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Postmortem 2014: the team from Pennsylvania

Thanks to Gary Nova, the struggling Lions somehow made it to a bowl game.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

2014 was an interesting season for Penn State fans. On one hand, the team played in a bowl game for the first time in three years. It didn't matter if the qualification for that bowl game was due to a soft non-conference schedule and the lords of college football allowing .500 teams to compete in the postseason.

On the other hand, this team played terribly for a good portion of the season. You throw a first-year coach a talented quarterback, elite defense (thanks for sticking around, Bob Shoop), and a West draw that includes two Illinois teams, and you figure 4-4 is the floor for conference performance.

That didn't turn out to be the case, as James Hype Franklin bumbled his way to a 2-6 Big Ten mark. Hopefully next year will be better.

Part 1: The fun beginning

The dramatic 26-24 win over Central Florida in Dublin was one that gave Penn State fans hope that this season would be a good one. Sure, the running game was utter rubbish, but Christian Hackenberg was awesome, as he threw for 454 yards on a 9.7 yards-per-attempt average. Although the defense softened up a bit when UCF brought in Justin Holman at quarterback in the second half, Sam Ficken and the kicking game came to the rescue with a game-winning 36-yard field goal that put the Lions on top as time expired.

What we got the next week against Akron at home was more of what the offense would look like for the rest of the season. A big passing play here and there, but not enough consistency to move the ball down the field effectively. Despite a strong defensive performance from Penn State, three turnovers kept Akron in the game until the Lions finally pulled away for the 21-3 victory with a long Jesse James touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.

2-0 was a nice start, but we needed something that would show us the kind of ugliness we were in store for this season. Enter Rutgers and a road game in Piscataway. The Knight took a 10-0 lead into halftime, but Penn State put the pandemonium on hold by rolling off 13 unanswered points in the second half thanks to Gary Nova. The Rutgers quarterback threw five interceptions in this game, handing the game to the Lions on a silver platter. Penn State did nothing to deserve this win. It's not as though the Lions gained 79 more yards than the Knights or got some solid play from Hackenberg as well as Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton in the second half (kidding, all of those things happened). A Bill Belton touchdown run with just over a minute left and one last Nova pick wrapped up the 13-10 win.

The UMass game the next week was a bit strange, but only because the Lions were able to run the ball so well. Belton and Akeel Lynch each averaged over 10 yards per carry in a 48-7 romp. For the second straight game, Hackenberg failed to throw a touchdown pass, but no one was really worried about him yet. This game was a mere warm-up for the the rest of the Big Ten schedule that would kick off on the last Saturday of September.

Part 2: The losing streak

The home game against Northwestern was a wake-up call for Penn State. The team had managed to dance around its troubles for four straight weeks, but this time, the chickens came home to roost. Trevor Siemian led a pair of touchdown drives to put the Purple Cats ahead 14-0 in the first quarter, and the Penn State offense could not make enough big plays to come back. The running game was predictably dreadful, and the passing game was just as bad. Hackenberg completed just 22 of his 45 throws and averaged 4.8 yards per attempt despite a 51-yard strike to Hamilton. Some strong defensive play ensured than the Lions were down just eight points entering the fourth quarter, but Hackenberg quickly threw a pick six to Anthony Walker to put this one on ice. Northwestern won 29-6.

The big question heading into the Michigan game was whether or not Penn State's porous offensive line could keep Hackenberg upright long enough to score points on the Wolverines. The answer appeared to be "yes" after the young quarterback threw a 10-yard touchdown strike to Hamilton and put the Lions up 13-7 in the second quarter. After that however, it was all downhill for the Penn State offense. Even though the defense played well again and a Devin Gardner injury briefly allowed something called Russell Bellomy to take the field, Michigan managed to kick three field goals to take the lead back. Thanks to an interception and some crap punting, the Wolverines started three key second half drives in Penn State territory and won 18-13.

With the Lions reeling from two straight defeats to Big Ten teams that wouldn't end up qualifying for bowl season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that they would fall to the upstart Buckeyes on October 25. As that one guy sometimes says, "not so fast, my friend." Penn State fell behind 17-0 in the first half in part thanks to some curious referee decisions. One such call ruled that this play was an interception. Another allowed the Bucks to kick a 49-yard field goal with no time left on the play clock. Still, Shoop's defense kept the Lions in the game and later would do even more than that. Anthony Zettel started off the second half by picking off a J.T. Barrett pass and returning it to the end zone. Later, a fourth quarter interception by Mike Hull set up a Hackenberg touchdown pass to Saeed Blacknall. With the defense continuing to hold Ezekiel Elliiot in check, the Lions drove down the field in the final three minutes to kick a field goal and tie the score at 17-17.

With all the momentum in hand, Penn State even managed to score on the first possession of overtime, but Ohio State bounced back with two straight scores before sacking Hackenberg on the game's final play to preserve their perfect Big Ten record. It was a heartbreaking loss for the Lions, but it was still nice to see the team play so well after the two prior games went so miserably.

After the competitive game versus Ohio State, there was some hope that Penn State could defeat Maryland at home on November 1, but this turned out to be a fourth straight defeat. At least the referees were on State's side this time around, with a roughing the passer penalty negating was could have been a Terrapin pick six in the first half. Other than that, the Maryland game played out a lot like the Michigan one. Penn State's offense was mostly dormant except for a 51-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter that put the team up 16-7 and made it look like victory was within reach. However, the Terps drove for a field goal on the ensuing possession and then Grant Haley coughed up the ball on a kickoff to give Maryland a short field. C.J. Brown capitalized with a touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs, and just like that the Terps were on top without the Penn State offense having to screw anything up. That offense did manage to get into Ficken range to retake the lead, but the terrible running game failed to run out the clock, and Brad Craddock responded with a 43-yard field goal to give Maryland a 20-19 win.

Part 3: Limping into bowl season

Coming off of two narrow losses that put what once seemed like a certain bowl trip in jeopardy, Penn State needed a win in the worst way. Fortunately a trip to Bloomington was on the schedule. This should be easy, right? Wrong. With this Penn State offense, nothing was ever easy. Hackenberg completed just 12 of 29 passes, and if not for a 92-yard, out-of-nowhere touchdown dash by Belton in the second quarter, the Lions may never have found the end zone at all. That burst came at the perfect time, too, because Hackenberg had just thrown a pick six to Indiana's Mark Murphy. Fortunately for Penn State, third string Hoosier quarterback Zander Diamont made plenty of mistakes himself and the defense kept Tevin Coleman to just 71 yards rushing. The Lions managed a pair of field goals in the second half and escaped with a 13-7 victory.

Since 2013 was the year that Penn State finally lost to Indiana, I was fearing that 2014 would be the year that Penn State finally lost to Temple. I suppose the apocalypse will have to wait, though, because the Lions rolled the Owls 30-13 to move their record to 6-4 and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011. A pleasantly peppy running game led the way, with Lynch and Belton combining for over 200 yards and a pair of scores. Hackenberg was as miserable as ever, but Temple's P.J. Walker was worse. Even after he hooked up with Jalen Fitzpatrick on a 75-yard score to draw the Owls within seven points, he gave those back when Haley intercepted a fourth quarter pass and took it to the end zone.

Now that a bowl bid was all but wrapped up, Penn State could work on clinching a winning record. That was the plan, but that pesky gunslinger Reilly O'Toole got in the way. Franklin smartly adjusted his game plan against Illinois so that Hackenberg handled the ball as little as possible. The struggling quarterback threw just 16 passes in Champaign while Lynch averaged nearly five yards per carry on the ground. That was enough to earn the Lions a 14-10 fourth quarter lead, but as was too often the case in 2014, that margin didn't hold up. With his team clinging to a one-point lead and two minutes left on the clock, Franklin opted to punt on 4th-and-1. The wimpy choice proved costly, as O'Toole led the Illini on a game-winning field goal drive for the 16-14 win.

The last game of the season wasn't much of one with Michigan State in town. The Spartans returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, shut down the Penn State offense and pounded away with Jeremy Langford for a 34-10 win. On one hand, it was an anticlimactic way to end a frustrating yet exciting regular season. On the other hand, it was nice to know Penn State's fate midway through the third quarter instead of seeing them blow another game at the very end.

Part 4: Beating Boston College

This game was awesome. Although the Lions jumped out to a 7-0 lead thanks to a 72-yard pass play from Hackenberg to Chris Godwin, long scoring runs by Boston College's Jon Hillman and Tyler Murphy put Penn State in a 21-7 hole towards the end of the third quarter. Normally that would be too much for this team to overcome, but Hackenberg was back to looking like an elite prospect, and he connected one two more touchdown passes before leading a field goal drive to tie the score at 24-24 with 20 seconds left. The Eagles struck first in overtime, but Murphy's touchdown pass was followed up by a shanked extra point. Hackenberg answered with his fourth touchdown throw of the game -- this one to tight end Kyle Carter -- and Ficken nailed the point after to give State its first bowl win since the 2009 season.

Hope for next year

Many fans are going to look at Hackenberg's final game and think that he turned a corner and is ready to dominate in 2015. The problem is that many of us were thinking the same thing about his Wisconsin performance at the end of 2013. I'm still in wait-and-see mode with the rising junior. He's just another one of many returning starters on offense, and returning starters are almost always a good thing. If the offensive line continues to show improvement and the Lions can run the ball more like they did at the end of the season, the passing game will improve as well.

On defense, Shoop is back, but Penn State will be without important pieces like Hull, C.J. Olaniyan, and Adrian Amos. How well the young pass rushers and safeties adapt to the Big Ten will play a big role in the Lions maintaining the defensive dominance that they established this season. Even if everyone was coming back, it would be tough to replicate the success of the 2014 defense, but with Shoop in charge and Jordan Lucas developing into a shutdown corner, we hopefully won't see too much of a drop in performance.