Lions do a Number on Eagles

Penn State caps Eastern Michigan 45-7, but there is still room for improvement heading into a Week 3 matchup with UCF.

There are those who say that while NFL exhibitions -- er, preseason games -- don't count, they do matter.

There are no exhibitions/preseason games in college football. Every game counts, including those between teams like Penn State and teams like Eastern Michigan.

How much they matter is open to question.

On Saturday -- a day that will be remembered more for the fact that PSU retired the No. 22 once worn by John Cappelletti, the 1973 Heisman Trophy winner -- the Nittany Lions hung a 45-7 defeat on EMU.

They had a 300-yard passer in freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and two 100-yard rushers in Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch, something you don't see every day. Their defense, led by middle linebacker Glenn Carson and tackle DaQuan Jones, limited the Eagles to 44 yards and two first downs in the second half.

That stuff matters, but only in context.

It matters, because Hackenberg was able to play through the jitters of his first Beaver Stadium appearance, jitters most apparent when he fumbled the ball while attempting a first-quarter pass, resulting in a gift touchdown for the visitors on linebacker Hunter Matt's 11-yard return.

It matters, because Belton was able to get into a rhythm after a 2012 season which began with him as the starting tailback and ended with him buried on the depth chart. And after an opener against Syracuse in which he was only a limited factor.

It matters, because Lynch, a gifted redshirt freshman, was given the first carries of his career.

It matters, mostly, because the Lions (2-0) were able to further establish roles and work out some execution issues against an overmatched opponent.

As coach Bill O'Brien said, “It's still a work in progress.”

The final arithmetic had the Lions with a 574-183 yardage advantage. It was 510-111 over the last three quarters, 309-44 in the second half.

Hackenberg hit on 23 of 33 throws for a PSU freshman-record 311 yards and a touchdown, while being intercepted once. (If there is a red flag to date, it is the fact that he has turned the ball over four times in two games.) Belton and Lynch each rushed for a career-high 108 yards, Belton on nine carries and Lynch on 13, with Belton scoring twice and Lynch once.

Oh, and Allen Robinson, the pro-in-waiting who mans one of PSU's wideout spots, caught seven balls for 129 yards and a score. He has 14 receptions in six quarters of action to date.

Still, Hackenberg said, “We've got a lot to improve on.”

Hackenberg -- obviously “jacked up” in the early going, as O'Brien said -- missed on four of his first five passes, then lost the TD-producing fumble. Just flat-out dropped the ball, as he was winding up to throw. And after doing so O'Brien sought him out on the bench.

“He just told me to calm down, and 'next play,' ” Hackenberg said. “That's sort of how I approached it.”

O'Brien was well aware of what his QB was up against.

“You can take 5,000 recruiting trips here,” the coach said, “but it ain't like playing here.”

Hackenberg got rolling when he hit Robinson for a gain of 43 on PSU's next possession -- “a big confidence-builder,” the QB said -- setting up Zach Zwinak's two-yard TD blast. The rookie also connected with Matt Zanellato and Jesse James for respective pickups of 17 and 27 the next time out, leading to Belton's first score, on a five-yard run.

By halftime it was 17-7, Sam Ficken having hit his 14th straight field goal, a school record, right before the gun.

The lead grew from there, as the defense did its thing -- Carson had 10 stops and Jones nine, as well as his second sack in as many games -- and the Eagles wore down. Lynch ran for 94 yards in the fourth quarter alone, and later had an audience with Cappelletti.

The school's only Heisman winner had been honored with the rest of the unbeaten '73 team at halftime, at which point the announcement concerning his number retirement was made.

One small matter: Lynch happens to wear No. 22 at present.

So Cappelletti, who addressed the team in the locker room after the game, pulled Lynch aside and told him to continue wearing the number the rest of his career.

“Make sure you give it back when you're done,” Lynch remembered Cappelletti telling him.

Funny thing is, Lynch didn't want to wear No. 22 when he arrived on campus last year. He wanted No. 5, but Belton had it at the time.

Equipment manager Brad “Spider” Caldwell encouraged him to take 22, and Lynch soon learned that besides Cappelletti, the number had also been worn by Evan Royster, the school's all-time leading rusher.

“I'm like, 'This is a pretty big number,' ” Lynch said. “Every time I put it on, I just remember the guys before me.”

And on Saturday, Cappelletti was thinking of him.

“It was pretty cool,” Lynch said of their meeting.

It might have mattered as much as anything else that happened on this day.


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