Penn State Nittany Lions: Brandon Bell
You can't underestimate Penn State.
The Nittany Lions stepped into Camp Randall as a 24-point underdog, as a struggling team that had just 61 scholarship players and was was set to face the nation's No. 15 team. But these Nittany Lions have become accustomed to overcoming the odds, and they again shocked Wisconsin in a 31-24 upset.
Christian Hackenberg played his best game as a Nittany Lion, as the freshman quarterback completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards, with four TDs and no interceptions. On the other end of the field, Penn State's defense shut down Wisconsin's rushing attack (121 yards) and forced turnovers at critical junctures. It held off a late Badgers comeback and put an end to Wisconsin's hopes for a BCS bowl.
The upset replaces the win over Michigan as Penn State's biggest of the season, and it will certainly give Bill O'Brien's team something to build from this offseason.
This gives the Lions another winning season in the face of unprecedented sanctions, and it again sends out a senior class with a victory. Just about everyone was surprised with Saturday afternoon's upset -- except for O'Brien and Penn State's players.
When everyone counted them out, they came right back to prove everyone wrong. What else is new for this bunch?
Where the game was won: Penn State didn't turn the ball over once, and Joel Stave threw three interceptions -- two of which led to PSU touchdowns. The Badgers simply couldn't overcome those mistakes.
Key play: With less than four minutes left, PSU faced a third-and-9 at its 18. The Lions were up by just a touchdown, and momentum was shifting to the Badgers' side. But O'Brien called a draw play and Zach Zwinak gained 61 yards before he was tackled. That didn't give the Badgers much left to work with.
Record breaker: Allen Robinson (eight catches, 122 yards) finished his junior season with school single-season records for receptions (97) and receiving yards (1,432). The two-year starter is also second on the career receptions list and third on the career yards list. He has one year of eligibility remaining, but it seems likely he will declare for the NFL draft.
Curious calls: Gary Andersen called a season-high 53 pass attempts -- compared to just 30 runs -- and while a lot of that can be attributed to Wisconsin trailing, there's definitely some question marks next to the third-down play-calling. The Badgers were faced with seven third downs that required four yards or fewer, and Andersen opted to pass on all but one of those. Wisconsin twice passed on third-and-1 and converted just one of those attempts.
Looking to the future: Twenty-three freshmen (11 true, 12 redshirt) made the travel roster for Penn State, and quite a few made an impact. Besides Hackenberg, tight end Adam Breneman (three catches, 78 yards) played well, and linebacker Brandon Bell earned his first start. Penn State is a young team, and it certainly flashed some talent Saturday.
1. Running-back-by-committee is nice -- but not required. Bill Belton missed the game with an undisclosed illness and stood on the sideline in street clothes, so it was the "Zach Zwinak Show" on Saturday -- and he came through just fine. Zwinak carried the ball 35 times for 149 yards. But it wasn't the first time a Penn State tailback has been asked to carry the full load. Belton had 36 carries against Illinois while Zwinak was in the midst of his fumbling phase (at least we think it was a phase). So it's clear these tailbacks are conditioned enough to handle a heavy load. Obviously, neither guy can do this every game over a full season. But if one guy is injured for a week or two? Definitely not time to hit the panic button. Having two guys who can run like that definitely has to make the staff feel better about its depth at the position.
2. Special teams needs more than just coaching to improve. Bill O'Brien said last Saturday, following the win against Purdue, that maybe he needed to find hungrier players to put on the kick-coverage team. On Tuesday, he changed his mind and said he just needed to coach better. Well, Bo Pelini said the players were coached just fine, but PSU's special-teams units still had their worst combined performance of the season. Kenny Bell ran back a kick 99 yards for a TD, a punt return was fumbled, a punt was blocked, and an extra point was missed. It was a day to forget for the special teams and, clearly, something has to give there. Maybe O'Brien and Co. need to coach better, but maybe they also need to find more athletic run-ons for special teams, too.
3. Tight ends could be the answer next season. Senior Brandon Felder and redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis had games to forget for Penn State as wideouts. But, outside of Allen Robinson, the tight ends really showed up to play. Six-foot-7 TE Jesse James flashed some speed on a swing pass that turned into a 46-yard touchdown. TE Adam Breneman caught a nice touchdown pass. And Kyle Carter looked good at times, as well. If Robinson doesn't return next season -- and that's looking more and more like an inevitability -- then these tight ends might just be the future. Saturday's game could've been a glimpse of that.
4. There could be some hope for this defense after all. It's not time to break open the champagne or anything, but true freshman linebacker Brandon Bell played well. And the secondary didn't look completely lost against a receiving corps that Jordan Lucas called the best it would face all season. The defense surrendered just one touchdown -- special teams allowed the other -- and, if it can string together more bend-don't-break games like that, then fewer fans are sure to call for the head of defensive coordinator John Butler. It was a positive step. The defensive line got great pressure on Nebraska, and that seemed to be key.
1. Fumbling issues aren't behind Zach Zwinak ... or Bill Belton: Zwinak fumbled for the fourth time this season Saturday -- even with the gloves -- while Belton lost his third fumble of the season. The Nittany Lions are among the most fumble-prone teams in the country and, despite constant emphasis on holding onto the ball, it's obvious that still remains an issue. They've both been great for PSU this season -- but with one large asterisk. Fumbles.
2. Changes could be coming on the kickoff team: The Lions surrendered a 100-yard kick return TD, the first time that's happened since Michigan State's Derek Mason pulled it off in 1994. And then it nearly happened again but, luckily for the Lions, Sam Ficken stepped up to take down the returner. As a result, Bill O'Brien said the staff will look into making some changes on that special-teams unit this week. Maybe, he mused, some guys just aren't hungry enough.
3. "Complementary football" isn't out of reach: O'Brien's squad performed the opposite of "complementary football" against Minnesota last week. But against Purdue? PSU forced three turnovers, and the offense converted each of those into a touchdown. When the offense needed the defense to step up, it did -- and vice versa. That's why, even when this game was just a one- or two-score game, it felt so out of reach for Purdue. PSU played a below-average opponent, but it still played relatively well. It should reach at least seven wins this season if it can keep that up.
4. The freshman linebackers still have quite a way to go: Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman missed a few tackles -- again -- and he's looked lost at times this season. True freshman Brandon Bell also saw more time than usual against Minnesota, and he's trying to get his feet wet because he could compete for a starting job next season. With Ben Kline's injuries, which require two separate surgeries, only Mike Hull, Wartman and Bell will be the returning linebackers with considerable playing time under their belts. Bell and Wartman are more important than ever now, and they could see more time in the final two games.
Here are five things to keep an eye on:
1. Two true freshman QBs with lots of potential. OK, you already know plenty about Christian Hackenberg and how he's making a strong case for the Big Ten freshman of the year award. But Purdue's Danny Etling could have a bright future ahead of him, too. The Boilermakers are struggling, but Etling said -- despite the numbers -- he's improving every week. He was a four-star recruit last season, the Boilermakers' highest-rated prospect since ESPN started keeping track, and he's been the starter since Week 6. He has thrown five interceptions to four TDs so far this season, but his best football is ahead of him. Same goes for Hackenberg. Watching these two players Saturday should be like catching a quick glimpse of the B1G future.
2. Allen Robinson nearing another school record ... again. No, this isn't a misprint. He broke Bobby Engram's single-season receiving mark of 1,084 yards last week -- and he could set the single-season receptions record against Purdue. Robinson set that record last year with 77 catches, and he currently boasts 73 receptions. He's the only Penn State receiver to reach the 70-catch mark, and no PSU wideout has ever reached the 80-reception plateau. Expect more of the same from Robinson; he's making history just about every week now.
3. Running wild over Purdue. The Boilermakers have allowed 200-yard rushing games five times so far this season, as they're ranked No. 111 in the country in rush defense. That means big games could be in store for both Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak. It's been difficult to predict lately who'll handle the heavier workload, but both are likely to see plenty of time in the afternoon. Zwinak can run on the inside and blow over defenders for extra yards, while Belton's cutting ability has improved greatly since last season. Both players should be able to pad their stats against Purdue's dismal run defense.
4. Third-down defense. The Lions' defense took a step back last week, as they allowed the opposition to convert on 7-of-10 third downs during the first half of last week's game. They couldn't get off the field, and that was a big reason they were manhandled in the first two quarters -- so it's worth keeping an eye on that same down Saturday. The good news for Penn State is that Purdue is among the worst in the country (notice a trend?) and ranks No. 114 in terms of converting third downs (30.6 percent). So, if PSU can't stop Purdue on third down, then it probably won't be able to stop future opponents Nebraska and Wisconsin.
5. New PSU player roles? LB Ben Kline didn't open the season as the starter, but he started the last two games and seemed to be making a lot of progress. He's out for the season now, so it'll be interesting to see if this corps takes a step back against Purdue. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Nyeem Wartman will likely compete for his spot, just as they did before Kline earned the starts, but Bill O'Brien also mentioned that true freshman LB Brandon Bell should see an increased workload. On the offensive side of the ball, O'Brien told reporters to expect to see more of redshirt freshman wideout Eugene Lewis, who made an outstanding 54-yard TD catch in Week 1 ... but has only accounted for 71 yards since. If Robinson leaves early for the NFL, Lewis could be PSU's top wideout next season.
True freshmen are having a bigger and bigger impact throughout college football these days, as coaches are either becoming less afraid to throw their youngsters into the fire or are facing fewer options.
1. Penn State: The Nittany Lions are starting just one true frosh, but he's a guy with a little bit of importance to the team's fortunes: quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The 18-year-old has had some ups and downs but is on pace for a 3,000-yard season. Tight end Adam Breneman and receiver Richy Anderson have also played in every game, with one start each. Von Walker, Brandon Bell and Jordan Smith are among others who have seen time for coach Bill O'Brien, who doesn't have the luxury to redshirt many guys with the Lions' depth issues.
2. Nebraska: The Huskers' defense is young, all right. So young that two true freshmen are starting at linebacker for Bo Pelini in Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry. They rank fourth and fifth on the team in tackles, and Banderas is handling a leadership position as the middle linebacker.
3. Ohio State: Urban Meyer says Ohio State doesn't redshirt. If you're ready, you play. Technically, the Buckeyes don't start any true freshmen, but Dontre Wilson has already made a big impact as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Several other first-year players dot the two-deep, such as safety Vonn Bell and defensive lineman Joey Bosa, and running back Ezekiel Elliott ran for more than 100 yards and scored two touchdowns last week versus Florida A&M.
4. Indiana: No surprise to see the Hoosiers on this list, since coach Kevin Wilson has played as many true freshmen as any coach in the country the past few years. That means Indiana finally has some veterans, but Wilson is starting T.J. Simmons at linebacker and getting contributions from Darius Latham on the defensive line, Antonio Allen in the secondary and Marcus Oliver and Clyde Newton at linebacker.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are mostly an experienced, veteran team. The one exception is in the secondary. Sojourn Shelton is starting at cornerback for the Badgers, while Jakarrie Washington and Nate Hammon are top reserves in the defensive backfield.
Still, there were a few notable changes on the depth chart and in the game notes:
- Five new walk-ons earned scholarships for the 2013 season: OG Bryan Davie, DE Carl Nassib, CB Devin Pryor, DT Tyrone Smith and RB Deron Thompson. Pryor and Smith are listed on the depth chart as third string.
- Adam Gress was nursing an injury last week, and he was not listed as the definite starter at right tackle. He's still battling with TE-turned-OT Garry Gilliam. Bill O'Brien will likely update Gress' progress on Tuesday.
- Von Walker, a run-on whom O'Brien complimented last week, is listed as competing for the No. 2 kickoff return spot with Akeel Lynch. Walker is an athlete whom PSU hopes to utilize as a slotback. This might be the biggest surprise on the depth chart. You can read more about Walker here.
- D.J. Crook is listed as the third-string quarterback. He was competing with Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour for the No. 3 spot. He was listed as the third-stringer on the post-spring depth chart as well.
- Bill Belton is still listed as the No. 2 tailback, ahead of Lynch ... but that likely doesn't mean much. Both will see carries.
- Kyle Baublitz is the starter alongside DaQuan Jones at defensive tackle. Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson is the backup.
- True freshman Brandon Bell is Nyeem Wartman's backup at outside linebacker. Ben Kline is listed as Mike Hull's backup.
- There's an "OR" listed next to Malcolm Willis' name, signifying he's still competing with Ryan Keiser at safety. Willis is obviously expected to be the starter -- barring injury. O'Brien will undoubtedly be asked about that on Tuesday.
- Middle linebacker Glenn Carson is still listed as the snapper at punter, despite picking up a run-on whose specialty is snapping and having Howle snapping on field goals.
Projected starters: Mike Hull (2012 stats: 58 tackles, four sacks, one interception, two fumble recoveries, one blocked kick), Glenn Carson (85 tackles, three tackles-for-loss) and Nyeem Wartman (one tackle, one blocked kick)
Next in line: Ben Kline could've challenged Wartman for the starting job if it weren't for a nagging shoulder injury, but he's missed a lot of time after offseason surgery. (Bill O'Brien said Kline will "hopefully" be ready for the season opener.) He's still clearly the top backup here, but he'll have to shake off rust quickly to be effective.
Outside of Kline, the staff will be forced to turn to a raw Gary Wooten who redshirted last season. And then there's always true freshman Brandon Bell and the run-ons. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will also be utilized at times this season, likely replacing Wartman on passing downs, and could possibly play more weakside if injuries become a pressing concern.
What to expect: If there's one position that concerns O'Brien, when it comes to depth, it's linebacker.
ESPN's coach of the year has echoed that sentiment throughout the offseason and training camp. There are two solid starters here, in Carson and Hull, but every other linebacker is a question mark. Wartman flashed a lot of potential in two contests last season before a season-ending injury, and he looks to become a four-year starter. But can he be effective with such limited experience?
Even if does play well, the Nittany Lions are one injury away from a disaster at linebacker. Wartman can be good this season, but there's a lot less faith in those backups. Kline missed the spring and the summer, and he might not be ready to go in time for Week 1. If PSU has to rely on Wooten or someone else here, that player immediately becomes the Achilles' heel of this defense.
Recruiting trail: The Nittany Lions seemed to be in a lot better shape earlier in the summer. Sure, they still have four-star MLB Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del./Salesianum), who is just on the outside of the ESPN 300, but they also basically lost two other linebackers.
Since July, the Lions have parted ways with Class of 2013 LB Zayd Issah (Harrisburg, Pa./Central Dauphin) after another run-in with the law and three-star LB Jared Wangler (Warren, Mich./De La Salle), who decommitted in favor of Michigan. That makes LB a much bigger priority now.
Syracuse commit Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central) could be the next in line for an offer. He impressed the staff during a June camp, and PSU badly needs to take another linebacker now.
Best-case scenario: Wartman shows he'll be the next big thing at Linebacker U and earns an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. There's only a slight drop-off in production from last season, but the linebacking corps remains one of the team's strengths as Carson and Hull form to become the best duo in the conference.
Worst-case scenario: Carson or Hull go down early and miss the season, while Kline's shoulder continues to bother him throughout the year. Wooten or Bell are then plugged in before they're ready, and the group of linebackers struggles as a whole and brings down the entire defense.
Top position question: What kind of linebacker will Wartman be? He's a run-stuffer, first and foremost, which is why the Lions will likely plug in a safety at his position on passing downs. It'll basically be the 2013 version of the "Roadrunner" package.
But that doesn't mean quickness is a problem for Wartman. He boasts great straight-line speed, and the Florida Gators recruited him heavily for that very reason. He also garnered a reputation in high school as a hard-hitter, and that was clearly well-earned.
During the Blue-White Game, he diagnosed a screen pass and blew up the intended receiver in the hit of the game. (He was a bit disappointed in himself about that hit because, although the receiver crumpled to the turf, he didn't wrap up the target because he "was licking my chops too much.")
It would come as no surprise if Wartman forced a few fumbles. He'll likely end up as a four-year starter for Penn State. This might not be the year where PSU fans start buying No. 5 jerseys en masse -- but it should happen by 2014 or 2015.
This is Bill O'Brien's first real class, and fans should catch an early glimpse of what it's capable of this season. Here are three incoming prospects -- not early enrollees -- who could contribute immediately:
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Welcome to NittanyNation's mailbag! We asked you to tweet or email your questions, and we've selected three to answer in depth this week.
Corey Hunter (@realhuntdog23) writes: What REALISTIC expectations should fans have at the Blue-White Game? Isn't Bill O'Brien likely to keep things (plays/personnel) close to the vest?
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NittanyNation recently spoke with Bell at length about his expectations, how he has improved and his take on redshirting.
NittanyNation: Brandon, your time in high school is creeping to a close here. Has it sunk in yet that you'll be playing for Penn State in a couple months? Have you done anything to prepare yourself like set goals or anything?
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"Eyes here," Fisher told sophomore Steven Bench in a conversational tone, pointing to his his right. "Work through it, work through it."
Bench or Tyler Ferguson could wind up as the starting quarterback come Aug. 31, and Monday offered a glimpse of the two signal-callers. Media were invited to attend 20 minutes of open practice, and O'Brien began by calling together a competition: A defensive back would line up against a wideout or tight end in press coverage, while Bench and Ferguson would alternate snaps.
The first team -- offense or defense -- to win three battles would be declared the winner. The losers would be forced to perform five hit-its. It was more for honor than anything and only four passes were thrown while the quarterbacks tried to shake off the rust.
Bench began by just overthrowing Allen Robinson on a roughly 35-yard pass, and Ferguson then hit Jesse James in stride downfield on an over-the-shoulder grab. Bench followed that up by throwing behind his target on cross route, and Ferguson barely overthrew Matt Lehman for two straight incompletions.
The offense, along with Ferguson and Bench, then hit the turf for their hit-its while the defense cheered.
"They're both athletic, they both can throw the football," O'Brien said during a Monday news conference. "Now it's going to depend on how well they make decisions and how accurately they throw the ball.
"They sit in the front row, they pay attention, they take a lot of notes. It's a fun group to be around."
- Coaches who squared off against Brandon Bell sounded off on the Penn State commit and appeared most impressed by his speed and range.
- Andrew Nelson wrote a column for NittanyNation on why he chose Penn State. He listed academics, coaching staff and relationships as his three main reasons.
- Penn State hired former Georgia State defensive coordinator Anthony Midget as the safeties coach.
- Video: NCAA president Mark Emmert discussed the penalties imposed against Penn State on "Outside the Lines."
- Tight end-turned-offensive tackle Garry Gilliam received an extra year of eligibility.
- Parker Cothren's coach talked about his player and said Cothren stood his ground against ESPN's top-rated OT -- despite weighing in more than 40 pounds lighter than him.
- Listen: Jay Paterno joined "Mike and Mike" to discuss the family's report on the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
- We took an overview at all the run-ons on defense/special teams along with the run-ons on offense.
- Penn State's first commit of the 2014 class, Mark Allen, said he felt called to be a leader and wants to help the staff reel in other commits in the class.
- We started up our "Meet the run-on" series by offering a glance at the following walk-ons: Sean Corcoran, Brandon Smith, Cole Chiappialle and Tom Pancoast.
- OT Juwann Bushell-Beatty will visit PSU soon, and Anthony Davis will also likely make another visit. The staff has also been in the ear of athlete Patrick Amara.
- Mailbag: From breakout players to quarterbacks, NittanyNation answered several questions in-depth as part of the bi-weekly mailbag.
- We listed five Penn State commits who are rated three-stars that fans should keep an eye on.
- Linebacker Carter Henderson talked in a Q&A about why he turned down offers from several FCS and Div. II schools to walk-on at PSU.
- ESPN Watch List prospect D'Andre Payne named his top schools ... and Penn State has some catching up to do.
- Video: Brian Bennett talks about the B1G's decision to stop scheduling games against FCS opponents.
- Harrisburg (Pa.) RB Rob Martin received his first few offers earlier in the week and said he plans to attend Penn State's junior day.
So, NittanyNation decided to get a better idea of Bell's playing style and ability by polling five of the 10 coaches he faced this season. They shared their impressions, recollected memorable plays and talked about what fans have to look forward to from the three-star commit.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Some of the Nittany Lions' top players right now were three-star recruits who flew just under the radar: Deion Barnes, Adrian Amos, Mike Hull, Kyle Carter. And the list goes on.
The Class of 2013 looks to continue that trend. NittanyNation decided to take a closer look at some three-star players in this class whom fans should keep an eye on.
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NittanyNation posed the same question to everyone: How do you think -- or hope -- your class will be remembered in four or five years?
Here's what they had to say:
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