freshman who isn't strong enough to stand his ground against larger, more experienced defenders. He sure is fun to watch when he can, though.
15. The offensive line generally played a solid game on Saturday, from what I could tell. I find it difficult to watch the linemen on the first go ‘round, but it looked like Wendy Laurent filled in well for Angelo Mangiro. Nice to see Andrew Nelson back in the starting lineup as well.
16. That first sack given up on the first drive did not, to me, feel like an offensive line mishap. I did notice the lazy footwork that Hack has acknowledged and is working to fix.
17. Unquestionably nervous to see Paris Palmer against Joey Bosa next weekend. Palmer's begun to grow into his role at left tackle, but Bosa's a tall order for even the best tackles.
18. I wonder how the availability of Saquon Barkley affects the game plan. It seemed after last week, the coaches knew that they would have to put the game in the hands of Christian Hackenberg in order to generate offense with the absence of Barkley. With him, though, does the game plan become more basic, more conservative? Isn't that the opposite of what we should try to do?
19. Everyone wants to talk about Hack's two touchdown runs (more on the bootleg in a minute). I actually thought his most impressive run of the day was the 22-yard scamper down the left sideline for a first down. Critics discuss Hackenberg like he's a fragile statue. No one will ever mistake him for this guy:
Still, he's an athletic guy who has shown the capacity to run when necessary. The runs we saw this past Saturday felt like a guy who is finally getting comfortable in an offense that requires the quarterback to be more mobile than Bill O'Brien's did. He does not have to run the zone read like Trace McSorley, but if he can scramble for yards and make the most out of those opportunities, he'll accomplish at least two things - (1) he'll avoid getting smacked by a blitzing linebacker or rushing lineman, and (2) he'll pick up a few first downs that could be crucial to continuing drives.
20. I know the right thing to say is that Hack made the right decision to run that bootleg in for a score rather than toss it to Kyle Carter. I know it was the right decision. Still, I understand Carter's frustration. When he was a freshman in Bill O'Brien's offense, we all believed he was a future All-American and star offensive player. Things haven't gone exactly according to plan. I would've wanted that touchdown too.
21. Nice to see Trace McSorley out there in garbage time against a quality opponent. Nice to see what the zone read looks like when your quarterback is a legitimate threat to run. Next year should prove interesting.
22. I just called Indiana a "quality opponent." The Age of Parity really is upon us, my friends.
23. Carl Nassib. The Big Ticket.
24. I still can't figure out why Christian Hackenberg struggles to throw the bubble screen. For a guy who can throw perfect 40+ yard passes, the fact that he has issues with a pass that could make his completion percentage rise dramatically is surprising.
25. Welcome back, Brandon Bell. We need you to stay healthy, mostly so we can see you dance and sing and fire up the crowd while you pace in your linebacker space pre-snap. Is there anyone who's having more fun out there than Brandon Bell?
26. Maybe Austin Johnson, since he eats opposing offenses for lunch every week. Zettel is outstanding, but Johnson may have a case to make that he's the best defensive tackle on the roster.
27. When I saw that onside kick succeed, I thought we were in for a very, very long afternoon. Thankfully, I was wrong.
28. For all the talk about Nate Sudfield, I thought that Zander Diamont filled in admirably. He's a good player. The offense has a very different look depending upon the player under center, but either version can be extremely effective and very dangerous. I feel comfortable suggesting that we would've had success either way.
29. The third quarter issues on offense remind me of the 2nd quarter lulls we saw in the O'Brien era. In those games, Penn State tended to look fantastic on the scripted plays. After that, it would take between 4 minutes left in the first and 6 minutes left in the second for the offense to adjust to the defense and swing back. It's an odd quirk here to have it happen after halftime. Still, I did not find the 3rd quarter game plan to be particularly conservative. Sometimes, the plays you call just don't work. This isn't PS4, after all.
30. The next time someone talks about "injury-riddled Indiana" and uses it as an excuse for losing this game, I'd like that person to take a look at our roster and wonder why that excuse should be valid.
31. In retrospect, I'm not sure what it was about Indiana that made me nervous and made me look at the -6.5 point spread sideways. Truth be told, I'm fairly certain that was more about us than it ever was about Indiana. When this team plays to its potential, it can hang with anyone on its schedule. This week will provide a good barometer as to where we are with respect to the rest of the big dogs. Ohio State is the defending national champion. Michigan State is a top ten team. And Michigan suddenly looks like the best team in the entire conference. It's time for this team to take its next step. They have a perfect opportunity at 8:00 p.m. in Columbus this Saturday.