Penn State improved to 3-1 with a relatively easy 37-21 win over San Diego State at Beaver Stadium Saturday. But it was anything but a well-played game by the Nittany Lions.
At times, they made the Aztecs (1-3) look much better than the struggling outfit they are. And after dominating the first half in nearly every way, PSU still found itself in a game in the third quarter.
Here is how things went from our perspective.
MAN OF THE HOUR: A day after losing his father to cancer, PSU DT Anthony Zettel had a team-high seven tackles to go along with 2.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup and half a sack. What an effort.
CLOSE SECOND: With his top two running backs lost to injury, PSU QB Christian Hackenberg had to step up his game. He did. The junior hit on 21 of 35 passes for 296 yards, three scores and no interceptions.
CLOSE THIRD: WR Chris Godwin had five catches for 78 yards and a score. He also recovered a muffed punt that led to a PSU TD.
TURNING POINT: Thanks primarily to some awful special teams play, PSU found itself leading by a mere 27-21 early in the fourth quarter. But then DE Carl Nassib sacked Maxwell Smith, causing a fumble. DT Austin Johnson, all 323-pounds of him, scooped it up and raced 71 yards for a score. Game over.
SOLID STRATEGY: Penn State began to work the deep passing game and SDSU’s DBs could not handle it. WR Saeed Blacknall, who went into the game with no catches on the season, had four grabs for 101 yards, including a 46-yarder.
NUMBERS GAME: Hackenberg completed passes to seven different receivers, and six of them caught at least two balls.
BUSINESS AS USUAL: Don’t let those 21 points scored by the Aztecs fool you into thinking the PSU defense did not play well. One TD came on a kickoff return and another came on a six-play drive following a muffed fumble that gave SDSU the ball at the Lion 21.
SPECIAL DELIVERY: Godwin’s recovery of the Aztec’s muffed fumble was slick.
WHAT'S UP WITH?
• Penn State’s special teams, which played so well in a win over Rutgers, coming unglued. SDSU’s Rashaad Penny had 137 kickoff return yards on two attempts, including a 100-yarder for a score. K Joey Julius had five touchbacks, but … his low kick allowed for the long return, he booted one kickoff out of bounds, and he had a 55-yard field-goal attempt blocked. Punter Chris Gulla had only one of his seven punts downed inside the 20, and had a 27-yard kick. DeAndre Thompkins muffed the punt that led to the short-field score for the Aztecs.
• PSU sending Julius out to attempt a 55-yarder while trailing 14-13 in the second quarter. It looked like it might be a field-position game at that point, and the defense was playing well against the SDSU offense. The kick was blocked.
• The Nittany Lions apparently losing track of the timeout situation late in the first half. As SDSU was trying to run out the clock, the Lions called two timeouts. The only problem was they would have needed a third to force the Aztecs to punt. SDSU eventually did run the clock out.
• Hackenberg still not being completely dialed in. Before Julius’ long attempt, the QB missed a WIDE OPEN Geno Lewis down the right sideline for what would have been an easy score. Though Hackenberg was rolling right on the play, it was hardly a tough throw.
HIT SQUAD: SDSU’s Donne Pumphrey picked up a key first down on a 12-yard catch early in the third quarter. But he paid for it when LB Troy Reeder leveled him.
HIDDEN HEROES: Penn State’s backup defensive linemen helped keep the starters fresh. They also contributed a pair of sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss.
DID YOU NOTICE?
• Starting SS Jordan Lucas did not dress for the game due to an undisclosed injury. But he was dancing around during pregame. He was replaced by Malik Golden, who had three tackles but struggled in coverage at times.
• Starting FS Marcus Allen was lost early in the first quarter. After going to the locker room, he returned in street clothes with his right arm in a sling. He was replaced by Troy Apke, who made three tackles.
• Backup RB Saquon Barkley was lost early in the second quarter with what appeared to be an ankle injury. He did not return. However, he was seen later in the first half and then in the second half testing the ankle by running on the sideline.
• Starting RB Akeel Lynch was lost in the second quarter, too, with what appeared to be a knee injury.
• Backup DE Evan Schwan was lost to an undisclosed injury.
UNANSWERED QUESTION: Will the injury bug that’s plagued the Lions all season ever let up?