Season report card: Penn State

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
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Final exams are either ongoing or all wrapped up around the Big Ten, and we're passing out grades for each team's regular-season performance.

Each team receives a grade for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Up next: Penn State.

Offense: B

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg steadily improved throughout his freshman season, boosting Penn State's offense.
The Nittany Lions weren't dominant in any one category here, as they ranked No. 59 nationally in rushing and No. 38 in passing. But they were a balanced team that relied on quick decisions by Christian Hackenberg, yards-after-the-catch by Allen Robinson and whomever had the hot hand at running back.

Penn State naturally started off slow with a rookie quarterback and an offensive line that struggled early, but this group showed progress as the season went on. Bill O'Brien opted to keep his star quarterback on a short leash in the opener against Syracuse, as he called for runs on third-and-long and rarely called a pass over 10 yards. But O'Brien had unleashed Hackenberg by the season finale -- and the freshman led an aggressive attack against then-No. 15 Wisconsin to the tune of 339 passing yards, four TDs and no interceptions.

Robinson accounted for 46 percent of the passing offense over the season, and he was -- by far -- the most valuable player on this team. He was named the Big Ten's receiver of the year for the second straight season, while his quarterback was named B1G freshman of the year.

This offense never really had a No. 2 receiving threat, and the running backs struggled with holding onto the ball, as Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak combined for a half-dozen fumbles. But Penn State ended the season on a high note and showed it wasn't one-dimensional.

Defense: C

Penn State has become accustomed to great defenses, as it's ranked within the top 20 in yards allowed seven times since 2004. But that certainly wasn't the case this season.

The secondary was a constant liability. Third-and-long was no shoo-in for a punt the next down, and pass-first teams tormented the Lions -- just take a look at UCF and Indiana. The historic 63-14 loss to Ohio State certainly stands out as one of the worst-ever defensive performances by Penn State, as it was the worst PSU loss in 114 years.

So, why isn't this grade lower then? Well, in the Lions' last five conference games, they held all but Purdue -- whom they beat 45-21 -- to less than their season average in points scored. DT DaQuan Jones finished with 11.5 tackles-for-loss and led a stout run defense that plugged the middle in just about every game outside of Ohio State. For example, Wisconsin managed just 120 total rushing yards on 30 carries. Penn State also finished fourth in the Big Ten in sacks (28) and ranked No. 49 nationally in total defense.

This wasn't a great defense. It was an average one -- with a below-average secondary and an above-average front-seven -- that failed big against Ohio State but grabbed high marks against Wisconsin.

Special teams: D-minus

There's really not a whole lot of good to say here. Jesse Della Valle returned 18 punts and averaged a respectable 8.7 yards a return, while Alex Butterworth had 17 of his 51 punts wind up inside the 20.

And that's where the highlights end.

The Nittany Lions ranked last in the Big Ten in kick return average, 10th in punting average and second-to-last in both field goal percentage and kickoff coverage. Kicker Sam Ficken cooled off by the halfway point, and special teams cost Penn State a win against Nebraska.

Ficken missed a 37-yard field goal and an extra point against the Cornhuskers, while Kenny Bell returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. Penn State lost in overtime, 23-20.

Overall: B

Sixty-one scholarship players? A quarterback who was on campus for just two months before the opener? A defense short on individual talent? There were plenty of question marks surrounding this team before the season, but the Nittany Lions once again overcame the odds to finish with a winning record. They picked up a win on the road against a top-15 opponent, Wisconsin, for the first time since 2008. And they pulled out two wins in a conference record-tying three overtime games this season. Penn State might have had more odds stacked against it this season than last, and it showed once again you can never totally count this team out.

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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