Penn State Nittany Lions: Glenn Carson

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Go ahead, underestimate Allen Robinson. He doesn’t care; he’s used to it.

Robinson was a consensus two-star prospect in high school. He caught three passes as a college freshman. And, before his sophomore season, the media focused on players such as Alex Kenney and Shawney Kersey as possible stars.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerDespite a highly productive college career, Allen Robinson understands that NFL scouts have their doubts about his speed.
Everyone, outside of Robinson’s close friends and family, overlooked the skinny kid wearing No. 8. No one foresaw two back-to-back B1G receiver of the year awards or Biletnikoff watch lists. And now, exactly a month before the draft, some analysts have taken to saying he’s not one of the elite wideouts in this draft -- that the junior is maybe a third-round talent.

Robinson hears all the chatter; it just doesn’t bother him. He has been here before.

“My whole life has been sitting around waiting,” he said after Penn State’s Tuesday pro day. “So whatever round I go in, it is what it is. But at the same time, when I get to my team, I’m going to grind and earn my spot.”

The Michigan native, who caught high school passes from four-star recruit Rob Bolden, knows some have criticized his breakaway speed, or lack thereof. (NFL.com’s profile of him lists that as his main weakness.) The concern is he’s too slow to be a productive NFL wideout, that he’s a solid college wideout whose NFL stock dropped considerably since running a 4.6-second 40.

That’s not news to Robinson, but he has made a career out of proving doubters wrong. He centered a lot of his training around improving that 40-yard dash in time for Tuesday’s pro day. And, according to Robinson, scouts approached him afterward and told him he clocked a sub-4.5.

He also finished with a 42-inch vertical, a three-cone time of 6.53 seconds and a broad jump of 10 feet, 11 inches. All of those numbers were improvements from the NFL combine numbers.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvement in myself,” Robinson said. “I feel like I made the best decision I could’ve made [declaring early], and I’m comfortable with that.”

Robinson doesn’t know where he’ll go in the draft. Maybe he’ll surprise the analysts and be picked in the second round, or maybe even the first. But, wherever he goes, he said he wouldn’t be disappointed. And wherever he goes, no one is counting him out this time around.

“Everyone’s dream is to go in the first round, but I can’t control that,” he said. “So wherever I end up going, God has blessed me with being picked by a team. All I can do is stay prepared and ready and, once my name is called, show those guys what I can do and earn my spot on the field.”

Not stressing out: Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones might be the first Penn State player taken in next month’s NFL draft, but he’s trying not to think about that.

“You really don’t know until the draft so, right now, I’m not really stressing about it,” said Jones, who has been projected to go as early as the second round. “All I can do now is take care of my body.”

Jones weighed in at 324 pounds, a six-pound gain since the start of last season, and stood at 6-foot-3. He said teams have approached him as both a 3-4 and 4-3 defensive tackle, and he’s fine with either.

“Everyone’s going to multiple defenses,” he said, “so you’re going to play either/or no matter where you go.”

High risk … high reward?: Tight end-turned-offensive tackle Garry Gilliam was present for pro day, and it’s a good thing he was. A lot of NFL scouts didn’t even know he declared.

“They actually said they didn’t know I was coming out,” said Gilliam, who had one year of eligibility remaining and declared late. “So it was huge to come out here.”

Gilliam probably could have benefited from another season at Penn State. He played only one season as an offensive tackle after bulking up last offseason. But, at 23 years old and with two degrees already, Gilliam felt it was time to move on.

He came in Tuesday at 6-6, 306 pounds and ran a sub-5-second 40. But his upper body strength has teams worried, as he did between 19 and 20 reps on the bench press.

“I think they know I’m a raw player and they need to develop me,” he said, “but I think they’ll take a shot to do it.”

Disrespected: Middle linebacker Glenn Carson didn’t receive an invitation to last month’s NFL combine. And he doesn’t plan to forget that snub anytime soon.

“I definitely came in today with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I felt as if I should’ve gotten a combine invite, and that’s why I had to go out there and impress people today.

“I felt like I was a little underappreciated, but all you have to do is put your head down and work. And that’s what I did for these past three months.”

Carson could wind up as a priority free agent, but he’s not expected to be drafted. Still, he felt as if he improved his stock on Tuesday and said several scouts complimented his performance and how he played “smooth.”

“It would be awesome to get drafted,” Carson said.

No. 4 PSU player to watch: LB Wartman

February, 25, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – There will be plenty of Penn State players to keep a close eye on this spring, but a few rise to the top for one reason or another.

So, as part of this week’s countdown, we’re looking at the five players to watch the closest this spring. Up today, at No. 4, is a player who made waves after a punt block as a freshman.

No. 4 spring player to watch: LB Nyeem Wartman

[+] EnlargeNyeem Wartman
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsNyeem Wartman started in eight games as a redshirt freshman, but seemed to fade as the season progressed.
2013 review: Wartman entered the season with big expectations because he was in line to be a four-year starter, quite a rarity at Linebacker U. He finished the season by starting eight games and playing in the other four, but he didn’t quite progress as quickly as the staff had hoped. He showed flashes of potential -- making several highlight-worthy tackles and compiling eight stops against Michigan -- but other linebackers had surpassed him toward the end of the season. Ben Kline earned starts over him for two games (Illinois, Minnesota) before another injury sidelined Kline, and freshman Brandon Bell started over Wartman in the season finale. In the last five games, Wartman made just five tackles.

Why spring is so important: Penn State is light on experience at linebacker and, outside of Mike Hull, Wartman is the most seasoned linebacker on the team. So, for this group of linebackers to succeed, Penn State needs Wartman to succeed. Kline is overcoming two surgeries this offseason, one for lingering shoulder issues and another for a torn pec, and both Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Glenn Carson have graduated -- so there’s really no one else to step in Wartman’s spot. It’s sink or swim, and if he sinks, Penn State sinks. Wartman made a lot of waves as a true freshman in 2012 before an injury led to a medical redshirt, and he needs to step up as a redshirt sophomore. This spring will help determine whether he can do that.

Best-case scenario: Wartman becomes a solid outside linebacker and is the team’s second-best linebacker behind Hull. He takes his run-stuffing ability to the next level, gains a conference-wide reputation for his penchant for the big hit and forces several key turnovers. He finishes the season as an honorable-mention selection on the All-Big Ten team and picks up the slack while the other outside linebacker, likely Bell, finds his footing.

Worst-case scenario: Wartman’s production flatlines, as Bell continues his quick rise and overtakes him. Wartman remains a below-average to mediocre linebacker and adds little to the defense, except the occasional big tackle that makes fans wonder where that intensity is at other times. James Franklin tries playing other linebackers, either Kline once he gets healthy or a freshman, to spark the defense.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos

Penn State positions to improve: No. 4

February, 11, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- This week's countdown continues with the No. 4 spot.

Once again, until spring practice starts, we'll have a different countdown every week. Up next are the positions of concern for Penn State, and this group is one that historically hasn't been an issue for the Nittany Lions.

No. 4: Linebackers

[+] EnlargeNyeem Wartman
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsKeeping Nyeem Wartman healthy will be a big part of the linebackers' success at Penn State in 2014.
The players: Mike Hull (78 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss), Nyeem Wartman (32 tackles, 4 pass breakups), Brandon Bell (24 tackles), Ben Kline (18 tackles, 1 sack), Gary Wooten (6 tackles), Troy Reeder (incoming freshman), Jason Cabinda (incoming freshman)

Last season: Depth was a huge concern throughout the season, and PSU tried to overcome that with position switches and different combinations. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong moved to the outside and filled in for Hull when he was injured, while Bell, Wartman and Kline split time as the season progressed. The health of this unit was an ongoing issue, but Glenn Carson turned in a solid season And Hull, when healthy, was also good -- although he failed to meet lofty expectations (in part because of those injuries).

What's missing: Depth. It's the same issue as 2013, except the most solid starter in Carson is now gone. Kline once again has two surgeries to recover from this offseason, and Wooten appears to be more of a special-teams contributor. Outside of those two, there are just five linebackers on scholarship -- and that includes the two incoming freshmen.

Moving forward: Wartman and Bell were both greenhorns last season, so they at least have experience now. And they'll both need to be solid -- and healthy -- for this group to experience success. An injury to Hull or those two could be disastrous. Kline is once again a wild card because he's coming off of serious injuries, so PSU might have to turn to a non-scholarship player or a true freshman to pick up some slack. Incoming freshman Koa Farmer could play safety or linebacker, and Reeder appears more game-ready than Cabinda. For the second straight season, linebacker is once again a concern for Linebacker U.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 22, 2014
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Winter stinks. Warm me up with some of your emails:

Darren from Spring Hill, Fla., writes: I'd appreciate your thoughts on Indiana's coordinator situation. I've also thought the pecking order in the BCS era is 1. SEC, 2. (3-way tie depending on year) Pac-12/Big 12/Big Ten; 3. ACC 4. Varies. So why would a coordinator leave IU for the same position at UNC (Littrell) ... is the ACC and, say, the Mountain West more appealing than a low-tier Big Ten school? Thanks.

Brian Bennett: While it's somewhat unusual to see a Big Ten coordinator leave for the same job at what is at best a mid-tier program in the ACC, we have to remember Indiana is not exactly a football power. The Hoosiers have been to one bowl game since 1993 and often play in front of a bunch of empty seats, and the program has not historically provided much of a springboard for coaches' careers. So if Seth Littrell wanted to move on after two very successful years, that becomes more understandable.

We also don't yet know the money situation here. Early reports said Littrell would also be named assistant head coach at North Carolina, which suggests a pay raise. Indiana has made a much bigger commitment to football in recent years but still isn't among the top-paying Big Ten schools when it comes to coaches' salaries. Perhaps the most interesting aspect here is that Littrell -- a former Oklahoma player with deep Sooners ties -- is leaving former Oklahoma coordinator Kevin Wilson's staff to join that of former Oklahoma State play-caller Larry Fedora.


Lachlan from Winterpeg writes: Hey BB, with the hiring of the new assistants at PSU, I see two that stand out to me. The defensive coordinator and the receivers coach. The defense last year had many ups and downs (mostly downs) and bringing in a guy that fielded a top-25 defense last year in the SEC brings in hope. On the other end, a receivers coach that has produced a couple of All-American receivers takes on the task of taking the remaining WR group for PSU that was lackluster last year, and trying to turn them into a threat in the passing game seems challenging. Which of these two do you expect to have a better handle on things being as both have issues to work with, depth with the defense and a group of unproven receivers on the other?

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
Sean Meyers/Icon SMINew Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop takes over a defense that loses just three starters and he should have plenty of talent to work with this season.
Brian Bennett: Just in terms of talent and experience to work with, new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop should have an easier go of things right away. Shoop -- whose brother, John, is Purdue's offensive coordinator, giving us a Big Ten Shoop-Shoop -- led a Vanderbilt defense that really was the backbone of that team during its nine-win seasons each of the past two years. While Penn State's defense had its struggles in 2013, the unit loses only three starters (DaQuan Jones, Glenn Carson and Malcolm Willis). Shoop will need to develop leaders on that side of the ball and improve the secondary, but there is talent in place.

Receivers coach Josh Gattis has a tougher assignment. No player outside of Allen Robinson really produced a whole lot at wideout for the Nittany Lions last year, and Brandon Felder is gone, too. Geno Lewis has solid potential but still needs polishing. Gattis will likely have to quickly coach up some incoming freshmen such as De'Andre Thompkins and Chris Godwin. The receiver group will have to make a lot of progress this offseason to give Christian Hackenberg some help. Remember, too, that head coach James Franklin has coached receivers in the past, and Penn State has also reportedly hired former Temple receivers coach Terry Smith for an unspecified role. So that position should get a lot of attention.


John from Minneapolis writes: Hey, Brian. In Monday's chat you answered a question about Philip Nelson and stated, " Nelson himself didn't light it up as a passer, but he might not want to run it as much as Minnesota seems to want from its QB. If that's the case, I have no problem with him transferring somewhere else." I understand what you're saying, but whatever happened to sticking with a commitment? It smells like weak character to me. That same attitude is why the divorce rate is 50 percent. That's it, thanks.

Brian Bennett: The problem is that commitment and loyalty too often is a one-way street in college sports. A player such as Nelson is supposed to fulfill his four years to the school, yet coaches can leave at any time and his scholarship is up for renewal every season? And Nelson will have to sit out a year unless he transfers to a lower level. The reality is that college sports is a business, and players have to look out for themselves. If Nelson believes his future will be better served by playing in a different system, more power to him.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: The Gophers certainly are not in the top half of the B1G as far as budget, but they bought not only a quality head coach but a whole staff that will not be easily influenced by a few extra bucks. You have any thoughts about whether Jerry Kill and his staff deserve raises?

Brian Bennett: Kill made a reported $1.2 million last year, which is hardly chump change but still ranked as the lowest in the Big Ten. Minnesota officials said they would work on bumping up Kill's pay this offseason, and Kill would like raises for his assistants, too. After an eight-win season, that staff is definitely in line for some salary increases. The price of keeping a high-quality head coach in the Big Ten is escalating rapidly. The good news for the Gophers is I don't think Kill is looking to leave anytime soon.


Dave from Millstone, N.J., writes: So, Brian. We're BaAAaack. ... When is the date when you'll start covering Rutgers in the blog? We missed you since you bolted the Big East for the B1G -- now we're following you, haunting you, filling your dreams. We're coming; you can't stop it now. Oh, sure, you can change assignments and head to the ACC, where Andrea abandoned us to last year. But we will find you, no matter what. Now write one of you famous opinions on how RU will never be great. Go ahead, make my day! Seriously, looking forward to getting picked on by the big boys of the B1G for a few seasons before we take over. So when's the warm welcome start on the blog?

Brian Bennett: You made me laugh, Dave, so good job. I'm looking forward to reuniting with Rutgers and visiting Piscataway again. Maybe I should start increasing my workouts now in anticipation of hitting a grease truck. We typically incorporate new schools right after signing day. So look for coverage of the Scarlet Knights -- and Maryland -- in the Big Ten blog in just a couple more weeks.

Offseason to-do list: Penn State

January, 22, 2014
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The college football season may be over, but the offseason has just begun. So we're taking an early look at the months ahead by offering three items each Big Ten team must address before the 2014 season kicks off.

Up next is a team that has had the busiest offseason thus far, the Penn State Nittany Lions.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesThe sooner Christian Hackenberg can acclimate to the new offense the better off Penn State will be.
1. Learn new schemes/playbooks. Obviously, there are still quite a few unknowns surrounding Penn State's future offense and defense. New coach James Franklin hasn't been on campus two full weeks yet, after all. But the Nittany Lions will certainly need to catch on quickly if they hope to improve upon last season's 7-5 record. Franklin plans to use a multiple pro-style offense, and Christian Hackenberg said he fully expects the verbiage to be completely different. The transition from Bill O'Brien to Franklin likely won't be as jarring as Joe Paterno to O'Brien, but making the necessary adjustments will be the top priority for this team.

2. Find some options at receiver. For as strong as Penn State's corps of tight ends is, its group of wide receivers is pretty weak. Allen Robinson declared early for the NFL, and he leaves a huge hole at the position. Rising redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis is the leading returning wideout, and he averaged just 19.5 yards a game last season. He's athletic, but his route-running needs some work. Penn State at least boasts a trio of talented Class of 2014 receivers -- including two, De'Andre Thompkins (early enrollee) and Chris Godwin, in the ESPN 300 -- but there are a lot of question marks at this position in the short term.

3. Shoring up the secondary and replacing defensive leaders. The Achilles' heel of the Nittany Lions the past two seasons has been the secondary, especially the safeties, and Franklin will certainly have his work cut out for him here. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas are both good corners, but Franklin could opt to move Lucas to safety -- and, as last year's Amos experiment showed, mixing and matching sometimes tends to create an unwanted ripple effect. With the departures of DT DaQuan Jones and MLB Glenn Carson, PSU also will have to find leadership elsewhere. Those two were arguably Penn State's top defensive performers in 2013.

More to-do lists:
It's Senior Bowl week, so you should be following our draft experts as they track the 15 Big Ten players suiting up for the North squad on Saturday in Mobile, Ala. Before turning the page toward the Senior Bowl, let's review how the Big Ten groups performed this past weekend in the East-West Shrine Game and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.

East-West Shrine Game

Players who registered statistics:
  • Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon led the East team with four receptions for 55 yards
  • Purdue CB Ricardo Allen ranked second on the East team in tackles with five. He also had three punt returns for 56 yards, including a 30-yarder
  • Purdue DT Bruce Gaston Jr. had two tackles for the East team, both on run plays that went for one yard
  • Penn State LB Glenn Carson had four tackles for the East team
  • Penn State S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong had three tackles and a pass breakup for the West team
  • Indiana TE Ted Bolser had two receptions for eight yards for the West team
  • Michigan State LB Max Bullough had three tackles for the West team
  • Minnesota S/CB Brock Vereen had one tackle for the West team
  • Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa had one tackle on special teams but no receptions for the West team
NFLPA Collegiate Bowl

Players who registered statistics:
  • Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton completed 1 of 4 pass attempts for nine yards. He also lost a fumble for Team American
  • Wisconsin TE Brian Wozniak had two receptions for 25 yards for Team American
  • Nebraska OT Brent Qvale registered a tackle on the play where Guiton fumbled for Team American
  • Ohio State S C.J. Barnett had a tackle for Team American

Looking to the past & future: LBs

December, 27, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Linebackers.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: This group was clearly going to take a big step back from 2012. Without Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, this was probably the group that was going to receive the heftiest downgrade.

[+] EnlargeStephen Obeng-Agyapong
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesFormer safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was pressed into duty at linebacker because of injuries.
Still, many pointed to Mike Hull as a candidate for PSU's top breakout player. Hopes were high for Nyeem Wartman, and there wasn't much concern surrounding middle linebacker Glenn Carson. This position was clearly shallow, however, and everyone knew a single injury could derail the group. The best-case scenario was to be a good unit -- because it was never going to be great.

How they fared: Injuries were a concern, and they were felt almost immediately. Hull injured his knee against Syracuse, and it took him weeks before he was back to 100 percent. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was forced to take over, and he allowed the linebackers to bide some time until Hull returned. He wasn't a factor in the second-half of the season.

Ben Kline, who overcame a serious shoulder injury, did the most with the time he saw once healed -- but then he fell again to another serious injury. Hull didn't meet expectations, and neither did Wartman, but Brandon Bell was a nice surprise toward the end. This group avoided total disaster, but it would be difficult to rank it above-average.

What we learned: Linebacker will take a few years to reload. Penn State grew accustomed to churning out one strong corps of linebackers after another, but 2013 was the exception. If everyone stayed healthy -- and Kline was never injured in the offseason -- it might've been different. But those are a lot of "what ifs." It became clear in 2013 that linebacker wasn't going to be just a one-year or two-year fix. It'll take a few years for Linebacker U to return to glory.

Grading the position: C. Yes, average. This wasn't one of the better groups in the Big Ten, and it wasn't among the worst. Carson was above-average, but he was the only linebacker who earned an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. None were named to the first or second team. Tackling was an issue at times, and so was pursuit, but it wouldn't be fair to say the linebackers were a liability, either. Once again, it was an average group ... while most PSU fans are used to great in this department.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Carson. Sure, everyone else returns, but Carson was the most solid of the bunch. Hull needs to show he's not as injury-prone as 2013 suggests, and PSU should receive some extra bodies in the form of incoming freshmen Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del/Salesianum) and Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central).

Position stock watch: Trending downward. On one hand, two of PSU's starting spots should improve from last season. On the other, Carson's departure is sure to be felt ... and the other two spots are far from guarantees. Kline has to overcome two surgeries in the offseason, so PSU finds itself in a similar position as last season. One injury could completely derail this group. It needs Hull, Wartman and Bell to be on top of their games -- and stay healthy. If they don't? Well, fans might miss the performance from the 2013 season.

Key to next season: Finding depth ... somewhere. The trio of Hull, Wartman and Bell can't stay on the field all game every game -- so, not only do those three need to take huge steps from last season, but Penn State also needs more players to step up at this position. Redshirt sophomore Gary Wooten hasn't contributed much outside of special teams and -- outside of an injured Kline -- Wooten is next in line. That means Penn State will needs a true freshman or a non-scholarship player to step up. Maybe it can move a backup DB over a la Obeng-Agyapong; maybe not. O'Brien needs to find someone, anyone, who can contribute.

Big Ten early all-star invitations

December, 16, 2013
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Bowl season is just around the corner, and all-star season is just beyond the bowls. Invitations for several pre-draft events have gone out to seniors around the Big Ten.

This is not a final list, just an early rundown to give you an idea of who is going where to showcase their skills in front of the NFL folks.

REESE'S SENIOR BOWL (Jan. 25, Mobile, Ala.)
EAST-WEST SHRINE GAME (Jan. 18, St. Petersburg, Fla.)

The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl has announced only a few player confirmations (including former Wisconsin DE David Gilbert), but none yet from the Big Ten. We'll include Big Ten invites in our next update. The Texas vs. Nation game and Raycom College Football All-Star Classic will not take place this season.

Few surprises for PSU on B1G teams

December, 2, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- As expected, Allen Robinson was once again the big Penn State winner when it came to the Big Ten's All-Conference Selection Show on Monday night.

He was the Big Ten's lone semifinalist for the national Biletnikoff Award so it wasn't much of a surprise when he was named a unanimous All-Big Ten first-team selection and earned the conference's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award for the second straight season. He finished his junior campaign with a PSU-record 97 catches and 1,432 yards.

There weren't many surprises for Penn State, and there was just one pick that could've been perceived as a snub. Here's a closer look at how it all played out for Penn State (all players are first-team selections unless otherwise noted):

COACHES' TEAM

WR Robinson
OG John Urschel
DT DaQuan Jones

Honorable mention: DB Adrian Amos, LB Glenn Carson, QB Christian Hackenberg, C Ty Howle, CB Jordan Lucas, DE C.J. Olaniyan, LT Donovan Smith

MEDIA'S TEAM

WR Robinson
OG Urschel
DT Jones (second-team)

Honorable mention: LB Carson, K Sam Ficken, QB Hackenberg, C Howle, TE Jesse James, CB Lucas, DE Olaniyan, LT Smith

Really, the only perceived snub could be on Jones making the second-team on the media's list. Ohio State DL Noah Spence earned the spot over him, but it was a pretty tight race. Jones had more overall tackles (33 solo, 56 total) than Spence (20 solo, 46 total) and helped stop the run and clog up the middle.

Spence rushed the passer and finished with 13.5 tackles-for-loss, eight sacks and four quarterback hurries. Jones had 11.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks and no hurries. Spence also had his hand in more turnovers.

Outside of that, there didn't appear to be anyone who was really left off the list. If anything, the list of honorable mentions might've raised a few eyebrows for opposite reasons.

Amos played relatively well at corner, but most of his season was spent playing not-so-well at safety. He earned a nod from coaches but not from the media. It's clear this season was a step down from 2012.

The biggest surprise came from the media's list, however, with the inclusion of Ficken. That pick would've made sense had this season ended around Week 6, but he struggled in the second half. He finished the season by making 15-of-23 (65 percent) field goals and by missing an extra point. In the last five games, he made just half of his kicks -- and he was just 1-of-5 on field goals longer than 30 yards during that stretch.

The Big Ten will continue with the major awards being named Tuesday night. But there shouldn't be too many surprises there, either. Expect Penn State to pick up its second straight freshman-of-the-year honor.

What we learned: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 63-14 loss against Ohio State in Week 9:

1. Defensive problems go very deep. Giving up 63 points -- the most since Nov. 25, 1899 -- makes that pretty evident. The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on nine of their first 11 drives, amassed 686 total yards (the third-highest total in OSU history) and averaged 8 yards a carry on 51 carries. The debate now centers on what those problems can be traced to -- although an easier answer might be what they don't touch on. Bill O'Brien acknowledged his team wasn't prepared well enough, but the talent level on this defense just isn't on par with past Penn State teams. The secondary remains a weakness, the linebacker corps is thin and inexperienced (outside of Glenn Carson), and the defensive ends have had mixed results stuffing the run. Depth is an issue, talent is an issue, and preparation -- at least this week -- seemed to be an issue. This isn't a problem that will be fixed overnight, or even this year. The Nittany Lions will need at least another season or two to rise to mediocrity. They need some playmakers. And fast.

2. Bill Belton is the top RB right now. He rushed for 78 yards by halftime, which is pretty impressive considering OSU didn't allow any other players to surpass 74 yards throughout an entire game. Belton was explosive, patient, consistent and was one of the lone bright spots for PSU in the first half. (He finished the game with 98 rushing yards.) By comparison, Zach Zwinak carried just three times and once again fumbled -- and got an earful from his head coach. Zwinak is the type of tailback who can wear a defense down, but until he gets his fumbling issue under control, Belton likely will be the main ball-carrier going forward.

3. Christian Hackenberg still has some learning to do. The true freshman hurt his shoulder after a late hit, but that didn't excuse some of his passing decisions. He overthrew a few wide-open receivers and tossed two interceptions, one of which came before the hit. Hackenberg has played well overall this season, but this was definitely a setback. The Buckeyes don't have a great secondary -- they rank No. 79 in the country in passing yards allowed -- and Hackenberg still finished with a season-worst QBR of 12.1.

Planning for success: Penn State

October, 24, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Stephen Obeng-Agyapong sees the play everywhere. He can't forget.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesStopping Braxton Miller will be key to any chance of a Penn State victory.
Third quarter. Third-and-goal from the 1. Oct. 27, 2012. Braxton Miller fakes a handoff from the shotgun, while a diving Sean Stanley mistakenly takes out the decoy. Gerald Hodges spots the football and sprints over to Miller as the quarterback steps backward to avoid the diving tackle. Then, from the 5-yard line, Miller runs forward -- leaping in the air from the 2-yard line, between two defenders, to grab one of the Big Ten's most-impressive 1-yard TD runs.

Obeng-Agyapong doesn't go out of his way to see that play, a score that handed the Buckeyes a 21-10 lead. It's just hard to miss.

"I see that play all the time. … It just happens to be there," he said. "I don't actually look; it just pops up there. You're just trying to play this game and not let things like that happen again."

Those kinds of plays have highlighted Miller's career and have helped dictate the Buckeyes' success since he lined up under center as a true freshman. Since that time, Ohio State is 14-1 when the dual-threat reaches the 200-yard mark in total yards. When he's held to less than 200 yards? His team's just 7-5.

Talk to Penn State's defensive linemen, linebackers or DBs. Talk to the coaches. It doesn't matter. They're all going to echo the exact same thing: Stopping Miller, who reportedly runs in the 4.4s, is absolutely key.

"It's a very difficult challenge playing a guy like Braxton Miller -- in my opinion one of the top five players in the country," coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's improved immensely since being in the system."

Miller leads the conference in quarterback rating (160.0) and completion rate (69.6). He reminds Obeng-Agyapong of Michigan's Devin Gardner, who rushed for 121 yards and threw for another 240 against PSU.

But the OSU quarterback is more experienced, more refined, and -- in O'Brien's estimation -- certainly better. Penn State's head coach didn't heap that kind of praise ("One of the top five players in the country") upon Gardner.

But, against Miller, Penn State knows its backs are up against a wall that stands 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. He accounted for three-quarters of the OSU offense when playing the blue jerseys last season. He can make plays outside of the pocket. He can mix up his passes to Philly Brown (33 catches, 453 yards, 6 TDs) and Devin Smith (30 catches, 434 yards, 6 TDs).

Every team is aware of him on every play. PSU linebacker Glenn Carson swore he'd spend "well over 10 hours" reclining in the film room and watching tape of just Ohio State's quarterback.

"Definitely," he said, "containing Braxton is one of the emphases of this week."

Miller dominated PSU inside the intimidating confines of Beaver Stadium last season. Now, the dual-threat QB will perform in front of a friendly scarlet-and-gray crowd that numbers in the six figures.

The challenge Saturday night won't be any easier for this defense. But, for Obeng-Agyapong and the rest of his teammates, they're hoping they don't see anymore repeats of that 1-yard run. They want to atone for it -- and give OSU something to think about over the next year.

Penn State finds its own motivation

October, 23, 2013
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It's natural to wonder about Penn State's motivation.

We’re nearing the final month of the season in a physically demanding sport and the Nittany Lions' players have no possibility of a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions.

There's no reason, however, to wonder about Penn State's motivation for this week.

If any player, however, needs a reason to get excited about going to play the No. 4 team in the country, on the road, under the lights and in front of 100,000 fans, then he should return his shoulder pads and scholarship check immediately. Playing at Ohio State at the Horseshoe on Saturday night is about as good as it gets.

"No offense to the bowl system," Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien said Tuesday, " ... [but] I I don't know of too many bowl games that are better than that, other than the national championship game."

Penn State has no natural rivals in the Big Ten. At least until Maryland and Rutgers join the league next year, Ohio State remains the nearest school geographically, and of course, the Buckeyes have often presented the biggest road block for a conference or division title. While the two programs might not exactly fit the mold as rivals, this is about as close as it gets for Penn State.

"It's definitely a game that we're a little bit more into and that we're definitely excited to play," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "Ohio State is probably one of our biggest games that we look forward to every year and talk about every year."

It's not quite true to say Penn State has nothing to play for. The Nittany Lions can technically win the Leaders Division title and trophy, as Ohio State did last year while on probation. While they trail the Buckeyes by one game in the standings, a win in Columbus would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker going forward.

Penn State can also play the role of spoiler this season. It can ruin Ohio State's streak of perfection by finding a way to win at the 'Shoe a la 2011 and 2008. The Lions can also have a say in the Big Ten race later this season when they host Nebraska on Nov. 23, or potentially mess up a BCS at-large bid for Wisconsin in the finale at Madison.

But the players say they don't think too much about those things. In fact, the big picture rarely enters their mind since their picture is limited in scope, anyway.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
David Dermer/Getty ImagesPenn State will get a raucous, night-game crowd at Ohio State this weekend.
"We go in expecting to win every game, but we also go in embracing the underdog role," offensive lineman Adam Gress said. "Every game is a big game with nothing to lose, in our opinion. It's no secret that we're not going to bowl games and things like that. So every game's a big one."

O'Brien stresses that Penn State plays a dozen one-game series. Yes, it's cliché coachspeak to some degree, but O'Brien has to come up with ways to keep the team excited. While on probation last year, Ohio State could push for an unbeaten season, a carrot that's already out of reach for the Nittany Lions. And since the current bowl ban is unusually long -- Penn State is not eligible for a bowl until 2016, unless the NCAA decides to shorten that sanction -- there's no reward on the immediate horizon.

So the only choice is to look at each game as its own opportunity.

"Everyone on the team just loves to win and loves to play hard each week," Carson said. "We just come in really determined to get that win. That's really all the motivation that we need."

No one questioned Penn State's motivation last week when it beat Michigan in an emotional four-overtime game a week after a dispiriting loss at Indiana. Maybe you can wonder what the Nittany Lions are playing for next month, when they face Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue in three straight games.

But definitely not this week.

"I think our kids are very, very motivated for the challenge of playing in this conference," O'Brien said.

Midseason power rankings: Penn State

October, 17, 2013
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It's the halfway point of the season, and that can only mean one thing. It's time for the midseason Penn State power rankings.

Each player was ranked based on his production, performance and importance to the team. Here's the top 10:

1. WR Allen Robinson: Does this one really need to be explained? Without Robinson, there might not be much of a passing attack. He's been incredibly dependable, he can turn short receptions into long passes, and he can make huge catches when the game calls for it. It's debatable whether he's the best overall offensive player in the conference, but it's clear he's the MVP to his team. He might just be the best receiver in school history.

2. DT DaQuan Jones: He entered the season with quite a bit of fanfare, as Gil Brandt named him the nation's best senior defensive tackle. But he's lived up to those expectations -- actually, he might have even surpassed them. He leads the conference in tackles-for-loss (8.5), and he's second on the team in tackles (31.5). And, get this, no one on Penn State -- not even the linebackers -- boasts more solo tackles than his 24. He stepped up after Jordan Hill's departure, and he's a big reason why teams have struggled to run inside.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsSo far, Penn State true freshman Christian Hackenberg has lived up to the status he arrived with as the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect.
3. QB Christian Hackenberg: For a player who's been on campus for about four months, he's done a remarkable job. Heck, for a player who would have enrolled early, this would be a great job. True freshmen historically struggle in this first season, but Hackenberg has thrown nearly twice as many TDs (11) as interceptions (6) so far. He's on pace to break Matt McGloin's single-season record for passing yards, and he'll likely leave Happy Valley with every meaningful school passing record. He's shown poise beyond his years, and he's an easy pick for this spot.

4. LB Glenn Carson: There hasn't been a lot of consistency on the defense, and that's what makes Carson so important. He's not the flashiest player to ever don the Blue and White, but he gets the job done week in and week out. He leads the team in tackles (34.5), and he's one of the leaders on this defense. He won't end up on the semifinalist list for the Bednarik Award, but he deserves credit for helping shore up the middle of this defense. He's a big reason why PSU has the nation's No. 19 run defense.

5. RB Bill Belton: Let the debate begin. Who's been more valuable to this team -- Belton or ZZ? Belton gets the slight edge right now after a strong game against Michigan, which saw him make a key fourth-and-1 run in addition to the game-winning touchdown. He's made some nice catches this season, has averaged 5.3 yards a carry -- a full yard per carry more than the other guy -- and come up big in clutch situations. Belton looks like the surprise of the offense so far this season.

6. RB Zach Zwinak: OK, OK, let's address the elephant in the room. He did not have a good game against Michigan. At all. But point to another Penn State player who has had six strong games. It's not easy. He's been the workhorse, the player who can pick up short yardage and wear a defense down. He's had eight rushing touchdowns so far this year, and he's played no small role in PSU's No.17-ranked red-zone offense. He still leads the team with 393 rushing yards.

7. LB Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: Think about just how important he's been this season, especially when Mike Hull went down. Maybe he's not the best linebacker in recent memory, but he gets bonus points for switching positions and exceeding expectations. The Nittany Lions could've walked away with a Week 1 loss had Obeng-Agyapong not stepped up, especially considering that Syracuse targeted him constantly that game. He's already run the gamut of football stats -- he has a sack, a pick, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery so far this season. He's obviously good in pass coverage, and he's been a speedy blitzer when called upon. The safety-turned-linebacker has helped hold this thin corps of LBs together.

8. WR Brandon Moseby-Felder: If we were just going off the U-M game, Moseby-Felder might be as high as second or third. But he missed the Indiana game due to injury and went a span of three weeks with four catches for 39 yards. He's clearly important to this team, as evidenced by that game against the Hoosiers, and he made several critical catches against the Wolverines -- including a back-shoulder grab for a touchdown. If he can keep that up, he'll undoubtedly make his way up this list by the end of the season.

9. CB Jordan Lucas: The secondary has not been a strong point for PSU, but Lucas seems to have had the best season so far. He's a first-year starter, but defensive coordinator John Butler has used him in quite a few ways. He's blitzed off the edge a bit, has been decent in run support and has made some nice plays as cornerback. He leads the team with eight pass deflections, seven pass breakups and an interception. Also, believe it or not, he's second on the team with 4.5 stops in the backfield. He hasn't played error-free football, but he's done well.

10. DE C.J. Olaniyan: He obviously had a monster game against Michigan, as he was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week. But even before that, he was doing pretty well. He's first in sacks (3.5), second in tackles for loss (6.5), fifth in tackles (21.5), and he also has a forced fumble and two pass breakups. If Olaniyan can string together more games like that, he'll earn quite a reputation for himself in the Big Ten. For now, though, his stock is on "hold" because he needs to show he can consistently perform like that.

Emotional win comes at key time for PSU

October, 13, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Defensive coordinator John Butler scanned the sideline after the referees signaled touchdown, finally bringing to end an instant classic that'll be talked about five years from now.

He watched as more than 100 Penn State players erupted in ecstasy -- spinning around, hugging, pumping their fists -- as they sprinted to the end zone to join their offensive teammates, who clinched a 43-40 win. In quadruple overtime. Against Michigan.

Two seconds after the game had ended, no one was left on the sideline. Maybe Butler was just looking for an assistant coach to embrace after the season-defining win. But he couldn't find one; they had already started a celebration that's sure to last until morning. He instead looked around, turned to the person closest to him and said one line before jogging off.

"We're going to be fine," he said, with no smile on his face but a sense of conviction in his voice. "Write that -- we're going to be fine."

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg passed for 305 yards and 3 TDs in the upset of Michigan.
Beaver Stadium was filled with a sold-out crowd of more than 108,000 -- but it was also filled with question marks. Had Penn State's magic run out? Could this team really come away with a big win? Would this defense collapse again when it counted? Was there anyone on this offense besides Allen Robinson who could make plays?

The Nittany Lions didn't punctuate each answer with an exclamation mark. But they won. With dozens of lettermen on the sideline for homecoming, the Nittany Lions did to UM what it did to PSU in 2005: put an end to a perfect season.

"You can't really compare this to anything else; it's pretty much indescribable," quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. "It's just one of those things where if you're fortunate enough to be in this type of game and you experience it -- it's something that's going to stick with you for the rest of your life."

Added tailback Bill Belton: "Oh, I'm going to remember this. Ten years from now? Yeah."

This wasn't a game that anyone "deserved" to win. Then again, maybe no one deserved to lose. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner paced the sideline, with a headset over his ears, as Brendan Gibbons' 40-yard attempt was blocked in the first overtime. Then, in the third overtime, Michigan's players stared at the ground -- tight end Khalid Hill yelled, "Damn!" -- when Gibbons' missed a 33-yarder.

Both teams had plenty of opportunities to win. Michigan came into this game always making plays when it needed to, while Penn State always seemed to watch the ball bounce in a bad direction. The roles were reversed this time around. Call it luck, call it skill, call it whatever -- but, whatever it was, it couldn't have come at a better time for Penn State.

"I would just say that in a lot of situations, God was on our side today," Robinson said. "We were able to make some plays down the stretch to keep this game alive."

Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong promised after the UCF loss that a game like that wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And wideout Eugene Lewis took to Twitter to let everyone know PSU was better than that. If PSU loses this game? Well, at some point, you stop believing it gets better. Those words don't have meaning if the losses pile up.

Bill O'Brien usually heads into every game by taking the dais and telling the media that every game is important. This week, he said he'd be crazy to say this was just another game. It wasn't. Win or lose, this was going to be a turning point for the Lions.

And, for the first time this season, it turned out the right way for Penn State.

"I'm just so jacked-up and so happy because you're putting it out on the line every single play," linebacker Mike Hull said. "This says we're a resilient bunch of guys."

Offensive tackle Garry Gilliam lingered beneath the tunnel and slapped hands with the fans. Linebacker Glenn Carson jumped around as if he were at a track meet. And fans, many of whom wore the same color for a stadium-wide "White Out," didn't move from their seats minutes after the game had ended and the Wolverines had already retired to their locker room.

Penn State had answered the questions by scoring 10 points in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter to force overtime; then enduring a swing of emotions -- unlike any game either team has played this season -- and coming out with a win.

But, overall, the answers all revolved one simple theme. And it's one these fans can head home through snarled traffic with in mind.

These Nittany Lions are going to be just fine.

Planning for success: Penn State

October, 10, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Linebacker Glenn Carson wants redemption.

First he endured a loss to UCF where his defense gave up 507 yards. Then came Indiana, where the Hoosiers racked up 486 yards and 44 points. Penn State was favored in both games.

So Carson said earlier this week, from inside Beaver Stadium, that his teammates have been eagerly awaiting this matchup against Michigan. Nothing helps ease the sting of a loss quite like a victory against an undefeated team.

"We're hungry for a win," he said. "No one on our team likes the feeling after a loss. After the game, it's really tough for us to swallow."

Michigan is the first top-25 that Penn State has faced this season. The Wolverines have played about as inconsistently as the Nittany Lions, but they remain undefeated. They've made plays when they've had to; the same cannot be said of PSU.

Carson didn't believe those defensive struggles, those lack of big plays, could be traced to just one issue. But, to reverse his team's fortunes, he did emphasize another important aspect.

"I would just put it down to execution," he said. "Sometimes we're not just functioning as an entire whole. One person might miss an assignment here or there, and we're just not really going out and executing. We just need to play all 11 at once."

That's critical this week with Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner strolling into Happy Valley. A missed assignment in one place could lead to a touchdown in another. Gardner doesn't have the speed of a Denard Robinson, but Robinson didn't have the arm of Gardner.

Gardner is a true dual threat who -- when he's on top of his game -- is difficult to stop. He runs once for about every two times he passes, and he's sprinted for at least one touchdown in every game this season. And his QBR, in three out of five games, has hovered between 87.9 and 94.2.

"I think the thing you've got to try to do is really try to keep him in the pocket," coach Bill O'Brien said. "When he gets out of the pocket, he's very dangerous. Very dangerous."

Neither O'Brien nor Carson would offer details into just how PSU's preparing -- "I appreciate that question, but do you really think I'm going to tell you?" O'Brien said -- but Penn State's hoping the end result of this preparation winds up better than the UCF and Indiana games.

"Overall," safety Malcolm Willis said of the defense, "we feel like we can do better than we have."

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