A win is a win, but last week’s sloppy performance in Ireland against UCF has Penn State looking for improvement.
James Franklin wasn’t shy this week in stating he expects a more disciplined performance out of his Nittany Lions (1-0, 0-0 Big Ten) against the Akron Zips (1-0, 0-0 MAC) following nine penalties for 90 yards in the 26-24 win over the Knights.
He also expects better ball security after watching the Lions turn the ball over three times (two interceptions, one fumble lost) in the Croke Park Classic. Despite the three turnovers, the Lions were still able to dominate possession in the game and get the win despite the miscues.
Even though the first-year Penn State coach doesn’t like to see the ball turn hands, with Christian Hackenberg throwing 47 times and receiving little to no ground game support, a few interceptions on forced throws wasn’t surprising (Read more on Hackenberg here). Hackenberg would like to have those two back and will certainly look back at the film and learn from his mistakes.
While cutting down on the unforced errors could certainly help the Lions this week, a bounce-back performance from the running game would help just as much.
After running the ball down opponents’ throats in 2013, the Nittany Lions were held to just 57 yards on 28 attempts against UCF. Neither Zach Zwinak nor Bill Belton were able to find much room and it forced offensive coordinator John Donovan to lean heavily on Hackenberg and the passing game to move the ball.
Good news could be on the way, however, as the Zips defense surrendered 163 yards rushing per game last season. That combined with a patchwork, young offensive line having a week of live game action to build continuity could prompt a return to the Penn State rushing attack we saw last season.
Even if the ground game remains grounded, for lack of better term, Hackenberg proved last week that he can get the job done through the air even when the opponent knows its coming. The sophomore was able to pick apart UCF’s prevent defense in the final minute on the way to Sam Ficken’s game-winning field goal.
When the ball goes in the air, you can bet Akron will have trouble defending Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The dynamic receiving duo combined for 338 yards on 19 catches and a touchdown against UCF, including 11 grabs along from Hamilton, a true freshman.
On defense, the Nittany Lions defended the run beautifully in Dublin, holding the Knights to just 24 yards on 29 carries for a measly 0.8 yards per carry. They also defended UCF’s starting quarterback Pete DiNovo well, but struggled when George O’Leary inserted Justin Holman in under center at halftime.
The switch to Holman, a dual-threat, was a good one as he engineered scoring drives on three of his six drives in the second half. Holman’s six-yard touchdown run gave the Knights a 24-23 lead with 1:13 left that was eventually bested by Ficken’s leg.
It wasn’t necessarily that Penn State’s defense shut down when Holman came in; he just made some great throws and a timely play with his legs. Despite the Knights’ second-half surge, the game would have been over with two minutes left had Holman not found Josh Reese with a miracle 37-yard pass on fourth down from near midfield. It was a perfect throw and catch was able to beat tight coverage by Trevor Williams on the play.
The Nittany Lions will need to keep the coverage tight in the secondary as the Zips racked up 400 passing yards and four touchdowns in their 41-0 blowout of FCS opponent Howard last Saturday. Returning starter Kyle Pohl, who threw for 2,438 yards 14 touchdowns last season, chalked much of that yardage up against the Bison. Pohl ran for another 48 yards on seven carries.
Even if the Lions and Zips end up in a shootout, the scales tilt in favor of Hackenberg and his big-time playmakers on the outside. Playing in front of the home crowd in Beaver Stadium should help the Lions avoid another letdown to a MAC team. Look for a big day from both Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton as the running game breaks out and helps restore balance to the Penn State offense.
Kickoff is set for noon and the game will be air on ESPN2 and ABC.