After starting the season winning its first four games, Penn State had its eyes on a 6-0 record heading into next week’s matchup against Big Ten rival Ohio State at Beaver Stadium.
However, plenty has changed in the last three weeks.
The Nittany Lions were dominated at home by Northwestern 29-6 on Sept. 27, and Michigan snapped a three-game losing streak with an 18-13 victory over Penn State Saturday night at Michigan Stadium.
A 6-0 start was once a possibility, but the reality is that this team is 4-2 and could find themselves looking at a 4-3 record despite two bye weeks in a three-week span. The Lions have plenty to work on during their second bye week before they face OSU, but it’s crucial that they fix their sputtering offense, which has put up just 19 points in the last two games.
Following Saturday’s game, Penn State’s offense fell below Michigan and Northwestern to dead last in the Big Ten at 21.2 points per game this season. The Lions offense has scored just 13 touchdowns so far, while everyone else in the Big Ten has at least 20 with the exception of the Wolverines (18) and Wildcats (16).
Things will not get any easier for Penn State’s offense as they prepare to face an Ohio State defense that ranks No. 2 in the nation. Under head coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have dominated the Nittany Lions, winning the last two games by a combined score of 98-37. In last year’s matchup, OSU won 63-14.
Penn State’s offense has looked anemic for much of the season, but they will need to establish a rhythm if they want a different outcome in next week’s game. That rhythm will have to begin with much improved play from the team’s offensive lineman.
Pass protection and run blocking by the offensive line has been among Penn State’s biggest concerns this season. In the loss to Michigan, the Wolverines defense limited PSU’s offense to 214 total yards and sacked quarterback Christian Hackenberg six times. Hackenberg has been sacked 20 times in six games and has also taken numerous big hits while trying to get rid of the football.
In regards to their rushing attack, Penn State ranks No. 119 in the nation with an average of 93.2 rushing yards per game. The Lions only managed 1.5 yards per carry against Michigan, giving the indication that the boys upfront continue to get pushed around.
While the poor play from the offensive line has been the most talked about storyline, Hackenberg has regressed in his own right. In the Michigan game, his decision-making was tentative during the times when he did get protection up front. He often held the ball too long, allowing the line to break down and forcing him to make some ill-advised passes in a hurry.
Hackenberg threw for only 160 yards and one touchdown against the Wolverines. He also threw a crucial interception in the second-half that essentially gave Michigan all the momentum it needed to win.
Coming into the season, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year had high expectations for 2014. The sophomore quarterback began the season hot as he threw for over 300 yards in the first three games, including a 454 yard passing game against Central Florida. But in the last three games, he has not thrown for more than 216 yards and has just one touchdown.
As the passing attack continued to struggle against Michigan, so did the running game, which gained just 54 rushing yards. Running back Bill Belton looked as if he was going to have a solid night rushing the ball based on Penn State’s first few possessions. However, the running game faltered and the offensive line failed to open holes throughout the course of the game. Belton finished with just 14 carries for 69 yards.
For as bad as Penn State’s offense has been, the Nittany Lions are in a good position to try to fix their offensive woes during their second bye week. Fans across Happy Valley just hope that the team can come back from this off week better prepared because Penn State will face its most difficult test to date when the Buckeyes roll into town.
*Section Photo credit to Justin K. Aller, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Chris Dunn, York Daily Record