In the non-conference portion of the their respective schedules, Team A scored an average of 31.3 points and allowed 12.5; Team B scored 23.5 and allowed 19; and Team C scored 35.3 and allowed 26.3.
If you had to pick one of those teams to roll into a Big Ten season with, you’d probably choose Team A. Without getting too far into the statistical weeds and assessing factors such as quality of opponents, Team A’s bellwether numbers suggest a nice balance of productive offense and near-elite defense. Otherwise, you might choose Team B, which looks like it could struggle to score points but would have a defense solid enough to keep it in most games. Team C looks the most unattractive, with the defensive indicator suggesting meltdowns when the competition stiffens.
Bad news, though, folks. Team A is Penn State in 2014, James Franklin’s first year as coach, and that balance never materialized in league play. The defense stayed relatively consistent with its non-conference performance, but the offense went on to score fewer than 20 points in five of the Nittany Lions’ six Big Ten defeats that season.
Team B is Penn State in 2015, and the offense actually got slightly better, bumping its production up to an average of 23.8 points per game and scoring 28 points or more in each of the team’s four Big Ten wins. Meanwhile, the defense wilted in blowout losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, giving up 38 and 55 points in those games, respectively.
All of which is a long way of saying we probably shouldn’t let early averages define the identity of Team C, Penn State’s 2016 group that closed non-conference play with a 34-27 home win against Temple on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Instead, we can glean more meaningful insight by getting a little more granular and looking at specific ways this year’s start was different from the previous two of James Franklin’s tenure. Here are four big ones, and what they might mean as Penn State starts its first nine-game Big Ten schedule Saturday at Michigan.
The quarterback fits the offense
Christian Hackenberg didn’t play poorly in non-conference games under former coordinator John Donovan, but it’s hard to say he looked good. After throwing for a school-record 454 yards in Franklin’s memorable 2014 debut against Central Florida in Dublin, Hackenberg eclipsed the 200-yard mark just twice in seven non-conference games. Penn State went 6-1 in those games, but his lack of contribution was, at times, a disconcerting signal that a stationary quarterback would struggle in an offensive system that often called for a moving pocket. The loss at Temple in 2015, when he was sacked 10 times, is probably the most vivid example of this.
Trace McSorley, who has thrown for at least 200 yards in all three of his starts, has not faced those problems. He’s a mobile quarterback playing a system that encourages making plays on the run. What he lacks in Hackenberg’s size and polished passing skills — we’ve seen a lot of high throws so far — he’s making up for in confidence in a game plan that emphasizes his fleet feet. It allows him to bounce back from mistakes — his own or those of the at-times still shaky offensive line — and keep bad plays from becoming bad drives, and bad drives from becoming scoring droughts.
That has to thrill Donovan’s replacement, Joe Moorhead. Moving forward, being on the same page with his quarterback will allow him to add wrinkles and dimensions rather than simply working to smooth out the basics, meaning it’s reasonable to expect there is still upside here, even as Penn State is scoring at its most prolific pace under Franklin.
The tight end is a weapon again
Penn State seemed like it had a nice replacement for Jesse James’ size in the passing game when he declared for the NFL draft after the 2014 season. Mike Gesicki, at 6 feet 6, was a sophomore just an inch shorter and with plenty of athleticism to work with, but it didn’t work out. He dropped a lot of catchable balls early, leading Hackenberg to look elsewhere in Big Ten play. Gesicki finished the season with just 13 receptions for 125 yards.
Gesicki has bounced back big this year, though. He’s eclipsed last year’s total already with 158 yards on nine catches, a game-breaking 52-yard snag against Temple being the most significant reception. It’s a development that could take a lot of pressure off McSorley, giving him a reliable check down option when plays break down, and drawing coverage away from the receivers, giving them room to make more plays on the edges.
There are signs of capable depth
Penn State’s linebacking corps has been decimated by injuries to starters Jason Cabinda, Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White, but junior Brandon Smith stepped into the void at middle linebacker against Temple and excelled, notching eight tackles and breaking up a pass.
Saquon Barkley missed most of the first half against the Owls with an injury, but backups Andre Robinson, Mark Allen and Miles Sanders stepped in to average more than four yards per carry until Barkley could return in the second half.
These types of success stories are not going to save Penn State from catastrophic injuries to key players, but they will help the coaches mitigate losses better than they have in the past, when NCAA sanctions limited the available replacements to compete for vacated starting spots.
The defensive line hasn’t reloaded
Through all the tumult related to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State’s defensive line somehow remained consistently solid for three different coaching staffs, with names including Devon Still, Jordan Hill, DaQuan Jones and Carl Nassib stepping into starting roles and succeeding quickly.
While we’ve seen flashes of brilliance from some guys — end Shareef Miller had two sacks in the opener against Kent State, and end Torrence Brown has had some disruptive series — the 2016 group struggled to replicate those fast starts.
That’s going to have to change if Penn State is going to navigate this linebackers injury crisis and avoid having Big Ten teams exploit it with a strong push up front like the one Pitt was able to ride to 341 rushing yards in Week 2. Perhaps, Penn State has been spoiled recently by having big contributors ready to take over starting roles from the first quarter of the first game recently, but if the Nittany Lions don’t start seeing some consistency by Week 4, improvement may not be coming.