Two years ago when Penn State came to Ohio Stadium, the difference in athletes was fairly embarrassing I would say.
Last year Penn State mostly gritted its way into a close game with Ohio State, and the Buckeyes made some mistakes to let that happen.
This year Penn State looks like a team transitioning into a more athletic squad overall, which is no coincidence if you have heard James Franklin talk about recruiting goals. The second-year Nittany Lions coach wants to have the fastest team in the Big Ten, and maybe it's just perception because I know it's their goal, but they do seem faster, especially among the young players.
The Nittany Lions are still very much a work in progress, though.
Put me down as a believer in Christian Hackenberg’s potential and someone who blames the situation around him more than the quarterback himself for some of his rough edges.
After an impressive freshman season with a bona fide NFL quarterbacks coach, Hackenberg regressed last year for a variety of reasons. With the worst offensive line I’ve seen from a power conference team, he had little time to drop back and get comfortable. He also exacerbated the problems by forcing too many passes and seeming to panic at times when he could have just gotten rid of the ball, but it’s hard to blame him for wanting to make something happen. And he was still a young player in a new offense despite his experience level.
This may be more perception than reality, but it felt like he had more safety valves and easy throws to keep things going under Bill O’Brien than the offense under James Franklin provides, but again that could be a function of personnel.
Penn State’s offensive line is still well below average after losing its best player and replacing him at left tackle with a JUCO player who looks overmatched most of the time. The reports out of preseason camp indicated Paris Palmer was being pushed into that role out of necessity and not necessarily taking hold of it, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s got a great frame but needs to add a lot of muscle, and at 6-7 he isn’t great at getting leverage yet, either.
The rest of the offensive line isn’t much to write home about, either, and both tackles were fairly abused by Indiana’s ends last week.
Because of the offensive line, they have to keep extra people in to protect and that creates some limitations on the passing game, and naturally that limits the effectiveness of the running game, too.
With thoughts of former Ohio State offensive coordinator and line coach Jim Bollman saying sometimes it’s just important for his guys to get in the way while the great athletes do their thing, the success of the offense revolves largely around freshman running back Saquon Barkley making something out of relatively nothing. He has only played about 2 1/2 games, but he is a great combination of size, strength, speed and agility. Barkley can catch the ball out of the backfield, and he can read blocks and break tackles. He is questionable this weekend, but it would seem to me that if he practiced early in the week and he doesn’t have a setback, he’ll be ready to go.
Without Barkley there is still plenty to work with in the backfield. Akeel Lynch, who has also missed the last two games with a knee injury, is not quite as dynamic as Barkley, but he’s a solid power back, and redshirt freshmen Nick Scott and Mark Allen have performed admirably in their absence. Neither of them have the size of Lynch or Barkley, but they are talented. Penn State also supplements the running game with speedy slot receivers Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins.
Mike Gesicki is regarded as a dangerous playmaker at tight end, and he has flashed his athleticism a few times, but he hasn’t been very productive yet. Against Indiana, PSU used a lot of multi-tight end sets, so it will be interesting to see if they load up against Ohio State or try to spread things out more.
At receiver there are a lot of options, but there have been some inconsistencies. DaeSean Hamilton was one of the most productive receivers in the Big Ten last season, and he brings good size and athleticism to the table, but Hackenberg has more often gone to X-receiver Chris Godwin so far this season. Godwin, Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Geno Lewis all give Hackenberg big targets who can be a handful for an opposing defense — if they catch the ball.
As for Hackenberg, he’s still got a rocket arm, but he will miss some easy throws. With only two interceptions this season, he appears to be making better decisions and at least keeping the Nittany Lions out of bad situations.
When he was asked about the difference between Penn State’s offense from the Temple game and after, San Diego State’s coach said he saw them as more of a pro-style team, which is probably a necessity based on being unable to protect Hackenberg with only five blockers and a desire to keep the weight of the entire offense off his shoulders.
Indiana is not renowned for having great individual pass rushers, but they tormented the PSU tackles all afternoon, and Ohio State is a different animal entirely.
The Nittany Lions did find something with bubble screens and other types of constraint plays against Ohio State last season, so they might have to go back to that. Or they might just play it close to the vest and hope for the best.
They hit a pair of long touchdown passes against Indiana’s very bad secondary on well-designed play-action calls, and Hackenberg scrambled for the other two. He isn’t known as a runner, obviously, but he showed just enough last week that one has to assume Ohio State spent at least a little time making sure they have him accounted for.
A conservative offensive game plan would coincide with what the Nittany Lions do defensively, where you could almost compare them to the Ohio State defenses under Jim Heacock, at least philosophically.
PSU hopes to get as much as possible from their front four and then rally to the ball with speedy athletes if you get past them, then they (like a lot of teams) has some exotic things they can do on passing downs to create pressure and confusion.
The front four is very good with nose tackle Austin Johnson turning in a more productive season than more-ballyhooed inside partner Anthony Zettel so far. Both of them are a lot to deal with as they are very active, which is not as surprising from the 284-pound Zettel as it is the 323-pound Johnson, who also had a good season last year even if it was overshadowed by Zettel’s big plays.
Penn State seems to be enjoying addition by subtraction at end, where a pair of veterans who never really lived up to their press clippings have been replaced by ultra productive Carl Nassib and solid sophomore Garrett Sickels. They also rotate quite a bit at all four positions.
The linebackers all run pretty well with middle linebacker Jason Cabinda being the standout of the group as he has 10 more tackles than anyone else on the team.
It’s hard to get a read on the Penn State corners because they haven’t faced much in terms of competition, but safeties Marcus Allen and Jordan Lucas are both rangy, athletic and aggressive.
As seen against Ohio State last year, Penn State will make a team drive the field, but there should be plenty of medium gains to be had if the front four is not allowed to wreak complete havoc.
The practice Cardale Jones got last week at checking down to his receivers (and Ezekiel Elliott) was probably good for what he will face this week, and we already know J.T. Barrett knows how to run the ball against what PSU did last year.
Indiana was hamstrung against the Nittany Lions by having neither Nate Sudfeld nor Jordan Howard. Losing Howard prevented them from being able to pound out solid gains on early downs and set up manageable third downs. What success the Hoosiers did have against the Nittany Lions was a couple of Zander Diamont runs and a handful of short and intermediate throws to the flats and in the seam against off coverage, places Ohio State could have attacked Penn State more last season but didn’t for whatever reason.