Questions Persist for Penn State Offense

Nittany Lions searching for answers after feeble showing vs. Northwestern.

James Franklin, on the losing end as Penn State's head coach for the first time Saturday afternoon, submitted to the usual postgame Q-and-A.

Even though there appear to be far more Qs than As now.

“We will get this fixed,” he said after the 29-6 defeat to Northwestern. “I promise you and guarantee you, we will get it fixed.”

But nobody seemed to have any definitive answers as to how the Lions can go about doing that. Not Franklin, and not anybody else, either.

“We've just got to go out and execute,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said after the Nittany Lions fell to 4-1. “That's what it comes down to. We've got to get better.”

Easy to say, hard to do. Especially along an offensive front that once again could neither open holes on running plays nor protect Hackenberg when he threw -- which after a while was all the time.

He put it up an Andy Reid-esque 45 times, completing just 22 for 216 yards, with a pick-6. He was also sacked four times -- that makes 14 already this season -- as he tried mightily to compensate for a running game that generated just 50 yards on 25 carries. And really, the Lions weren't even that good on the ground. Thirty-five of those yards (on five tries) came in the last 7:22, when the matter was decided.

Before that, they had 15 yards, on 20 attempts.

Against Northwestern.

This is a team that, while 2-2 this season, has won just three times in its last 12 games. And those victories were over lowly Illinois last year and FCS opponent Western Illinois last week.

And now, the Lions.

Even taking into account what a previous Penn State coach used to say -- that old saw about never being as good as you look when you win, nor as bad as you look when you lose -- things appear rather ominous for the Lions, who suffered their worst home loss since a 33-7 defeat to Miami in 2001.

The problems along the offensive line were not unexpected, seeing as that group began the season with four new starters. But neither do things appear to be getting any better. Facing a defense that began the day ranked in the Big Ten's lower third against the run, the pass and overall, they never gained any traction.

The Lions did not pick up their initial first down until the final play of the first quarter, did not score until Sam Ficken kicked a 42-yard field goal with five seconds left in the first half and could not generate anything beyond a second Ficken field goal the rest of the day.

“Every loss hurts a lot. … I wouldn't say that any loss feels worse than another. They all suck.”

So, again, how do you fix this? If there are any better linemen in the program, they would be playing. If there were any strategic tweaks to be made, it would have happened by now.

“We've just got to keep going from there,” Hackenberg said. “We've got to understand what our identities are, what we do well and we've got to do what we do well, very well.”

He chuckled then, understanding the nonsensical nature of the statement, as well as how difficult the job ahead is going to be. They can only hope that next week's bye is something of a panacea; as Franklin said, a week off “couldn't come at a better time.”

Then they have Michigan -- an unraveling team, but in the Big House.

Then there's another bye. Then Ohio State in The Beave -- night game, white-out, etc. But still with the same offensive line.

“I hate when (Hackenberg) gets hit,” said center Angelo Mangiro, the lone lineman to make an appearance in the media room after Saturday's game. “I hate when he gets touched. He's a good friend of mine, and he's our leader and our quarterback. … It makes your stomach sink.”

And the season will be sunk if he gets hurt. As it was, he took plenty of big shots from the Wildcats, who have never been known as a physical team. Hackenberg said he felt fine afterward, but those things take their toll physically and mentally. If he can't step into a throw -- and much of the pressure does come up the middle -- his accuracy suffers. And that has certainly been the case lately.

After Hackenberg short-hopped a wide-open Bill Belton in the third quarter, the television cameras caught the two of them yapping at one another on the sideline.

“Football is an emotional game, played by passionate people,” said Franklin, who added that he did not see the exchange. “To be honest with you, I'm OK with guys venting their feelings, as long as we move on from it and there are not issues from that point on.”

That appears to be the case. Hackenberg said he's fine with Belton, that they simply “expect the best out of each other.”

“That's why I love having him as a teammate,” the QB said, adding it was just the “emotions in the game” bubbling to the surface.

Speaking more generally, Hackenberg said, “Every loss hurts a lot. … I wouldn't say that any loss feels worse than another. They all suck.”

But this one somehow looked and felt worse.

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