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Postmortem 2013: Penn State

A dramatic win over Michigan and a season-ending victory over Wisconsin highlighted an up-and-down year in State College.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Hello, everyone. Another Penn State season is in the books and we are just two years away from the program regaining bowl eligibility. In the meantime, the Lions appear to be on the track to success after a 7-5 season that featured wins over Michigan and Wisconsin. There were, of course, plenty of pitfalls as well. Penn State alternated wins and losses in every week after it started the season 2-0, and that made Bill O'Brien's second and final season as PSU head coach a strange, turbulent ride. Let's recount it, shall we?

Before we get started in earnest, here's the other entries that have been written so far as part of OTE's "Postmortem" series:

Michigan State: The offense got good, and Sparty won the Rose Bowl!

Nebraska: The Huskers' season was just as confusing as Penn State's, but they got to cap it off with a win over an SEC team in Florida.

Purdue: If you ever wondered if a mouse could get stuck in two traps at once, this is the story to read.

Where We Started

O'Brien's Lions were coming off a surprisingly fruitful 2012 campaign that saw quarterback Matt McGloin become an overnight sensation while Penn State proved to be a team to be reckoned with despite the NCAA sanctions that were levied in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. Although McGloin had graduated, O'Brien had recruited one of the top quarterback prospect in the country, Christian Hackenberg to take his place. The true freshman was able to beat out junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson during preseason practice, and there was optimism that the offense could be a success with experienced players returning at halfback, wide receiver, and offensive line.

On defense, a lack of depth at linebacker put a lot of pressure on Glenn Carson and Mike Hull to hold down the fort while defensive end Deion Barnes was expected to build on his 2012 B1G Freshman of the Year season. The back end was rife with concerns as well, as the move from corner to safety by Adrian Amos forced underclassmen Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams into starting cornerback roles.

Non-Conference Play: A Perfect Storm Johnson

The season got off to a good start with a somewhat ugly 23-17 win over Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Hackenberg's 278-yard, two-touchdown debut was buoyed by a couple of big plays by Allen Robinson and Eugene "Geno" Lewis. Meanwhile, the PSU defense held the Orange in check for most of the game. This game would be a precursor of things to come for the offense, which depended more on big plays than sustained drives for most of the season. The defense looked better than it would for most of the year, as Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen benched in favor of Terrel Hunt later in the season.

After the Lions cruised to a 45-7 win over Eastern Michigan, Central Florida rolled in for a primetime match-up on Yom Kippur. Although Hackenberg and the offense played a terrific game, the effort was not enough to overcome a 21-10 UCF halftime lead paced by studs Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson. Framed as an upset, at the time because of  the fact that UCF had never before defeated a Big Ten opponent, this game would look a lot better for PSU when the Golden Knights were holding the Fiesta Bowl Trophy on New Year's Day.

The non-conference slate was wrapped up by a 34-0 win over Kent State that was hardly noteworthy except for the struggles that Hackenberg faced in the passing game. The freshman completed just 13 of 35 throws, and despite the victory, this was an indication that the season was not going to go as swimmingly for Hackenberg as was previously hoped.

Conference Play Part One: A Rumble in the Valley

Just like how UCF had never beaten a B1G team before it defeated PSU, Indiana had never bested PSU on the gridiron before its 44-24 victory to open conference play. That made the loss an especially bitter pill for Penn State and its fans to swallow. The defense looked just as bad as it had against UCF, and a 44-yard Tevin Coleman touchdown run midway through the third quarter gave IU a 21-14 lead that it would not relinquish. Penn State's Hackenburg threw for three touchdowns and zero picks, but his 6.2 yards per attempt were not enough to keep pace with the Indiana attack, especially with the Lions running game looking surprisingly stale against a Hoosier defense that would prove later in the season to be nothing special.

Whatever sadness there was following the Indiana loss was quickly forgotten a week later when the Lions triumphed in unbelievable fashion over an undefeated Michigan team. In front of a delirious Beaver Stadium crowd, Hackenberg and the Lions overcame a 34-24 fourth quarter deficit. With his team trailing by seven with 50 seconds left, the Penn State quarterback led the Lions 80 yards down the field in just 23 seconds to send the game into overtime. Allen Robinson continued his incredible season by catching a 36-yard prayer on the Michigan 1-yard line that led to the equalizing score. In overtime, the game turned into a mess with turnovers and missed field goals galore, but Penn State finally ended the game in the fourth extra period when Bill Belton ran into the end zone from two yards out.

The only good news about Penn State's next game was the fact that there were two weeks between the 63-14 loss to Ohio State and the dramatic win over Michigan. At least that shut down any narrative that the team was too "emotionally drained" to compete with the Buckeyes. Ohio State was just a lot better than Penn State on that day, as the defensive problems that the Lions flashed versus Indiana emerged while Hackenberg had perhaps his worst game of the season. In season of ups and downs, Penn State went from the highest point to the lowest point in what seemed like an instant.

Conference Play Part Two: The Desolation of Madison

Penn State was supposed to win big over Illinois on the first weekend of November, but that turned out not to be the case thanks to some stellar play by Illini quarterback Nate Scheelhaase. Fortunately, the Lions were able to keep pace by handing the ball to Bill Belton over and over. The junior halfback had a career day with 201 yards rushing on 36 carries, but his fumble in the fourth quarter almost cost PSU the win. However, Hackenberg threw a touchdown pass to Kyle Carter in overtime and the Penn State defense intercepted Scheelhaase in the end zone to wrap up a 24-17 win.

The next week in Minnesota, Penn State was able to run the ball successfully again, but this time it was with more of Zach Zwinak and less of Belton. O'Brien appeared to tire of Belton after he fumbled the ball yet again in the first quarter of this game. Meanwhile, Gopher quarterback Philip Nelson and halfback David Cobb refused to be slowed by the Lions. That, combined with Minnesota holding PSU to 1-for-9 on third downs, helped the Gophers earn a 24-10 win.

The Lions bounced back against Big Ten doormat Purdue. Although Penn State's defense and special teams allowed a surprising 21 points to the Boilermakers, Zwinak was once again punishing on the ground. He gained 149 out of 289 Penn State rushing yards en route to a 45-21 victory.

Next, Penn State had a chance for a nice Senior Day win over Nebraska, but poor special teams and wasted opportunities caused the team to fall 23-20 in overtime. Sam Ficken missed an extra point in the first quarter, and that ended up being a big factor in the Huskers being able to tie the game with a field goal late in the fourth. Big plays by Robinson and tight end Jesse James led to PSU holding the lead on three separate occasions, but that wasn't enough to hold off Nebraska, who got a 3-for-3 field goal day from Pat Smith (including the game-winner) and a 99-yard Kenny Bell kickoff return touchdown to dominate the special teams game.

Just when it looked like the season would end on a sour note, the Lions saved their best effort for the season finale in Madison against Wisconsin. Hackenberg played the best game of his career, throwing long touchdown passes to Lewis and Adam Breneman on his way to a 339-yard, four-touchdown performance. Robinson failed to score a touchdown, but still notched his eighth 100-yard receiving game of the season, while Zwinak continued picking up yards on the ground. While the Penn State defense struggled to slow down the Wisconsin run game, it was able to forced quarterback Joel Stave into three interceptions. With the Nittany Lion offense playing as well as it was, that was enough to put Penn State over the top in a 31-24 win.

Stats and Notes

So there you have it. Penn State went 7-5 and ended the year with a great victory over a team that was trying to earn a BCS bid. Not bad considering how badly the defense struggled at times and the fact that a freshman quarterback was under center. Even with O'Brien leaving for the NFL, there is plenty of hope that the team can improve next season under new head coach James Franklin. Here's some notes and things that I didn't get to in the season recap:

  • One of the biggest disappointments on defense was Deion Barnes. After earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2012, he only sacked the quarterback two times during his sophomore year. Senior C.J. Olanyian led the team in sacks with five.
  • Another senior, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, was perhaps the team's best defensive player. He led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss and also totaled three sacks.
  • With the NCAA sanctions affecting Penn State's depth, defensive coordinator John Butler had to get creative. He moved safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong down to linebacker for most of the season, where he had an impact with 20 solo tackles and a sack.
  • I consider Allen Robinson to be Penn State's most valuable player in 2013. He caught 97 passes while no other play even caught 30. Robinson ended the season with 1,432 yards and six touchdowns before declaring for the NFL Draft. Geno Lewis and the tight ends will need to step up their games next season to fill Robinson's rather large shoes.
  • Speaking of the tight ends, they were an important factor in Penn State's offense in 2013, but not nearly as important as they were in 2012. In 2013, PSU tight ends gained 758 receiving yards for 24 percent of the team's total receiving yards. In 2012, those figures were 1,097 yards and 33 percent. In particular, it was surprising to see Kyle Carter have his production cut almost perfectly in half from 2012 (36 catches, 453 yards) to 2013 (18 receptions, 222 yards).
  • Hackenberg finished the season with 2,955 yards and 7.54 yards per attempt. He completed 59 percent of his passes. The freshman wasn't great all the time, but he showed that he wasn't going to fold under pressure. His arm strength and mobility in the pocket are good signs that he will improve in 2014.
  • It's hard to run an offense fronted by a freshman quarterback without a solid running game. That's why it was good for Penn State to get such solid seasons from its stable of backs. Zwinak led the Lions with 989 yards and 210 carries, Belton was a little better in yards per carry with 5.1 while gaining 803 yards on 153 carries himself, and freshman Akeel Lynch also pitched in on occasion with 358 yards on just 60 rushes.