The Penn State football team is 4-2 and in its second bye of the 2014 season. With 12 games on the slate (not including a now-possible bowl), by our math that would put James Franklin's team at the midway point of the campaign.
Which makes it the perfect time for our midterm grades. We'll handle this in Take Your Marks format, meaning FOS staffers Mark Brennan and Mark Harrington will handle the analysis and both will supply a grade for each area.
Our overall grade will be the average of the two (rounded up when the average falls between two grades, since we are nice guys). We'll start with the Nittany Lion offense.
Brennan: Sophomore Christian Hackenberg started off gangbusters with 454 yards in the win over UCF in Ireland but has steadily regressed as teams have (wisely) schemed against him. In fairness to him, he's been sacked 20 times, including 10 in the last two games (both losses). But if this offense is going to make ANY improvement, he's going to have to be much better in the face of pressure -- reading blitzes, beating them with the short passing game, throwing the ball away instead of trying to force things. I don't see his protection getting much stronger, so that would seem to be the only answer. In a strange way, I think enduring this sort of difficulty could be good for Hackenberg's long-term development, provided he makes it through the season healthy. For everyone focusing on the last two games, remember, without his clutch play, PSU does not beat UCF or Rutgers.
Brennan Grade: C
Harrington: With some impressive last-minute heroics to pull out some wins early in the season, the Penn State offense looked to be on the upswing based on what most fans expected. Unfortunately, that was short-lived with sputtering performances against Northwestern and Michigan. Aside from the obvious offensive line issues Hackenberg's clearly struggling with his decisions and mental clock. Often when the line gives him time he waits too long to make decisions and will force his fair share of passes. I am concerned with Hackenberg's health and head as in confidence and state of mind. The Michigan performance was flat horrible with a consistent inability to move the ball in the second half. James Franklin guaranteed he would fix these issues after the Northwestern game, but they seemed to get worse in Ann Arbor.
Harrington Grade: C-
FOS Grade: C
Brennan: Two things make this a tough area to grade. The first is the poor play of the offensive line. The second is the lack of commitment to any of the primary backs. Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch have COMBINED for 126 carries, which is fewer than three individuals in the Big Ten. So we can only judge them on what little we've seen. Belton has emerged as the No. 1 guy under Franklin, and his versatility is admirable. But he spends way too much time dancing in the backfield and is not particularly quick to the hole, which is not good when the holes are usually only open for an instant. Belton has already been thrown for 29 yards in losses, which is more than he had all of last season. History tells us Zwinak needs a lot of carries to get rolling, and for some reason he is not getting them this year. He is averaging only 2.8 yards per attempt and has yet to catch a pass. Lynch is the fastest of the three and the quickest to the hole, and is averaging 6.5 yards per attempt. But he only has 23 tries. None has stuck out to me as being particularly adept at pass blocking, which has made life more difficult for Hackenberg.
Brennan Grade: C-
Harrington: The backs have shown flashes of promise, but there have been far too few of them. Against Michigan the runners fought to even break the line of scrimmage. That is largely on the offensive line, but against the Wolverines, Penn State's ground game showed promise in the first half and was all but forgotten in the second. I am not sold that this is a back problem, but as you pointed out, there is an issue rooted in the line and the play calling. Penn State has to find some semblance of a ground game to take the heat off the air attack.
Harrington Grade: C-
FOS Grade: C-
Brennan: Replacing Allen Robinson has not been the challenge many envisioned. Redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton and redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis are both on pace for 1,000 yards this season. But there are issues. Since Hamilton and Lewis are the only two consistently viable wideout options for Hackenberg, if one is limited -- as Lewis was when the coaching staff decided not to start him in the loss to Michigan -- opponents can hedge toward the other and take him away. Veteran Matt Zanellato might as well being wearing an offensive lineman's number, since he only ever blocks (he has yet to catch a pass this year). And rookies Chris Godwin and Saaed Blacknall have had the expected issues creating separation. This unit as a whole has also had issues blocking.
Brennan Grade: B-
Harrington: It has been refreshing to see two young receivers make an immediate impact in the passing game with Hamilton and Lewis. However, beyond them the unit has struggled. This is a factor in Hackenberg's coverage sack issues. However, I also think the play calling is a factor here. The young wideouts are not blocking well and this is very apparent on the swing and screen passes, which regularly get blown up due to missed assignments. The coaches have to adjust their play calling to help the 'second tier' receivers find success.
Harrington Grade: B-
FOS Grade: B-
Jesse James and Kyle Carter
Brennan: Jesse James has been as good as advertised, ranking third on the team in catches (18). He is the only Lion with more than one TD reception (he has two). If anything, he has not been targeted nearly enough. This has been a productive position, but it has not been nearly as well rounded as we expected. Part of that has to do with Adam Breneman being lost for the year due to knee surgery. But Kyle Carter continues to be a mystery (only seven catches through six games) and redshirt sophomore Brent Wilkerson has been a non-factor in the passing game (two grabs for 18 yards -- both vs. overmatched UMass). Expect athletic rookie Mike Gesicki to become more and more involved in the second half of the season. Another beef here is a lack of strong blocking, which seems to be an issue for the entire offense.
Brennan Grade: B
Harrington: I am not sure why Jesse James is not thrown to early and often given his size and reliability. Even more baffling is why the coaches have ignored slant routes with the tight ends they have. The Lions ran one slant with Gesecki against Michigan --which had a nice, quick pickup -- and then went on to basically abandon the concept for the remainder of the game. The mismatches the tight ends create are a huge weapon for the offense, particularly given the quick strikes they can facilitate. This is significant given the issues with the offensive line. The coaches have to use them more regularly and Hackenberg has to get his ball placement down to provide more opportunities for a huge target like James.
Harrington Grade: B
FOS Grade: B
Angelo Mangiro and Brendan Mahon
Brennan: I'll just come out and say it: This is the worst Penn State offensive line I've seen. And everyone knows the issues up front are why the offense in general has been stinking it up. All of that said, no one involved here is to blame. Not the coaches, who inherited this mess from the O'Brien and Paterno staffs (and used smoke and mirrors with this unit in starting the season 4-0). And certainly not the first-teamers, four of whom are first-year starters, two of whom are redshirt freshmen and one of whom was playing defense last year. The players get an A for effort -- nobody is questioning that. And because of that, I'm not going to fail them. But we do have to give objective grades here, and since the line has struggled so much in run blocking (PSU is last in the B1G and 116th in the nation in rushing yards per game) and pass protection (the 20 sacks allowed are last in the B1G and tied for 116th in the nation), well, I'm going with a
Brennan Grade: D
Harrington: If Penn State had Garry Gilliam and Miles Dieffenbach this would expectedly be a solid offensive line. Tossing the what ifs aside, though, the line is a cobbled unit as you detailed, Mark. I am surprised, though, that Herb Hand has not been able to get them to make some marked progress through the first half of the season. The unit seems to be regressing and it's not like they were facing powerhouse defensive lines with the Wildcats or Wolverines. I am unsure how this can be significantly addressed given what they have to work with. I would like to see more north-south quick plays like curls and slants, particularly with the tight ends, to take some of the pressure off the line. The coaches have to toss aside their reliance on the slow-developing, big plays until they can get some consistency with the unit.
Harrington Grade: D
FOS Grade: D
Brennan: As clever as the coaching staff was in overcoming its O-line talent shortcomings in the first four games (all wins), it struggled just as much (if not more) in the last two outings (both losses). Maybe it could not find answers in the defeats to Northwestern and Michigan because there were none. Reduced scholarships due to NCAA sanctions and poor recruiting by previous staffs have left Franklin's crew with the patchwork line, and nobody with a clue is even suggesting a change of personnel up front will help. The staff is going to have to try to scheme its way out of this, which should make things interesting when it comes time for postseason grades.
Brennan Grade: C-
Harrington: I think a lot of the college football world has the distorted view that since the NCAA eliminated the scholarship reductions that Penn State is immediately back at full strength. While depth and talent are issues, Penn State should have enough skill to mount scoring drives consistently. I do put a lot of it on the play calling. First, scrap the Wildcat. Second, scrap the reliance on the passes that require backfield WR blocking. Third, start embracing quick-strike routes. The offense has to build up some consistency and confidence and make adjustments that play to their strengths. The line is the line, but that doesn't mean you have to run deep routes regularly that require consistent pass protection.
Harrington Grade: C-
FOS Grade: C-