Penn State went to Ireland and had itself one memorable experience, but despite the last-second 26-24 win over UCF it left a lot of questions still to be answered. Such is the nature of a debut game from a head coach and such is the nature of playing a good opponent in said opening game.
Some will point to sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg as a major reason for victory, and he was instrumental in the final drive to victory. Hackenberg also threw for a school record 454 yards, which is nice and all.
But don’t let those gaudy numbers fool you, there’s plenty of room for improvement — not only for Hackenberg, but for Penn State’s offense as a whole.
Let’s start with the guy everyone is going to talk about, and look at Hackenberg’s performance. The 454 yards and 68 percent completion rate were great, but he threw for just one touchdown and two interceptions to go with those numbers.
He also was caught hanging on to the ball way too long at times, resulting in one of the two sacks suffered by Hackenberg. Continuing that pattern further in to the season is going to cause unnecessary pain and punishment when Big Ten play hits.
Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions were lucky with what happened on both of Hackenberg’s interceptions on Saturday as well.
The first came on a third-and-4 at Penn State’s own 33-yard-line, and Central Florida were able to cut Penn State’s lead to 7-3 after the drive stalled out at the 19-yard line.
After the second one, Penn State’s defense bailed Hackenberg out with a forced fumble and recovery by Anthony Zettle. It kept the score at 20-17 Penn State, when it appeared UCF was about to steal all the momentum.
Unfortunately the very next pass from Hackenberg was fumbled away by freshman wide receiver Chris Godwin. Once again the defense bailed Hackenberg and the offense out with a three-and-out by UCF, further eliminating any damage.
Therein lies the silver lining of this game, Penn State’s defense rose to the occasion when it had to. It wasn’t always perfect on that side of the ball either, but the Nittany Lions did a good job of not breaking when it needed to hold the team up.
As for the rest of the team, there’s no doubt that there needs to be a lot of work done on the offensive line for this team to be competitive in the Big Ten.
The PSU run game was downright awful, and even if UCF’s run defense is good — it isn’t that good. Penn State rushed for just 57 yards on 28 attempts, a whopping two yards per carry if you’re keeping score at home. That’s simply not going to get it done at Penn State.
Zach Zwinak led the team with 32 yards rushing and the lone touchdown on the ground, but he never really got going. Zwinak averaged just two yards a carry on 12 attempts, while Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch were nearly non-existent behind him. The backup duo managed just 23 yards on 11 carries combined.
We’ve seen all three be capable of running on nearly any defense in the Big Ten before, but it didn’t happen on Saturday afternoon in Dublin. There was a severe lack of holes to run through for the majority of the game, and that is on the offensive line.
Additionally, Hackenberg often found himself having to make quick decisions or scramble around behind the line of scrimmage to make throws. As we’ve said, he was sacked twice, with at least one of them squarely on the shoulders of the offensive line.
These are undoubtedly things Franklin knows need working on, and will be emphasized this upcoming week. However, there’s only so much a coaching staff can do, the ultimate change has to come from within the players.
Winning has a funny way of masking all that went wrong, and make no mistake about it Penn State and Christian Hackenberg will see plenty to work on after they watch this one back.