Get to Know: Penn State

A native son of the Midwest goes to college, where he plays football and graduates with a degree in psychology. Soon after, he enters the coaching profession, works his way up the ranks (spending a lot of this time instructing wide receivers), before ending up in the mighty SEC.

And now? Well, now he’s bringing an SEC flavor to the Big Ten.

Insert the name of Ohio State’s Urban Meyer or Penn State’s James Franklin. Either way, the biography still works.

Their teams, however, are headed in opposite directions.

The Nittany Lions started the season well enough, with wins over Central Florida, Akron, Rutgers, and UMass. What followed, though, were losses to Northwestern and Michigan. (Fixed for typo. Thanks, Michael!)

In those loses, Penn State combined for 19 points and 480 yards of offense (376 passing, 104 rushing). They had three turnovers. Most tellingly, they allowed ten sacks. That two-game total equals the number of sacks they gave up in their previous four victories.

If you look at just their Big Ten games, they are giving up an average of 5 sacks a contest.

Blame it on the fact that the Nittany Lions have four first-year starters on the line. Blame it on the fact that they are working with 64 healthy scholarship players and there are 16 are true freshman looking to redshirt this season.

Whatever the cause, the problems up front have bled into other areas of their game. At least one Penn State beat reporter describes quarterback Christian Hackenberg as having bad body language, looking “mopey” and “disgusted.” Hackenberg has 5 touchdowns to 7 interceptions this season.

Partly because the receivers have to get open quickly, the team is only averaging 12.1 yards/catch, which puts them 65th nationally in that category. Also two of the Lions top four receivers, right behind DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis, are a running back, Bill Belton, and a 6’7″ tight end, Jesse James.

Belton is also their leading rusher, but unfortunately for him, that’s not saying all that much. Penn State is averaging 2.8 yards/carry. The number drops to 1.73 yards/carry the last two games. And the club is ranked 121st nationally in rushing yards.

On the other side of the ball, however, Penn State has put up some truly impressive numbers. The team that is dead last in the Big Ten in terms of scoring offense, is also the league’s top scoring defense (and 6th in the nation). They are only giving up 15.2 points/game.

How are they getting that done?

They aren’t forcing a lot of turnovers, only 9 total comprising of 2 fumbles and 7 interceptions, which puts them 84th in the country. They’re sort of middling when it comes to tackles-for-loss, as they rank 45th there. They aren’t even one of the top teams at getting off the field on third down. There are 32 other teams which are better.

Where they do excel in a big way is in the red zone. Opponents have made it into the Nittany Lions red zone 19 times this season, and they’ve only come away with 7 touchdowns, just one of which was the result of a pass.

Pacing the Penn State D is Canonsburg, PA native, and senior middle linebacker Mike Hull. He averages 10.7 tackles a game. The team’s next most prolific tackler is also a Pennsylvania native linebacker in Nyeem Wartman. Following him is safety Ryan Keiser, who also has an interception on his resume. Not to sound like a broken record, but he, too, is a Pennsylvania kid.

Defensive tackle Anthony Zettel has 7 tackles-for-loss this season. Defensive end Deion Barnes has added five more.

When the Penn State defense has cracked, it has tended to be in the fourth quarter. They have given up 41 points then, 20 more than they have given up in any other quarter. Meanwhile, the Penn State offense has been least productive in the fourth quarter.

All four quarters of action will air on 97.1 The Fan this Saturday. Kick off is at 8:00 p.m.

UPDATE: The fine folks at Buckeye Battle Cry wanted me to point out that Penn State hasn’t faced any world-beaters offensively. And so I’ve granted them that the top offense they’ve faced so far is ranked 66th nationally in points for. However, I’ve asked them to grant me that their opponents’ combined points/game average is 24.6 and Penn State is giving up 15.2 per. In the end, good points were made by all…expect Penn State’s opponents, that is.

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