The Other Side: Penn State

Penn State won its first four games before losing the last two. So what is the vibe in State College right now? We checked in with a Penn State expert to find out.

For this week's edition of The Other Side, we check in with our Penn State publisher, Mark Brennan, for his take on the Nittany Lions heading into Ohio State's trip into Happy Valley on Saturday.

1. Christian Hackenberg’s numbers are down this year, and people are pointing toward the offensive line’s struggles as one of the main reasons why. Is that fair or is something else going on with Hackenberg?
The poor play of the line has been the primary issue not only for Hackenberg but also the entire offense. Penn State ranks No. 118 in the NCAA in rushing yards and No. 116 in sacks allowed, which has been a pretty deadly combination. Everyone knows PSU can’t run the ball, and opponents don’t even have to use extra men (or even an extra man) to stop the ground game. So where do you suppose that defensive manpower is being directed? Right, straight at the team’s best offensive player, Hackenberg. We can get into more detail on the O-line with your next question.

In terms of Hackenberg, there are definitely areas he must improve, which is hardly surprising considering he is still 19. He is not as polished as he needs to be while making presnap adjustments (specifically reading blitzes). And when the offense in general is struggling, he tends to rely too heavily on his great arm strength to try to make plays that just aren’t there. That led to game-changing interceptions in the back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan. All of that said, those problems are obviously magnified when he’s getting his head bashed in throughout a game.

2. How did Penn State end up here with the offensive line? Is there any hope for a quick turnaround after that disastrous performance against Michigan and an open week?
I guess it would be easy to blame the O-line mess on the NCAA sanctions, and in truth, they are partly to blame. Depth was bound to be a significant issue somewhere, and this turned out to be it. But there is more to it than just that. The O-line recruiting at the end of the Paterno era was a disaster, and then Bill O’Brien came in and -- even before the sanctions hit -- he griped that the Paterno staff had used too many scholarships on the offensive line.

So when three players with starting experience graduated following last season, and a fourth decided to give up his final year to enter the NFL, everyone knew the O-line was in trouble. Then a couple of scholarship guys were run from the team due to off-field issues. Then returning starting guard Miles Dieffenbach blew out an ACL in the spring.

And now you have a starting unit featuring one veteran (tackle Donovan Smith), two redshirt freshmen (guard Brendan Mahon and tackle Andrew Nelson), one guy who was a defensive tackle last season (Brian Gaia) and a center who had been a career backup and had never played center before this season (Angelo Mangiro). Of that group, only Smith had ever started a game before 2012.

In defense of the linemen, the guys who are playing are the best the Nittany Lions have, and nobody is doubting their effort. They just don’t have the across-the-board talent and experience to get it done. Franklin and company immediately spotted this issue, and made the line a focal point of the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes (with some positive results).

But remember, Penn State also played Michigan after a bye. And everyone saw how that went for the front five. Even with Dieffenbach likely to see limited action this week as he returns from the ACL injury, I think any possible improvement will have more to do with adjusting schemes than anything else.

3. The Nittany Lions are rated No. 1 in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game. Are the Nittany Lions that good, and what have been the keys to the rush defense?
I guess we’re about to find out, aren’t we? All kidding aside, yes, they have been terrific. But Penn State has not faced an offense with anywhere near the talent, speed and size of the one that’s rolling into Happy Valley this week. So this will be a great test.

Like any strong run defense, this one has been that way because it has been strong up the middle. Tackle Austin Johnson has been an unsung hero as a space-eating 1-technique and Anthony Zettel has been a revelation as an attacking 3-technique after moving inside from end. Then you have Mike Hull, who moved from OLB to MLB in the spring and has been a perfect fit there. Though a bit undersized, he is very fast, very strong and very smart.

As well as PSU has played against the run, it has had some tackling issues early in games. Keep an eye on that Saturday.

4. What does Penn State have to do to win this game? What’s the game plan for success?
First of all, to have a chance to win the game, I think Penn State has to stay IN the game. That may sound obvious, but as quickly as things got away from the Lions in Columbus last season, it needs to be said. And staying in it will come down to three things, in my view:

1. Another strong effort from the defense. Without this, the Lions have no shot.

2. A smarter game from the offense. No need to force anything here. A three-and-out is better than a turnover. And more of a commitment to the running game, even if it struggles at times, could keep the OSU defense guessing.

3. A more balanced effort from the special teams. K Sam Ficken has been really good this year. But Penn State’s punting game has been a disaster at the worst possible times. With a strong defense and struggling offense, it makes sense for the Lions to play field position. But that’s tough to do with one of the worst punting games in the nation.

Even if PSU stays in this game, though, I’d imagine it will still need the Buckeyes to make a couple of critical mistakes to get over the top.

5. It seems like James Franklin has embraced Penn State and vice versa, but how does the fan base feel right now after two consecutive losses?
Pretty riled up. But there’s nothing wrong with that because it speaks to the fact that there are still expectations for the program. I’ve said for quite some time now, when people STOP complaining after losses, this program is in real trouble.

Remember, when the NCAA sanctions stemming from the Sandusky scandal hit just over two years ago, many thought Penn State football was dead. And that included a lot of Nittany Lion fans. At that time, if you would have polled PSU fans and asked, “Would you take a 4-2 record midway through the 2014 season?” every last one of them would have said yes.

Midway through 2014, not only is PSU 4-2, but it also has a dynamic young coach, recruiting is going extremely well, it is eligible for a bowl (provided it wins enough games) two years earlier than expected and the scholarship sanctions moving forward have been eliminated.

All of those things have been celebrated. And once the season is over, I’m sure most will reflect on everything the program has been through the last few years and be thankful it is where it is.

But that ain’t happenin’ after an ugly loss to a lousy Michigan team. ;)

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