Column: Penn State Primed for Success in Big Ten Play

Story posted October 4, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by John McHugh

Penn State football didn’t exactly face any juggernauts in non-conference play this year. Aside from the defensive meltdown against the University of Central Florida, a game which the offense nearly saved anyway, the Nittany Lions have handily beaten their opposition each of the first four weeks of the 2013 football season.

The team’s early season success shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as Syracuse, Kent State, and Eastern Michigan are certainly not college football powerhouses. However, as Penn State opens up Big Ten conference play this Saturday against Indiana, Bill O’Brien’s team has some glaring holes that could make repeating last year’s eight win campaign, a tall task.

The first, and most obvious issue with this year’s Nittany Lions is the defense. Let’s, for a second, forget about the three wins the team has; after all, you learn a lot more about a team’s weaknesses in defeat than you do in victory.

The UCF game was a defensive abomination. Say what you will about the disadvantage Penn State is at due to the sanctions, but letting up 507 total yards of offense to a team fresh out of Conference USA is not acceptable.

Quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson both had field days with the Nittany Lion defense, combining for four touchdowns and the vast majority of UCF’s yardage. A late surge from the offense, and a few fourth quarter stops from the recovering defense, managed to keep the game close, but in the end the Golden Knights triumphed by a painfully close score of 34-31.

While the defense was able to get it together in that final quarter against UCF, and performed well in other games, the Big Ten has a lot more in store offensively than even Central Florida. From here on out, we must see the Penn State defense that came to play against EMU, Syracuse, and Kent State.

That defense, allowing 24 total points across those three games, is what people have come to expect from a Nittany Lion football team. If we even get glimpses of the defense that was almost non-existent in the first three quarters of the UCF game, Big Ten play could be disastrous for Penn State. High powered offenses such as Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin would all have no problem, figuratively and literally, running circles around the defense that showed up to the UCF game.

The offense is powerful enough that should the need present itself, it could potentially save the defense. However, the offense isn’t rock solid either. Yes, the backfield trio of Zach Zwinak, Akeel Lynch, and Bill Belton, has worked wonders for the Nittany Lions’ offense. But, the passing game isn’t quite as deep as its ground-based counterpart.

So far in his freshman season, Christian Hackenberg has thrown for an impressive 1,027 yards and five touchdowns. These numbers sound great alone, but a potentially huge issue arises, when you look at who has been on the receiving end of Hackenberg’s throws. Of the just over 1,000 yards the freshman has thrown for, nearly half (448), have come from connections with junior wide receiver Allen Robinson. Additionally, three of Hackenberg’s five touchdown passes were also to Robinson. There is no doubt that he is the most talented pass-catcher on the team, and arguably the Big Ten, but there must be a second “go-to” option for Hackenberg downfield, orthings could get ugly.

It’s never good to depend on one player in the passing game.  When you do, you know that the opposing team’s best defensive players will cover him all game. While the first four attempts to stop Robinson have failed, the talent level on the other side of the ball only goes up from in Big Ten play. If the junior receiver gets covered too well, or maybe just has an off game, it would cripple Penn State’s aerial attack, something that has been vital three of the four games this season (and would have been in all of them if the Kent State game wasn’t played in a monsoon).

So, where do the Nittany Lions stand as they head into their grueling Big Ten schedule? Bill O’Brien certainly can’t be unhappy with the 3-1 record right now. Was there a pretty decent shot Penn State would be undefeated at this point? Yes, but one loss is nothing to feel down about. There are very winnable games left this year for the team, namely those against Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue. All three of these should be easy wins for the boys from Happy Valley, as none of these teams have shown any reason to think otherwise.

One step up from those games, are the four that the Nittany Lions need to be on top of their game to win. Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin all fall into this category. In these games, the defense must play up to its potential, and the Hackenberg to Robinson connection has to be alive and well. If not, some ugly lines could emerge. And then you have the one game that would take a miracle win.

As much as I would love to sit here and say that Penn State has a legitimate shot to pull out a victory over Ohio State, I simply don’t see that happening. Could the stars align on October 26 over Columbus? Of course they could; after all, never say never. However, even if the Nittany Lions play their best game of the year, Ohio State simply overmatches them in every aspect of the game.

That being said, I predict that all three of the “very winnable” games (Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue) and three of the four tougher games (Indiana, Michigan, and Nebraska), will result in Penn State victories. That leaves Ohio State and Wisconsin as the two losses I see for the Nittany Lions in Big Ten play this year. Ohio State is just a better team, and I don’t believe that this defense can handle Wisconsin’s perpetually stellar run game.

If all goes how I predict, the Nittany Lions would improve one game, to a 9-3 record in 2013. I believe this would be good for second in the final “Leaders Divison” standings, behind only Ohio State.

John McHugh is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email jym5764@psu.edu.