Touchdown of Takeaways: Despite Improved Play, Results Not There for Lions

Story posted November 25, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Matt Lawrence

After a crushing loss at the hands of Illinois last weekend in Champaign, James Franklin and the Nittany Lions gear up for a Senior Day clash with No. 10 Michigan State.

What I’d like to do in this week’s Touchdown of Takeaways is highlight a few things from the letdown in Illinois, and then take a look ahead as Penn State gets ready for Senior Day and then heads into Bowl game preparations.

1) It becomes difficult to find different things to note about this team when each game is essentially the same. For about 57 minutes Saturday, the Penn State defense had put the team in a position to win. Unfortunately, Reilly O’Toole was able to string some plays together and get the Illini in position for a game-winning 36-yard field goal.    

It was the third time this season that Penn State has taken a lead into the fourth quarter, only to have the offense unable to run the clock out, and lose in the waning moments. Save for UMass and Northwestern, every game has played out nearly the same. Only sometimes the defense got the big stop in the end, and other times they didn’t.

2) With Brandon Bell sidelined with an injury, true freshman Jason Cabinda got the start and played a really good game at linebacker. Cabinda finished with five tackles and certainly appeared to fit in well next to veterans Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman. 

His play was even more encouraging considering the Nittany Lion defense had their worst game of the season the last time Cabinda was inserted into the lineup against Northwestern. Between Cabinda, Grant Haley, Christian Campbell and Marcus Allen, Bob Shoop’s defense features four true freshman that are now making significant impacts. 

3) Although not necessarily apparent on the scoreboard, a healthy Donovan Smith and an 80-percent Miles Dieffenbach have made a difference along the offensive line. For the second straight week, the Nittany Lions had a running back eclipse the century mark; this time being Akeel Lynch rushing for 137 yards on 28 carries.

However, despite the success on the ground, the passing game continues to struggle. From my completely uneducated viewpoint, it seems that the play calling hasn’t adjusted to the improved offensive line play.

All season, Penn State’s passing game has consisted of screens and quick-hitters because the line wasn’t giving Christian Hackenberg time and the tight ends were kept in for max protection. It worked against UCF in the opener, but as teams saw the film and found the deficiencies in the offense, they have become predictable.

But, with Dieffenbach and Smith back, I think that line has improved to the point where some adjustments to the play calling can be diversified a bit.

4) This all leads to the reality behind Hackenberg and this offense in the future. An interview with Hackenberg’s father appeared Monday on in which he addresses the rumors that his son is considering leaving the program. Despite saying all the correct things, at no point does the quarterback’s father definitively say that he will be back next season (very Bill O’Brien-esque, actually).

Nobody outside of Hackenberg himself knows what the former top-ranked quarterback will do, but the reality is right now, Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan have not shown the ability to put together a game plan suitable for a drop-back quarterback.

Maybe it’s best for all parties if Hackenberg goes the Joe Flacco or Pat Devlin route of transferring to an FCS school for a year before going pro? There’s a reason that Trace McSorley beat out Michael O’Connor for the backup quarterback job: he’s able to make plays with his feet. Whatever happens, the importance of Christian Hackenberg to the Penn State program will never be forgotten. I’d love to see him come back and have a dominant junior campaign, but with each week, I feel a little less certain that Hackenberg will be dawning the blue-and-white next season.

5) James Franklin would never admit this, but the goal for this team coming into the season should have been to get to a bowl game. Anything after six wins should be considered a bonus.

Sitting at 6-5, with a .500 finish looking probable with the Spartans looming, Penn State has lost twice on last minute field goals, in double-overtime against a top-ten team, and in the final minutes on the road against Michigan. A play or two here and there, and this team could be 10-1; at the same time they could be 1-10. The difference between teams 6-14 in the Big Ten is minimal, and their record is indicative of that.

6) All signs point to the Nittany Lions heading to New York for the Pinstripe Bowl on December, 27. The game, played at new Yankees Stadium, pits the Big Ten against an ACC opponent. With Georgia Tech likely to face Florida State in the ACC title game, it looks like Duke is the probable opponent for the Nittany Lions. 

It’s not the warm weather of Florida or California, but the Pinstripe Bowl provides a close destination for many students and alumni in the New York/New Jersey area. For those that have never been to a bowl game, this would certainly be a prime opportunity to visit a historic venue.

7) I thought that Penn State would pull the upset over Ohio State, and I feel the same way this week against Michigan State. This game sets up almost identically to the past two season finales, where the Nittany Lions were able to knock off heavily favored Wisconsin teams.

I expect another low scoring, defensive struggle. But with the emotions of Senior Day, potentially poor weather and a desperate Nittany Lion squad, it sets up perfectly for another upset opportunity.

Prediction: Penn State 20 – Michigan State 17. Sam Ficken wins it on a last-second field goal and the senior’s career comes full circle.

(Photo credit: AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)

Matt Lawrence is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism and economics. To contact him, email