Big Ten Spring Football Review: Penn State

Our look at what went on around the Big Ten this spring continues with Penn State, where new head coach James Franklin has the locals excited for the future. He inherited a team with a known commodity at QB but found depth concerns on the offensive line.

Quick 2013 review: After starting 2-0, Penn State suffered a surprising home loss to Central Florida that turned out to be quite respectable when the Knights won a BCS bowl. The Nittany Lions then alternated wins and losses the rest of the season, notably losing by 20 at Indiana and getting blown out by Ohio State 63-14 in prime time at the Horseshoe. The 7-5 Lions were 2-1 in overtime games with the wins against bad Michigan and Illinois squads, but they closed the season with a 31-24 upset of 14th-ranked Wisconsin.

As far as traditional statistics, Penn State had a very good passing game under the direction of freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and a decent running game featuring a pair of backs that combined for almost 1,800 yards despite a sub-par offensive line. The defense checked in 48th nationally but only eighth in the Big Ten with a little better run defense than pass. Penn State was an average red zone team but struggled offensively on third down.

In terms of advanced stats from Football Outsiders, the story was quite the opposite as the offense checked in at only No. 72 nationally in F/+ and the defense shot all the way up to 34th. The only worse offenses in the Big Ten in terms of offensive S&P+ (think slugging percentage plus on-base percentage in baseball) was Purdue with Penn State's checking in 84th nationally. On standard downs, the Lions' offense was 89th, and it was only 78th on passing downs with the running game 98th in offensive S&P+ and the passing game checking in 71st.

Meanwhile the defensive S&P+ had them 23rd nationally and fourth in the Big Ten. They were really good against the run (8th) and 21st on standard downs while checking in 39th on passing downs and 48th against the pass. While those numbers measure efficiency and explosiveness per play, the Lions ranked 29th in defensive drive efficiency.

Spring game recap:The Blue team, which consisted at least mostly of projected starters, pummeled the White 37-0 in front of an estimated crowd of 72,000 at Beaver Stadium.

Hackenberg completed 4 of 10 passes for 43 yards while Michael O'Connor, a three-star recruit who enrolled in January, went 11 for 16 for 81 yards for the Blue. Walk-on Cole Chiappiale led all rushers with 63 yards, including touchdown runs of 1 and 23 yards, while Matt Zanellato was the leading receiver with 68 yards on two catches. That included a 56-yard TD toss from fellow wide receiver Eugene Lewis. Veteran end C.J. Olaniyan led all tacklers with five stops for the Blue. That included 2.5 sacks and three tackles-for-loss. Ryan Keiser, Tyrone Smith and Trevor Williams all had interceptions for the Blue.

Issues addressed: It might only really be news if he said the opposite, but new head coach James Franklin came out of spring practice feeling good about the progress his squad made.

"We got a lot of work done this spring," he said after the spring game. "I think everyone can tell, we still have a long way to go, but our focus every single day is on getting better from now until our first game against Central Florida."

He also acknowledged the defense is ahead of the offense at this point.

"I don't think there's any doubt about that. It was either that or we really wanted to work on our punting game, we wanted to get (Chris) Gulla a lot of work. I don't know if that necessarily was it. We have a lot of work to do. I think our defense is slightly ahead."

He saw differences primarily between the defensive line, which returns both starting ends and another veteran who has played well in the past, Anthony Zettel, has moved inside.

"We have some talent on the perimeter and in the backfield, at the quarterback position, but we have to get some things resolved up front," Franklin said. "We're going to have to be creative with that and we're going to have to continue developing these guys. I think that's where it shows up the most -- up front."

Zettel was recognized as one of the defense's top performers through spring with the Jim O'Hora Award while a similar offensive honor went to Brian Galia, a sophomore who moved to offensive line from defense this spring.

Galia's move was necessitated by a lack of depth Franklin admitted is unique from other stops in his coaching career.

As for the defense, new coordinator Bob Schoop said he saw the group, which returns seven starters from last year, pick up the new terminology better than he expected, praising veteran linebacker Mike Hull and safeties Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser with taking charge as leaders.

While Franklin raved about the depth of the defensive line, Schoop described the scheme in the secondary, where Amos and Keiser are joined as returning starters by cornerback Jordan Lucas, as one that will challenge every throw.

"That's who we are," Schoop said. "I think Adrian Amos has as unique of a skill set as I've ever been around. If he makes the commitment to do it, he could be the best defensive back or safety in all of college football next year. Ryan Keiser is an extremely great player with a great story. He's that proverbial quarterback (of the defense)."

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