Penn State lost its fourth consecutive game after falling to the University of Maryland, 20-19, Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.
Here are five things we learned about the Nittany Lions during the game:
The defense continues to carry the team. The Nittany Lions turned in another stellar defensive performance, albeit in a losing effort. Penn State’s top-10 defense allowed just 196 yards on 68 plays (2.9 per play), recorded six sacks, forced four fumbles (two recovered), and allowed only one conversion on 14 possible third downs. Due to turnovers and poor special teams play by the Nittany Lions, their defense had to deal with several short fields throughout the game, but they continuously held their own. Linebacker Mike Hull (nine tackles, fumble recovery), defensive linemen Deion Barnes (two sacks, forced fumble) and Anthony Zettel (one tackle for loss, forced fumble), defensive tackle Austin Johnson (six tackles, one sack) and safety Marcus Allen (11 tackles, one sack) all provided standout performances.
All hope for the run game is lost. As each week comes and goes, it becomes increasingly difficult for fans to watch the Nittany Lions’ rushing attack falter behind a lackluster offensive line. Even if you take away quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s totals (minus-22 yards), it still was not a pretty sight. The season-ending leg injury to senior Zach Zwinak has opened the door for more opportunities for sophomore running back Akeel Lynch. Lynch had 21 carries for 51 yards, turning 3-yard losses into tough 1-yard gains and falling forward to make the most of each carry. Senior Bill Belton continues to be featured as well, but only managed just 14 yards on eight carries. Combined, the two rushed for 2.2 yards per carry.
Struggles continue for Christian Hackenberg and the offense. Offensively, the Nittany Lions struggled against a Maryland defense that gave up 52 points to Wisconsin last week. This season, West Virginia and Ohio State put up 40 and 52 points respectively against the Terps. It’s hard to imagine how Maryland’s 86th ranked defense held the Nittany Lions offense to 19 points and 219 total yards on 83 plays. The offense got just six first downs in the second half. Christian Hackenberg’s play has been a reason for the offense’s inability to move the ball and score points. The sophomore was 18-of-42 passing for 177 yards, one touchdown and an interception. For most of the season, he has been off rhythm and his accuracy and poor decision-making has led to turnovers and inconsistency in the passing game. A porous offensive line and questionable play calling have also contributed to the offense’s ineffectiveness, but Hackenberg has shouldered some of the blame.
Sam Ficken is the only thing special about special teams. After connecting on four field goal attempts including conversions of 46, 47 and 48 yards, senior kicker Sam Ficken moved into a tie for third on Penn State’s career field goals list with 47. While he was fantastic, the rest of Penn State’s special teams unit was not. The Nittany Lions punted for an average of 36.8 yards, which included punts of 24, 37, 36, 32, 37 and 37 yards. True freshman kick returner Grant Haley fumbled at his own 24 yard line in the fourth quarter, eventually leading to Maryland’s second touchdown of the game. With Penn State’s defense already getting little help from its offense, the special teams, more specifically its kicking game, will need to step up and provide help for Ficken and the team as a whole.
Nittany Lions freshmen are talented, but also show their youth. Freshman Marcus Allen started his second straight game at safety in place of senior Ryan Keiser, who is out for the season after sustaining a broken rib during practice last week. Against Maryland, Allen made 11 tackles, recorded his first career sack for an 11-yard loss and had a key pass breakup. Early in the game, he made a few costly penalties that kept the defense on the field longer than expected. Freshman defensive back Grant Haley made some huge tackles on special teams at crucial moments in the game, which was unfortunately overshadowed by the lost fumble on a kick return in the fourth quarter. Penn State’s Class of 2014 has shown that it has the talent to make an impact in various phases of the game, but it has also turned in some plays that have been costly, which should be expected from true freshmen. In the grand scheme of things, the ups and downs that freshmen inevitably go through are going to make them better players for the future. Although, at the moment, they’re going to make it even tougher for a team that has lost four straight games to finally get back to their winning ways.
*Section Photo credit to Gregory Shamus, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Rich Barnes, USA Today Sports.