Penn State and Army played sports on Saturday. It rained. Again. The offense struggled. Again. It was football. I have some thoughts. They are below:
- I really wish it would stop raining on my fall Saturdays. At this point, Pennsylvania has somehow made me look forward to November weather. I didn't think that was possible. Stop ruining my tailgate, weather people.
- Speaking of tailgates, I was pretty pleased with the crowd. Most of us who come to State College on a weekly basis and park on grassy lots were told to stay as far away as possible, and it appears that plenty of people did. The weather was awful. To those of you who managed to get out to State College for a game of this ... ahem ... magnitude, I salute you.
- The first offensive series was a perfect encapsulation of this season. On the first play, the offensive line false starts and puts the offense in an undesirable position from the jump. On the next snap, Mark Allen takes the handoff for 3 yards, getting exactly what was there. No more, no less. On the third snap, Christian Hackenberg throws a quick out to Chris Godwin in order to get us in a more manageable third down scenario, but the wet turf (again from the rain, see Random Thought No. 1) causes him to slip coming out of his break. On third down, Hackenberg rolls right, but Mike Gesicki gets manhandled and Derek Dowrey misses his own block, allowing Hackenberg to get sacked. If you're keeping track, Penn State lost 2 yards on its opening drive to Army.
- Despite the failure of the first offensive series, the next series of events had me hopeful. Army turns the ball over, Hackenberg converts on 4th down in a pretty pass to DaeSean Hamilton, and Nick Scott breaks a few arm tackles and sprints his way to the endzone.
- That was just about the last time I felt good about the offense until late in the 3rd quarter.
- Fun fact - Army gave up 37 points to Fordham (an FCS school), 22 points to UConn (who is a complete tire fire), 17 to Wake Forest (this seems expected), and a remarkable 36 points to perennial powerhouse Eastern Michigan. The fact that PENN STATE can't score more than 20 points against Army is cause for legitimate concern, particularly after the progress of the last several weeks on the offensive side of the ball.
- Nick Scott, Mark Allen, and Jonathan Thomas all do specific things very well, but none of them are anywhere near a complete back. This is a reminder of how rare it is to see a freshman that has the kind of skill set that Saquon Bakley has.
- Given the situation with the offensive line, Thomas seems like our best option of the three backs who played on Saturday. Scott has something as well. Both essentially get you what is blocked, but Thomas gets another yard or two because he's a bulldozer, and Scott has breakaway speed if he manages to find the right hole quickly enough. Allen is a nice player and will be a strong contributor and explosive playmaker sooner rather than later, but he's just too small to be running head first into a line that already struggles to hold blocks. He needs to not be a featured ball carrier until he has more time to develop.
- Allen is probably the biggest threat as a receiver out of the backfield. If you figured out a way to get Allen and Barkley in the same backfield with Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins in the slots on either side and Godwin and Hamilton split out wide, you'd have a lot of mismatches to exploit. Of course, we'll never see this, so it's just a pipedream.
- This felt like a game where everyone was on autopilot except for one drive in the 3rd quarter. There was an unavoidable malaise that had fallen over the stadium, which probably had a lot to do with the crowd, the weather, and the opponent. Still, it felt like we were playing this one as a scrimmage until we realized that Army was still within striking distance. By all accounts (except for Franklin, who refuses to discuss injuries in any real significance), Saquon Barkley is moving fine and could have played. We were rotating backup defensive players in on key series and key downs, and there was zero sense of urgency. This was one of the worst tendencies of the late-Paterno Era that I wish would never return. This is a team that Penn State could have put away in a quarter, but instead they just let everything linger a little too long.
- James Franklin can say whatever he wants about not reading point spreads and expectations in public. Frankly, he should say he does not pay attention to those things, much like Joe claimed to never have read the paper and O'Brien claimed to never listen to the media. That's all coach-speak and press conference nonsense. If you don't think Franklin was furious about the state of the offense on Saturday and the way in which this game was attacked, then you aren't paying attention.
- Even if the answer is "Fire John Donovan," that's not going to happen until after the season. Continuity matters, and there's no good reason to disrupt matters right this instant. One of our commenters this weekend wrote that firing Donovan now was useless because we've already "bought the season," so to speak. I like that analogy.
- That said, you can't allow the team to collapse in on itself on offense. You still need to make some changes on offense to become more efficient and put the players in better position to win. Maybe it's as simple as turning play calling over to someone else. Maybe it's a preparation issue. Whatever it is, it's on James Franklin to fix it. Just because you shouldn't change the composition of the staff doesn't mean that you shouldn't change the assigned tasks of each coach.
- Army turned the ball over. A LOT. At a bare minimum, they lost their grip on the football many more times than expected. Much of those errors were unforced, at least physically. That said, playing a great defense in bad weather forces teams into doing silly things. The game is much more mental that it seems.
- Jason Cabinda should have greater notoriety. He's our best linebacker who is not named Brandon Bell. He's instinctive and athletic and just looks like a Penn State linebacker. The two sacks he had on Saturday were exactly what this team needed. He's going to be outstanding to watch the next two years. We're fortunate to be able to watch him develop in real time.
- Speaking of sacks, Carl Nassib just keeps tearing it up. If Saquon Barkley is the Truth (and he is), then Carl Nassib is the Big Ticket. Good things happen when you work hard.
- The fact that Anthony Zettel played this weekend still amazes me. Good on you, Big Z. We're all rooting for you and your family.
- Special teams wasn't the unmitigated disaster it was last week by any means. A pleasant surprise in the rain.
- In the same vein, I know the offense was rough, but they didn't turn the ball over. That's a legitimate accomplishment in this weather.
- I've been on Hackenberg a little for missing the deep shots when he's had the opportunities this year. That wasn't the case this weekend. The only two deep throws that were called for him were both completed, to the tune of 82 yards. If you're keeping track, that means 52.5% of No. 14's yards came on two completions. Can someone explain with any logic why we weren't trying to stretch the field?
- Remember when bscaff wrote this 3 weeks ago?
When was the last time this Penn State offense put together a touchdown drive that did NOT include an "explosive" play? For our purposes, an "explosive" play is any run of 15+ yards, or any pass of 20+ yards. Rephrased, when is the last time that Penn State started with the ball on our side of the 50, and marched methodically down the field to score six points, without the assistance of a big play? Anyone remember the most recent example?
The answer is... ...November 30, 2013, at #15 Wisconsin, with BOB calling all media idiots post-game for making PSU underdogs that week (heart you, BOB). On Penn State's first possession of the third quarter in Buckyland, they took the ball at their own 33 yard line, and traveled 67 yards in 10 plays, capping the nearly 5-minute drive with a 7-yard TD strike to Jesse James. Four Zack Zwinak runs, six Christian Hackenberg passes. No runs greater than 15 yards. No passes greater than 20 yards. Just nickle-and-dimed their way down the field for a touchdown.
- If anyone ever questioned whether star ratings matter, consider that Penn State's most impactful players are freshman and sophomores from the classes closed or recruited principally by James Franklin. Consider that their inconsistency is mostly a function of their youth, but that they've managed to see the field ahead of longer tenured players. Then consider how good this team will be when the classes are more balanced in two years. That's going to be really fun to watch.
- Angelo Mangiro means more to the offensive line than I bet anybody thinks he does. We're about to find out in short order.
- Despite the frustrations, let's remember that Penn State played this game without its top two tailbacks, its best two offensive linemen (once Mangiro went down), both starting safeties, and its best linebacker. Sometimes, you have to be thankful that our non-existent depth can still cobble together a performance that's good enough to win a game, even if it was against Army.
- One more vague defense of this weekend's performance - Michigan State barely held on against Purdue, Ohio State struggled against Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin were locked in a death struggle to 10 points, Arizona State took out UCLA, Eastern Michigan was within a touchdown and two point conversion at the start of the fourth quarter against LSU, and Wake Forest hung in against Florida State until the buzzer. Parity is real in college football, and even blue blood programs who weren't crushed under the weight of the NCAA struggle to put together complete performances week-in and week-out. Let's always remember that you're not as bad as you think you are when you lose, and you're not as good as you think you are when you win.