Big Ten Spring Review: Penn State

Penn State spent spring trying to fix an offense that didn't go in 2014, largely because of an offensive line that never jelled.

Quick 2014 review: In their first season under head coach James Franklin, the Nittany Lions started 4-0 before losing four in a row. The losing streak included a 31-24 overtime loss to Ohio State and a one-point setback against Maryland. Penn State then beat Indiana and Temple in back-to-back weeks before losing its last two regular season games then scoring a thrilling 31-30 overtime win against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl.

With a line decimated by graduation, injury and scholarship reductions, the offense took a huge step back, ranking 100th or worse nationally in scoring, total yards, rushing, passing efficiency and tackles-for-loss allowed. The Nittany Lions were 97th in yards per completion and 61st in passing yards. Despite the unit’s overall struggles, DaeSean Hamilton emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top receivers, leading the league in receptions.

The defense finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring, passing, rushing, pass efficiency and total yards while finishing second in the conference and 20th nationally in tackles for loss. The Football Outsiders advanced stats did not offer any good news for the offense and also saw the defense check in with elite ratings in nearly every measure. It also revealed a stop unit that tended toward a bend-but-don’t-break outfit as the Nittany Lions were in the top 10 in many categories but only 28th in drive rating.

Spring game recap: Junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed 17 of 29 passes for 180 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown pass to Saeed Balcknall that put the game out of reach for the Blue team, which won 17-7. Blacknall was the leading receiver on the afternoon with 71 yards on six catches while Geno Lewis also hauled in six catches and piled up 61 yards. Nick Scott led all rushers with 77 yards on the ground for the White team, which had five sacks. Young defensive linemen Evan Schwan and Curtis Cothran each had a pair of sacks for the White squad while White linebacker Malik Golden led all tacklers with seven stops.

Issues addressed: Outsiders might call getting Hackenberg back on track an issue, but Franklin made clear early in spring he did not feel that way. He fiercely defended the signal caller, who was third in the Big Ten in passing yards but 10th in efficiency as a sophomore.

“Last year Christian spent most of his time solving problems, running from problems, taking a lot of criticism, which I'm really, really defensive about,” Franklin said at the beginning of spring. “To be honest with you, looking back at it, a little angry that he faced some of the criticism he did. I don't know if it was fair, just or realistic. I think in the long run, the adversity that he went through physically and emotionally in getting through those things is really going to help him. He earned a lot of people's respect inside our program with how he handled things.”

Of course he will have a lot easier time handling things this fall if the offensive line is significantly better, and whether or not it will be remains to be seen. Four starters are back while Paris Palmer, a junior college transfer, started at the open tackle spot in the spring game.

“Like I told you guys last year, it wasn't going to be like we were going to be able to flip a switch and it's going to change overnight,” Franklin said. “I am confident that between now and the start of camp, we can take another step and then continue to grow during camp and be ready to go. We also have an influx of more talent coming in. It will add more competition throughout our program and you will be able to see a bunch of those guys at the game today. They looked great and we are excited about them as well. So the more competition and the more depth we can have in the program would be great.”

On the other side of the ball, standout tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson return but end was a question mark at the start of spring. By the end, Franklin was raving about not just his likely new starters Carl Nassib and Garrett Sickels but also potential depth players such as Schwan, Cothran, tackle Tarow Barney and end Torrence Brown.

“I think (defensive line) Coach (Sean) Spencer has done a great job with that unit,” Franklin said. “We felt that way last year. We felt like we had depth and talent. We lost some guys, but that depth is still showing up for us at that position.”

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