Buffalo is not a very good football team.
I mean, neither is Penn State, but Buffalo is especially not-very-good. Despite Lance Leipold's immense success at the D-III level--which, one would think, was built on discipline and efficiency, and all those other hallmarks of winning programs--his team looked sloppy, unprepared, and unable to get out of their own way. Despite an uncharacteristically quiet Beaver Stadium, dampened by rain and disquiet and pessimism following last week's performance, Buffalo's offensive line committed a half dozen false starts, was called for four clipping penalties. The rest of the unit played about as well against this Penn State defense as you might expect a middling mid-major team to. Penn State's defensive line lived in the offensive backfield. Austin Johnson and a flat-out dominant Carl Nassib feasted on Joe Licata.
Oh, but did I mention that for large swaths of the game, the Bulls were in fact outgaining Penn State? That the only reason the Nittany Lions led--and it was a shaky, tenuous lead until the fourth quarter--was because of the Lions' success on special teams? That Penn State's 10-0 halftime lead was built on two drives that totalled 31 yards of offense--and that the Lions had a not-so-nice 69, total, at the half? That despite being outmanned and outclassed, Leipold's offense at least tried to be creative and innovative and at times did, in fact, manage to piece together a few nice plays in a row against a vastly more talented Nittany Lion squad?
Yes, Penn State's offense took a step forward following the debacle in Philadelphia, but only barely, only because things might not have been able to get much worse, and only after a loooong feeling out process that gave an entire fanbase PTSD flashbacks to that season opener. Unlike Temple, Buffalo was unable to put consistent pressure on Christian Hackenberg. Unlike Temple, Buffalo didn't have the athletes to beat Penn State to the edge on the jet sweeps. Unlike Temple, Buffalo's front seven didn't get a consistent enough push to snuff out all of John Donovan's predictable, doomed-from-the-start runs into a stacked box.
And so, unlike against Temple, Penn State was able to move the ball, if only, early, in fits and spurts. Donovan--perhaps with some influence from James Franklin, who suggested that he would play a bigger role in the play-calling--put Christian Hackenberg occasionally under center, and committed to the run. With the offensive line able to get something resembling a push, there even--gasp--appeared to be more than the three different runs that all failed in their own special way a week ago.
There were still stunningly bad decisions--like throwing a three-yard slant on an early 4th and 5, or running a two-yard in with 35 seconds left and no timeouts during Penn State's two-minute drill at the end of the first half. Rest assured, even following a marginally competent performance by the Penn State offense, there is still more than enough ammo to criticize the offensive coaching staff. And with the offense able to move the ball, mistakes by some players began to stand out: Mike Gesicki dropped a pair of easy touchdown catches on the same drive; he and Kyle Carter both failed to stay on their feet after making a catch in the flat. But what does it say about this offense that Christian Hackenberg can enter the fourth quarter with 78 yards passing and we could call it at the time, all things considered, a pretty solid performance?
Truth be told, once Penn State started rolling, and Buffalo seemed to give up (or just run out of steam), this quickly became one of Hackenberg's better performances of the James Franklin era--he showed the mobility to avoid the pass rush, had perfect touch on a few deep balls down the sideline, and seemed to finally, blessedly, relax. It wasn't quite a performance befitting a #1 draft pick, but it was one that saw Hackenberg look like himself, like the promising young passer who Bill O'Brien seemed poised to develop into a great.
The positives extend beyond Hackenberg's competence, of course. Saquon Barkley finally got some burn in the fourth quarter against a tired Buffalo defense and looked every bit the player his blue-chip recruit status suggested. Running past linemen, over linebackers, and through the Bulls defensive backs, Barkley displayed a terrifying combination of quickness, power, and burst, and if he can improve as a pass blocker, it wouldn't be surprising to see him overtake Akeel Lynch, if not next week then by the end of the season. He's a special one. That much is for sure.
The offensive line, too, took a decided step forward, despite the loss of Andrew Nelson, who certainly looks like he'll be out for the season after getting his knee rolled up at the end of the first half. Paris Palmer took back the LT spot he'd played his way out of and didn't make any glaring mistakes--which, for him, is a marked improvement.
Defensively, Penn State played this game without three of its top five linebackers, but you'd be hard-pressed to notice: Nyeem Wartman-White , of course, is out for the year, and Brandon Bell and Ben Kline remain sidelined with undisclosed injuries. But Buffalo was unable to take advantage of a corps consisting of two redshirt freshmen and a walk-on, with even less depth behind them. Reeder and Cabinda played well, but the story of this game was the defensive line (especially, once again, Nassib and Johnson) feasting against a Buffalo line that rarely gave Joe Licata or the Bulls run game much of a chance. Have I mentioned how good Carl Nassib was? Guys--he was really, really, really good.
And on special teams, Penn State's success in the last few recruiting classes finally shone--with the ball in their hands, Nick Scott and DeAndre Thompkins were dynamic, displayed game-changing ability. Joey Julius missed a 49-yarder, but nailed a pair of chip shots, buried most of his kickoffs, and continued to be a delightful sight. Daniel Pasquariello, though, was brutal, shanking a pair of punts--and given how poorly Penn State's offense will probably play against Big Ten defenses, will need to kick better or be replaced.
Here's the thing: it's nice to be writing a normal recap, rather than another polemic or a screed, even in a game in which Penn State almost unquestionably underperformed (remember: Vegas had the spread at 20 points). It's nice to be able to focus on some positives rather than dwelling in fatalism and negativity. It's nice to have something else to say other than "fire John Donovan," though I'm very much still saying that. After the start Penn State had, and despite the limp to the finish--it's a bit of a nice surprise
Because, of course, there's a possibility that Penn State's second-half success wasn't just a product of Buffalo getting worn out, or the talent difference finally making its presence felt. There's a possibility, if just a hint, that this coaching staff went into the locker room, made some adjustments, and found out what worked.
I know, it's unlikely, but crazier things have happened. I mean, Christian Hackenberg wasn't sacked once today!