Five Things We Learned: Penn State vs Michigan
A sea of white painted Beaver Stadium on Saturday as Michigan (9-2, 6-1 B1G) strolled into Happy Valley looking to challenge Penn State (7-4, 4-3 B1G) in its annual White Out game. Both offenses got off to hot starts as each scored on their first drive. The Nittany Lions got on the board first by knocking in a field goal set up by a 56-yard Saquon Barkley run, while the Wolverines answered back by driving down the field 89 yards in seven plays capped off by a Jake Butt touchdown reception. Another score would not occur until the final two minutes of the first half when Christian Hackenberg connected with Saeed Blacknall on a 25-yard bomb for a touchdown that would take the lead. Jake Rudock took over on the ensuing drive and led Michigan to another touchdown right before the half, earning them the 14-10 lead heading into the midway point.
The Lions found themselves playing catch-up after Michigan scored off of a muffed punt on Penn State’s own nine-yard line. The blue and white found their way into the red zone on offense, but were unable to finish the job as they settled multiple times for field goals, but cut the deficit to five with eight minutes remaining. Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines put the nail in the coffin by punching in the game’s final score with five minutes remaining, making it a two score ball game at 28-16.
Here are a few things the Penn State faithful can take away from the senior day loss in the final home game of the 2015 campaign:
1. Saquon is human
The crowd erupted in cheers as number 26 ran his way right through the offensive line and down the Penn State sideline before being chased and brought down at the Michigan 9-yard line on just his first carry of the game.
All year long, the freshman has made huge plays for his squad and established a run game that has not been present in the Lions backfield for quite some time, and it appeared his first run would be the first of many on Saturday. But the Wolverines had other plans, as they locked him down and limited him to just 12 more yards on 14 carries the remainder of the game.
The lack of support in the run game hindered the Lions’ offense the remainder of the game, especially close to the end zone when Barkley touched the ball four times within the 10-yard line, combining for a total of zero yards.
The end result was the young running back’s first game without a touchdown since facing Ohio State and his fewest number of carries since he was injured in the San Diego State game. It may have been an off day for him, but he will have plenty of time to make up for it in the coming years with the Nittany Lions.
2. White Outs make an impact
White Out games create one of the most hostile environments in all of college football and it showed as the home crowd of over 107,000 strong left its mark on the field.
The Michigan offense struggled to stay coordinated and get plays off in time as it was called for several false starts and holding penalties, among other penalties during the contest. The flags that rained on the field matched the Michigan’s maize colored helmets as they recorded a total of 13 penalties for 117 yards.
A fair deal of that could be in part due to the shaking mirage of fans pumping white pom-poms and the swarming buzz that overtakes offensive calls and signals.
The atmosphere is definitely one that causes distress to opposing offenses and gives the Nittany Lions a true home-field advantage.
3. Coaching staff has zero confidence in offense
Coach James Franklin has mentioned in the past his dislike for gambling and everything about it, and he proved it against Michigan as he decided to settle for field goals in potential game-changing situations instead of going for it.
Three times during the game, Franklin had his team inside the 10-yard line with first-and-goal situations. All turned into fourth-and-goals, twice from the Michigan six and once from the one, as Tyler Davis was rushed onto the field to just get some points on the board.
When asked about his decision with eight minutes left on the one yard line Franklin said, “It was take the points now or go for the touchdown and go for two…We had a bunch of big plays that got us down to the low red zone and then we had a hard time punching it in so at that point we felt like at that point it was in the team’s best interest.”
Every week it seems the coaching staff is in question again and again, whether it be from clock management, mishandling of timeouts or play-calling. It is apparent there are some issues on the coaching staff that will need to address in the offseason and next season there will be many questions to answer.
4. Team struggles to transition after big drives
Momentum is a powerful thing in sports, where after a team makes a few big plays they can usually get all cylinders firing on both sides of the ball. Penn State has a hard time sustaining their momentum after defensive turnovers or offensive scores by not capitalizing on the chances they get.
In the Michigan game, every Michigan score either came off a Nittany Lion turnover or immediately after a Penn State score. Meanwhile, the Lions’ defense caused an interception and blocked a punt. While they did score their only touchdown after the blocked punt, the drive following the interception went three-and-out after gaining just two yards.
The team also has seen kickoffs taken back for big gains after putting up points, including one by Jourdan Lewis that went 55 yards on Saturday, and others like returns that went to the house by both San Diego State and Northwestern.
These situations cause Penn State to become deflated just minutes after they made a significant play in the game. If both sides of the ball could have worked together and played off of one another, they could have possibly got more points on the board and taken over the game.
5. Hackenberg will be missed
Like him or not, Christian Hackenberg is one of the best to ever dawn the black shoes and classic blues.
The junior has broken nearly every passing record held by the program and has led his team to victories in big-time games, including the unlikely comeback against Michigan in four overtimes during his freshman season. He also helped Penn State earn their first postseason victory since the sanctions were dropped last season in the shootout at the Pinstripe Bowl.
Yet still, the man’s reputation tends to be tainted by his pitfalls, including his inability to perform at a near-perfect standard inside a pocket that is constantly collapsing. While it may not entirely be the offensive line’s fault, know Hackenberg reached the 100-sack club this past Saturday against Michigan, a club that no quarterback wants any part of.
Many fans also forget the fact he has stayed with the Lions week in and week out despite knowing of the sanctions during his recruitment, his lack of protection, and limitations from play calling. Still, he picks himself up after each big hit and lines up to take another each offensive drive.
It is still uncertain whether No. 14 will be back in the blue and whites next year or if he will declare for the NFL draft in May, but what is certain is the fact that he will not be forgotten by Nittany nation and there will be big shoes left to fill when he does depart from University Park.
Ryan Berti is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter:@RBirdman7.