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Bruised, Battered, and Victorious: Penn State 37, San Diego State 21

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The Aztecs took their physical toll on Penn State Saturday, but the Nittany Lions continued their rapid ascent.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State continued two trends today. For one thing, the offense continued to improve--considerably and conspicuously--protecting both its quarterback and the ball. But on a less auspicious note, the injury woes that have plagued James Franklin's team only worsened. Jordan Lucas didn't suit up. Marcus Allen left after one series, and reappeared in street clothes, with a sling. Akeel Lynch appeared to hurt his knee, perhaps seriously. Saquon Barkley rolled an ankle and, though he appeared capable of returning, didn't play again. And even Brandon Bell and Chris Godwin walked off limping, though they later returned. With Franklin's penchant for secrecy, we likely won't know anything about these players' prognoses until they return, ready to play. So, we'll only worry more.

Christian Hackenberg wasn't perfect today, not by any stretch. On one drive, he put too much on a pair of downfield throws, sailing both passes past wide-open receivers, running free down the sideline. On another, his 3rd down slant missed one of two receivers, running identical routes in a tight space. That last sentence says it all, though: even as Hack had his best regular season performance since James Franklin came to town, even as he had time to sit in the pocket and make multiple reads, even as he had 3 touchdown passes and no passes that even might have been intercepted, John Donovan still earned every bit of criticism he received for his second-half play-calling.

At halftime, it was all Penn State. Donovan let that momentum lapse during the break.

Nick Scott and Mark Allen and Brandon Polk combined for 8 yards on 8 carries, but Donovan tried, in vain, to ground and pound rather than letting Hackenberg succeed with a downfield passing game that had been working exceptionally well. A Penn Sate offense that couldn't be stopped in the first half couldn't sustain a drive in the third quarter. It's the second or third time in just four games that Donovan found something that was working before inexplicably abandoning it.

When Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch went down in quick succession in the second quarter, it actually showed Donovan's hand. Barkley, especially, had been turning two- and three-yard runs into eight, nine, ten-yarders; and getting 20 or 30 when the offensive line opened a seam. Space, for Barkley, was a luxury rather than a necessity--he took a shovel pass on what seemed to be a broken screen play and broke a half dozen tackles, juked a few defenders out of their shoes, and powered his way into the end zone: just another play in a month-long highlight reel for the freshman. It would be hard to explain how good he was today to someone who didn't watch the game. It's been that way all season, hasn't it.

But without that kind of game-changer--or even the steady, solid Lynch--Donovan's play-calling fell flat against a defense that, a drive earlier, was consistently outmanned. It is perhaps the most John Donovan thing that he finally got creative--asking Nick Scott to throw a pass--in the fourth quarter, up two touchdowns, against a defense he's had no trouble moving the ball against. But hey, at least Kyle Carter made a reappearance--and showcased the skills that's made him Penn State's best receiving tight end for the past four years, though you wouldn't know it by the way he's been used the last two.

In any event, the takeaway can be this: if Barkley won't miss a significant amount of time, and can return, soon, at 100%, this offense will finally have the balance it's been missing since the Bill O'Brien era, an offensive line that can be charitably described as "actually half-decent," and as many weapons, firing on all cylinders, as any team in the Big Ten not named Ohio State.

Still, although Penn State cruised to the finish, and although it's all smiles and sunshine and rainbows here in the postgame, there was a stretch--early in the fourth quarter--when it honestly seemed like San Diego State might take the lead, that Penn State, again faced with adversity, might crumble.

Austin Johnson wouldn't let that happen though, scooping up a fumble and rumbling 74 yards for the game-sealing score with San Diego State driving, down just 6, nearing the red zone. It was a very obvious turning point, reenergizing a dominant but tiring defense, and taking the air out of the resurgent Aztecs' sails.

Weirdly, Johnson's performance was the cherry on top for a defense that had as dominant a performance as any that has ever given up 21 points--though, of course, seven came on a kick return touchdown, another seven on a 21-yard touchdown drive following a muffed punt, the last seven on a three-play, blink-and-you'll-miss-it drive featuring the only two blown plays by Bob Shoop's group all afternoon.

The defensive line was as good as advertised: Johnson and Nassib as excellent as they've been all year; Anthony Zettel, playing with a heavy heart, had his best game in the wake of unfathomable personal tragedy; Garrett Sickels added a sack and pressure came from everyone rotating through the front four. That helped cover up for a secondary down both starting safeties--it was pressure on Maxwell Smith, not great coverage, that forced a 10-29 passing day from the Kentucky transfer.

The special teams, too, took a step back from its excellence a week ago, surrendering not just the aforementioned touchdown return and muffed punt, but also a kick out of bounds, a few shanked punts, a blocked field goal (albeit a 55-yarder), and poor coverage on some other kickoffs. Perhaps the injuries are taking their toll on special teams, most of all.

Regardless, today is a good day for Penn State. Once again, the Nittany Lions didn't play their best football, and once again, they won (relatively) comfortably. James Franklin and even John Donovan are sitting on much cooler seats than they did three weeks ago, and though there's no bye week until November, Penn State should be able to use next week's tilt with Army as one last tune-up before Big Ten play starts in earnest. Getting healthy is the first priority. Building upon the offense's radical transformation is number two.

If this team can accomplish both, October 17th in Columbus might be a very fun evening after all.