Penn State Offense Struggles In Win Over Army

With only Big Ten games the rest of the way, Saturday's woes against undersized Army are cause for concern.

One-and-oh is all that matters, Penn State coach James Franklin kept saying after Saturday’s 20-14 victory over Army. His team went 1-0 this week, and you can’t argue with that.

True, if only to a point.

There were so many troubling signs on offense that it raises the question as to how many more weeks 1-0 might be possible — especially with the Nittany Lions’ last seven games against Big Ten opponents.

They were outgained on Saturday, 293-264. Also outrushed, 261-108. Christian Hackenberg went 10-for-19 through the air with a touchdown pass to tight end Mike Gesicki, though 91 of Hackenberg’s 156 passing yards came on a single third-quarter touchdown drive.

It was a drive, in fact, that brought to mind how he used to play. Or used to be allowed to play, anyway.

With Saquon Barkley (ankle) and Akeel Lynch (knee) out, nobody rushed for more than the 54 yards backup running back Nick Scott had. Nobody had more than the 66 receiving yards Chris Godwin accumulated on four catches, with 49 of those coming on a single reception.

And remember, this was against a defense that came in allowing 418 yards a game, 90th among the nation’s 127 FBS teams. Against a front that averaged 250 pounds per man, as compared to 313 for PSU’s offensive line.

And against a team that is now 1-4.

Which is what led to the question at the end of Franklin’s postgame rehash: How did he feel about winning such a tight game over a four-touchdown underdog?

He started out by saying he neither knows nor cares about point spreads.

“Do we need to get better?” he asked. “Yes. But you (media) guys can ask me every question in the book and try to get me to be negative. I’m not going to do it. Not going to do it.”

Then he went to his default setting.

“We won today,” he said. “We’re 1-0. We’re 1-0. And we’re going to do everything in our power to be 1-0 next week, and I’m going to come in here and I’m going to be positive. I’m going to be positive. I’m not going to go down that (negative) road with anybody. Love our players. Love our coaches. Love our media. Love everybody. Love ’em.”

There is at least a chance that he didn’t love the media at that particular moment. And a chance that he wasn’t overjoyed by what he had just witnessed on the field.

The outcome was in doubt until Lions middle linebacker Jason Cabinda sacked Army quarterback A.J. Schurr for a 10-yard loss on fourth-and-five from the Penn State 43 with 1:21 left.

“A win is a win, at the end of the day,” said Cabinda, who had a career-high 14 tackles and two sacks. “Ugly win, it doesn’t matter. Win by one, win by 21, a win’s a win.”

The problems were only partially due to the rainy conditions, only partially due to the fact that besides the two running backs tackle Andrew Nelson (knee) sat out his third straight game.

After Scott scored on an 11-yard run five minutes into the game — a TD set up by a fumbled punt — the Lions managed six points on their next six possessions, on a pair of field goals by Joey Julius.

The first came six plays after the second of Army’s three lost fumbles, courtesy of a 21-yard mini-drive. The second was set up by DeAndre Thompkins’ 25-yard punt return early in the third quarter. The march in that case, such as it was, covered 19 yards in five plays, and encapsulated the Lions’ struggles perfectly: Facing a first-and-five at the Knights’ 12 after a penalty, they netted two yards on three plays.

Army had done little but shoot itself in the foot to that point, but the Knights assembled an eight-play, 76-yard drive keyed by Schurr’s only pass of the day, a 32-yard completion to wide receiver Edgar Allan Poe. (Yes, that’s his real name.) When Schurr burrowed in from the 3, it was 13-7.

PSU answered with its 91-yard TD drive, a drive that included the long pass to Godwin and ended with the one to Gesicki. But Schurr shrugged off the open-field tackle attempt of safety Jordan Lucas while running it in from 56 yards out. Just like that, it was 20-14, with 11:04 left.

After a Penn State punt Army drove from its 15 to the home 43. Then Cabinda registered his sack, and that was that.

Only it really wasn’t. Questions were raised. Questions that will surely linger.

“When we go out, we want to take the ball and score every time,” guard Brian Gaia said. “It didn’t happen today, and we know what we’re capable of, so whenever you don’t live up to your expectations, it’s always frustrating.”

And what of John Donovan, the oft-criticized offensive coordinator?

There was this, from Hackenberg: “He puts us in the best situations that (he) can and I think he’s always learning, he’s always getting better. It’s a process for this team here.”

And this, from Gaia: “We love Coach Donovan. He’s a genius back there. … He’s a great coach.”

There are surely several paying customers who would dispute that, though no one would disagree with Gaia’s overall assessment of the offense.

“I think we’ve had glimpses,” he said. “We still need to put it all together on offense. We need to be more consistent, but I think we’re getting there.”

Barkley will likely be back soon, and that will make a marked difference. As Franklin said, “The guy has the ability to make guys miss. We had a few times tonight where we had guys one-on-one and weren’t able to do that.”

But the problems go beyond that. And there is ample reason to believe it is about to become a lot more difficult to go 1-0 each week.

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