Penn State has weathered some adverse conditions this year, literally. At least a couple of their games have been marred by rain. And they’ve been hurt by injuries, again literally. The Nittany Lions have used 34 different starters this year, at least in part due to players getting banged up.
Despite that, Penn State has jumped out to a 5-1 start. It hasn’t always been pretty. They’re ranked 103rd nationally in total offense, after all. They are 86th in rushing offense; and despite the fact that 6’4″, 228 pound quarterback Christian Hackenberg is still under center, they are 99th in passing offense. Plus, Hackenberg has a modest completion percentage of just 53 percent, even while limiting himself to just two interceptions.
If you watched the season opener against Temple, you might think the blame for that rests entirely on the Nittany Lions offensive line. However, after giving up 10 sacks in that game against the Owls, they’ve only given up a total of 9 sacks in the 5 games since.
Receivers have dropped some passes. However, Chris Godwin has snagged at least 4 catches in each game. DeSean Hamilton, whom Ohio State fans might remember for setting a Penn State record with 14 receptions against the Buckeyes last year, has just 17 total this season. He does lead the team with 2 touchdowns grabs.
When it comes to the running game, leading rushers Saquon Barkley (42 carries, 373 yards, an average of 8.9 yards/carry) and Akeel Lynch (49 carries, 262 yards, 5.3 yards/carry) have both missed time after they were injured. So freshmen Nick Scott, Brandon Polk and Mark Allen have been asked to run the ball as well. Hackenberg isn’t considered to be an especially mobile signal caller, but he did rush for two scores last week in a 29-7 win over Indiana.
The Nittany Lions offense has especially struggled on third down, converting only 31 percent of the time, which ranks them 120th nationally.
Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense has held opponents to fewer than 325 yards in 13 straight regular season games, which is the longest such streak in the country. They are also one of the nation’s leaders in sacks, with just over 4 a game. Only Pitt has more. And they are forcing turnovers, recovering 8 fumbles and registering 4 interceptions.
Freshman corner John Reid has done a lot of that damage, with two picks while recovering one fumble. No player, though, has been as disruptive so far as former walk-on Carl Nassib, with 27 tackles, 10 sacks, and 12 tackles for loss. At the same time, he’s working toward graduating with a biology degree this December, then plans on going to medical school.
Sophomore linebacker Jason Cabinda leads the team with 46 tackles and 5 pass breakups. We haven’t even mentioned returning First-Team All-Big Ten defensive lineman Anthony Zettel, who has 6 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups and a forced fumble. Jordan Lucas, whose 7 tackles against the Buckeyes last year was a season-high for him, has moved from corner to safety without missing a beat.
About the only area where the Penn State defense has struggled is in the red zone. They’re ranked 106th, partly because opponents rarely make it inside the twenty. Eleven times opponents have done so; ten times they have scored, which includes 2 field goals.
Last week, Penn State pulled kicker Joey Julius after he missed two extra-point attempts, and Tyler Davis took his place. As noted, this is one of just many lineup moves the Nittany Lions have made this season.
Ohio State hosts Penn State at 8:00 pm Saturday on 97.1 The Fan.