The 2014 college football season for the Penn State Nittany Lions can best be described as a roller coaster ride. The up-and-down year for the Lions began with a 4-0 start to the season, before dropping their next four games, three of which were lost by a touchdown or less. After splitting its final four games, Penn State finished 6-6, going 2-6 against Big Ten opponents.
Throughout the season, the Nittany Lions often looked like two different teams depending on the week. While there were glimpses of promise, there were also head scratching moments. Nonetheless, the 2014 version of the Nittany Lions will be headed to its first bowl game since 2011, which is something that those in Happy Valley should be extremely proud of.
With the regular season at a close, I have decided to grade each of the team’s units on their overall performance. Here’s how the team measured up:
After throwing for 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a freshman in 2013, Hackenberg entered his sophomore season with great expectations. Some may argue that those expectations were not fair to begin with, but what’s not up for debate is the fact that he did not come close to meeting those lofty goals this season. Hackenberg regressed in almost every major statistical category this season, as he completed 54.4 percent of his passes for 2606 yards, eight touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He was sacked 42 times. The blame for Hackenberg’s underwhelming season is not just on him. It can also be attributed to Penn State’s new coaching staff and its poor offensive line play.
However, the former Big Ten Freshman of Year did not do much to warrant a better grade himself. Before the season began, he was considered to be a sleeper selection, albeit a distant one, for this year’s Heisman. Unfortunately, he was never able to reach his freshman form and ended the season having to dispel transfer rumors. For now, the sophomore remains committed to Penn State and the potential to be elite is still there. He described this season as the ‘best thing that could have happened’ to him. The hope is that this season serves as the motivation for a bounce back junior year.
Running back: C
For much of the season, the running game was absolutely nonexistent. Between Akeel Lynch, Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak, Penn State’s rushing attack was an afterthought for most of the opposing defenses that the Lions went up against. The rushing offense finished with an average of 103.6 yards per game, ranking 113th in the nation. It’s not on coincidence, but it turns out that the group’s success heavily depended on the play of the offensive line, which was young, inexperienced, and missing its two best players (Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach) for most of the season due to injury. The offensive line started to gel after it was blessed by the return of Dieffenbach, which fueled the late season success of Penn State’s running game.
The ground game began to gain traction toward the end of year, highlighted by a season-high 254 rushing yards against Temple at home. Bill Belton broke the 100-yard plateau for the first time in Week 9 at Indiana, when he rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown. His day was highlighted by a 92-yard touchdown, which broke Penn State’s record for the longest scoring play from scrimmage in team history. Zwinak suffered a season-ending injury two weeks earlier in the loss to Ohio State, but it allowed for the emergence of Lynch as the featured back in the offense, which proved to be a good thing as he rushed for more than 130 yards two weeks in a row against Temple and Illinois. Lynch should be able to rush for 1,000 yards next season with a more experienced line leading the way. If so, he would be Penn State’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Zwinak achieved the milestone in 2012.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends: B+
Penn State’s receiving corps, including both wide receivers and tight ends, had a pretty decent season despite the fact that the team had inconsistent play from all of the other positions on offense. DaeSean Hamilton managed to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice and set several Penn State receiving records, even though he found the end zone just one time during the season. Hamilton led the team in receptions (75) and receiving yards (848). Geno Lewis also had a good season for the Nittany Lions, with 48 receptions for 669 yards and one touchdown, while leading the team with 13.9 yards per catch. Tight end Jesse James was the only Nittany Lion to catch more than one touchdown this season, finishing with three scores and 35 catches for 369 yards. Penn State’s wide receivers and tight ends ended up being the most reliable facets of the team’s offense. With the exception of frequent dropped passes in the screen game, the receiving corps did its best to keep the offense afloat in most games.
Offensive Line: D+
When words such as undersized, inexperienced, and injured describes a team’s offensive line, it’s hard to imagine that team having much long term success on the offensive side of the ball. No matter how you slice it, Penn State’s offensive line just simply did not have the right guys up front to effectively protect Christian Hackenberg or create rushing lanes from the beginning. There were a lot of hard-to-watch moments from this group, none more embarrassing than when Andrew Nelson and Brian Gaia blocked each other in the game against Northwestern. Also, the rushing attack managed only 50 yards in that game. More importantly, the offensive line allowed Hackenberg to be sacked 42 times this season, a Penn State record. Many of the offensive lineman were forced to play numerous positions. However, things began to take shape once Miles Dieffenbach made his return to the starting lineup three weeks ago, finally adding some much needed experience and playing along side Donovan Smith for the first time. Just like magic, Penn State’s front five dramatically improved. In two of the final three games, the Lions had a 100-yard rusher. Christian Hackenberg looked better throwing passes from the pocket as well. Next year, all lineman but Dieffenbach will be returning. Add the big recruits coming in and Penn State’s offensive line should be much better in 2015.
No matter who walked into Penn State’s head coaching position, and no matter who signed on to be a member of that head coach’s staff, they were putting themselves in a tough position given the school’s circumstances with the sanctions. For that reason, head coach James Franklin and his staff should be given the benefit of doubt for not living up to the hype they garnered in the offseason. There are some things that they won’t get away with, such as the performance of offensive coordinator John Donovan. The first-year OC’s playcalling was not only predictable, but ineffective to say the least. The offense was one of the worst in the nation this season, ranking 116th. The grass was greener on the defensive side of things, as defensive coordinator Bob Shoop led a defense that was among the nation’s elite. In a nutshell, the coaching staff will have to make improvements. With the sanctions lifted, more scholarships now available, and a top recruiting class on the way, things are almost certainly looking up.
*Section Photo credit to Alex Goodlett, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Rich Barnes, USA Today Sports