Penn State Nittany Lions: Eugene Lewis

Big Ten lunch links

May, 15, 2014
May 15
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The spring meeting of Big Ten athletic directors is over. Back to the offseason lists and polls.
  • Wrapping up from Rosemont, the “cost of attendance” discussion remains alive.
  • Good take by Andrew Logue on the complexities of Jim Delany.
  • More Big Ten athletic directors weigh in on the eastward movement of the league. Just don't expect the football championship game to go the way of the basketball tourney.
  • Iowa AD Gary Barta comments on the status of the Hawkeyes’ series with Iowa State.
  • Illinois wants to make it clear: No alcohol sales at Memorial Stadium. But is Michigan heading in a different direction? Other athletic directors discuss the issue.
  • Michigan State and Notre Dame would like to keep playing, but the format of the series will change.
  • More details from the incident that that led to the arrest of former Minnesota and Rutgers QB Philip Nelson.
  • Former Chicago prep star running back Ty Isaac is leaving USC. Next stop, the Big Ten?
  • Solid results for Big Ten football programs in the NCAA’s new report for 2012-13 on academic progress rates, including a big jump for new member Maryland.
  • Rare insight into the work of Mark Pantoni, the Ohio State director of player personnel, a job with a wide range of responsibilities.
  • Tom Shatel remembers the football career of a former two-sport Nebraska star who continues to bring a grinder mentality to his alma mater.
  • Ex-Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez fails a physical with the Eagles. Some insight into the alleged bike theft by Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas.
  • A Rutgers offensive line recruit brings plenty of intensity.
  • Eugene Lewis looks like a worthy replacement for Allen Robinson at Penn State. James Franklin has watched “Moneyball” at least seven times. A new Nittany Lions logo arrives as part of a $10 million scoreboard replacement project.
  • It’s a tradition at Michigan for its quarterback pledges join in the recruiting battle.

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.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State received another bit of news Thursday that it hoped not to hear, but this move was long expected: Junior wideout Allen Robinson is declaring early for the NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerAllen Robinson's departure to the NFL will leave Penn State with a lot of receiving production to replace.
He leaves Happy Valley as a two-time Big Ten receiver of the year and was one of the best wideouts in school history. Former Penn State All-Americans Kenny Jackson and O.J. McDuffie previously told ESPN.com that Robinson belonged in the same elite group as them.

Robinson -- widely considered a second- or possibly a late first-round draft pick -- was easily the most valuable player on the Nittany Lions the past two seasons. He ended his junior campaign with a school-record 97 catches for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns. He accounted for a little more than 46 percent of PSU's yards through the air while finishing with more catches than the team's Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 receiving targets combined.

"It was a great honor to play at Penn State," Robinson said in a news release. "I am blessed to have played with, and for, the people in the Penn State football program. This is a decision that I believe is best for my family and I, and I wish all the best to the university and all my teammates."

Neither Robinson nor his family immediately returned messages seeking comment, and Robinson hung up when reached Tuesday night. As a result, it's not clear just how much of a factor Bill O'Brien's departure was in Robinson's decision -- but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if it pushed him over the edge.

Robinson tweeted on New Year's Eve, prior to news leaking out to media outlets about O'Brien: "Welp, it's been real."

A recent mock draft has Robinson going No. 26 overall to the Cleveland Browns. And at least one former receiver thought A-Rob should leave for greener pastures all along.

"Allen Robinson, do me a favor," said Jackson, arguably the top wideout in PSU history. "You deserve to go the NFL, and you deserve to have someone pay you for what you've done at Penn State. You've made them a lot of money -- and you've given Penn State something to cheer for."

Robinson's departure is obviously not good news for Penn State's passing attack. Penn State will also be without No. 2 wideout Brandon Felder, who will graduate, and that leaves several unproven players to vie for starting jobs.

The Nittany Lions' returning leading wideout will be rising redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis, who finished the year with 18 catches for 234 yards. Penn State might find an option among one of its top incoming freshman wideouts -- if they stay committed -- but this position will certainly be a concern moving forward.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Most Penn State players reacted with a stunned silence when told of the news that their head coach, Bill O'Brien, was heading to the NFL's Houston Texans.

The story broke about 90 minutes before the new year, and most players were either with friends or on their way to parties. Linebacker Brandon Bell was driving when he answered his buzzing cell phone.

"It's official?" he asked at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night. "I don't have much to say. ... Yeah, I guess I'm surprised."

[+] EnlargeBelton
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsBill OBrien's departure caught Bill Belton and his teammates by surprise, but the players feel Penn State will be just fine moving forward.
He paused a few seconds and then continued on: "You can't worry about what you can't control. We got to do what we got to do."

Fifteen minutes later and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said he hadn't heard anything about O'Brien heading elsewhere either. He seemed just as off-guard and even a bit reticent to believe the breaking story.

"Like I said, I haven't heard anything," Olaniyan said. "But no matter what happens, Penn State has shown -- everybody's shown -- that we're going to keep striving forward. No matter what happens."

The overwhelming sentiment from players on Tuesday and Wednesday was one of surprise, but not of betrayal. Their emotions were mixed but not polar -- they felt disappointed, but they were happy for their head coach. They seemed down, but they spoke with conviction about their university and the next season.

"As long as we have each other," wideout Jake Kiley said Wednesday, referring to his teammates, "we'll be fine. I think everyone's in the same mind-set."

Tailback Bill Belton wanted to enjoy the new year, forget about the coaching change and deal with it later. Wideout Allen Robinson hung up as soon as O'Brien's name was mentioned. Offensive guard John Urschel took to Twitter to congratulate his head coach.

Different players reacted differently. But everyone seemed to agree that Penn State's certainly been through worse, and that it would emerge once again just fine.

Those same players who congratulated their head coach first met O'Brien in January 2012 when the relative unknown landed in Happy Valley and told the media he was "thrilled to be the head football coach," months before the NCAA levied unprecedented sanctions against the school. O'Brien asked players for their commitment, their loyalty, and they overwhelmingly surrendered it.

Eugene Lewis, now a rising redshirt sophomore, was one of those players. The coveted four-star recruit arrived on campus a few weeks before those sanctions, and he could've chosen to transfer elsewhere without penalty. But he decided to stick with O'Brien in Happy Valley.

And, even now, Lewis doesn't regret his decision. Even now, he bristled at feeling even the slightest twinge of betrayal by his old coach.

"That's a strong word because you have to look at it from his point of view," Lewis said Wednesday. "He came into a position that was hard for his family, with the sanctions that we got. You have to look at what he did and how he did all he could. You can't really be mad at him for leaving after two years. I still really respect him."

Lewis was at a friend's house, watching ESPN, when he discovered the news of O'Brien's departure. His phone buzzed with calls and texts from his teammates shortly before midnight. They agreed they'd enjoy the night and then just see what happens.

But Lewis was adamant, whomever the next head coach turns out to be, that he'll still be all-in.

"At the end of the day, we all know we're family and we all know we still have to go out there and play for our school," he said. "You have to be able to fight through adversity, and this is just another obstacle. I'm not mad at Coach O'Brien, I'm happy with what he's done for me and this university.

"I know my team and everyone else there at Penn State -- everyone -- is going to be behind us, and we're going to greet the next coach the same way we greeted Coach O'Brien."

Defensive end Curtis Cothran echoed Lewis' words and succinctly summed up the message from Penn State's players: "We're going to be OK."

Looking to the past & future: WRs

December, 20, 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, over the next two weeks, we'll break down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Wide receivers.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: Allen Robinson was expected to be better than ever but -- with a true freshman quarterback -- it wasn't quite certain if his numbers would equal his breakout 2012 season. Even Robinson acknowledged numbers might not reflect his improvement.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AJ Mast/Icon SMIAllen Robinson posted eye-popping numbers despite the lack of a credible threat on the other side.
But he gained weight, speed and strength and was sure to play a huge role in the offense. Outside of him, Brandon Felder was expected to step up to become a consistent No. 2 option. And some pegged 2013 as a breakout season for Eugene Lewis, who could overtake Felder early in the season.

How they fared: It's difficult to surpass high expectations when they're practically touching the clouds, but that's exactly what Robinson did. He set the school's single-season record (again) with 97 catches and added another school record with 1,432 receiving yards. He accounted for 46 percent of the passing offense.

The problem here is that all the other wideouts fared poorly. Felder struggled with drops and inconsistency all season. He had a good game against Michigan (six catches, 97 yards), but that and the next game were the beginning of the end. Bill O'Brien clearly had enough of his mistakes, as he wound up with just two catches in the final five games.

Lewis was still a little rough around the edges, the result of not playing wideout until college, and he had good performances in the first and last games of the season. But in the 10 games between? He had 72 receiving yards. And those were the No. 2 and 3 receivers.

What we learned: Without Robinson, this corps is in trouble. Lewis showed glimpses of potential, but not enough to quiet the questions surrounding this group. If it wasn't for Robinson, the receiver position might've been as weak as the safeties ... and that's saying something.

Grading the position: C+. Robinson gets an A, but the rest of the group gets a D. Average that together, and you get this mark. Robinson was one of the nation's best, but the rest of the group was definitely below average. They certainly had their moments but didn't consistently factor into the gameplan. It was a season to remember for Robinson and a season to forget for every receiver not named Robinson.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Felder and (possibly) Robinson. A-Rob still hasn't officially stated whether he'll declare early for the NFL draft, but it sure seems as if that's a likelihood. On the positive side, PSU has three talented incoming freshmen at the position -- including ESPN 300 wideouts De'Andre Thompkins and Chris Godwin. One could be asked to immediately step in to plug the gap created by Felder and/or Robinson.

Position stock watch: On hold, but likely trending downward. It's a simple equation. If Robinson stays, this position will be better than last season. Felder was a nonfactor, and his departure won't be felt that much, while Lewis should only get better. But if Robinson leaves? Well, feel free to hit that panic button because PSU just lost the best player on its team. This position would instantly become the biggest question mark on the offense, right ahead of the offensive line.

Key to next season: Finding someone to complement and/or replace Robinson. Penn State needs at least two solid options at receiver in O'Brien's pass-heavy offense, but that's far from a guarantee next season -- even if Robinson returns. Expectations will be very high for Lewis, who needs to take a few steps forward after an overall disappointing redshirt freshman season. Lewis obviously has playmaking ability, as he caught three highlight-worthy passes from Christian Hackenberg, but that needs to be parlayed into an every-game performance.

Looking to the past & future: QBs

December, 18, 2013
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The season's over, Beaver Stadium's empty, and the latest Bill O'Brien-to-the-NFL rumors have already begun.

But that doesn't mean it's too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, over the next two weeks, we'll break down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Quarterbacks.

REWIND

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesThe Penn State passing attack is in good hands thanks to Christian Hackenberg.
Expectations entering 2013 season: First, Steven Bench had the head start. Then he lost it and transferred. Then, Tyler Ferguson had the edge. Then he lost it ... and, well, recently decided to transfer. And, then, you know what happened next. Christian Hackenberg, who enrolled over the summer, managed to earn the starting job and never looked back.

O'Brien slowly brought Hackenberg into his own, sticking to short passes and plenty of runs against Syracuse and then challenging him more as the weeks progressed. Hackenberg was ESPN's top-rated quarterback of the 2012 class so expectations soared for the young QB. He was expected to be one of, if not the, top true freshman in the Big Ten.

How they fared: Hackenberg wasn't perfect, but it's pretty difficult to say he did anything other than exceed expectations. He was the Big Ten freshman-of-the-year and finished with 2,955 yards to go along with 20 TDs and 10 picks.

He helped lead PSU to two comebacks -- against Illinois and Michigan -- and played beyond his years. He's calm, cool, collected ... and he's quickly become a point for pride in Happy Valley.

What we learned: Under Jay Paterno, quarterback was a concern nearly every season. And, if there was any doubt before, it's pretty clear now: Quarterback is not a concern anymore. O'Brien coached up Matt McGloin to the NFL and then helped a rookie quarterback to an efficient season (2:1 TD-to-INT ratio) after he spent about two months on campus before his career debut. This position is now a strength, and there's nothing anemic about this passing attack.

Grading the position: B. For a freshman, he gets an A+ -- but we're not grading on a curve here. O'Brien offered the same grade earlier in the season, although there are likely quite a few A's awaiting this position the next few seasons. Hackenberg overthrew quite a few balls and sometimes targeted Allen Robinson without scanning the field. He's a good QB, but he's not great ... yet.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: QB Tyler Ferguson. His transfer wasn't a surprise but, as long as Hackenberg stays healthy, there's obviously no reason to panic. ESPN 300 QB Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy) will join the team in January, and O'Brien is hoping to add another scholarship signal-caller before the 2014 season.

Position stock watch: Trending upward. Other positions might be a bit trickier to figure out, but it would be pretty difficult to find someone who thinks Hackenberg -- and, by extension, the quarterback position -- won't be improved next season. If Hackenberg plays like he did against then-No. 15 Wisconsin (21-of-30, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), the Nittany Lions should be just fine. He's only begun to tap his potential and, if he can improve accuracy on those long balls, PSU's offense could take a giant step forward.

Key to next season: Replacing Robinson. Robinson still hasn't officially declared early for the NFL, but there's a pretty big likelihood that he will. And, if he does, that'll be a huge blow to the offense/passing game -- and the key will be finding someone, or some group, to step up. No one will match Robinson's production, and it doesn't help that the rest of the WR corps is a bit iffy -- so the tight ends could be more important than ever. Eugene Lewis will also be asked to handle a bigger workload, and one of the incoming freshman could wind up playing a big role.

This isn't just the key to the quarterback position. It's the key to the entire offense.
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.

What we learned: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 31-24 upset win over No. 15 Wisconsin in the season finale, its first win over a top-15 team since the Capital One Bowl victory over LSU in 2010:

1. Don't underestimate Penn State. You think we would've learned that by now. But after seeing the Buckeyes absolutely dominate Penn State, 63-14, it seemed as if PSU would be in for another flogging. Everyone counted them out -- Vegas put the line at 24 points -- but the Nittany Lions seem to do best when everyone else thinks they have no chance. They came out of absolutely nowhere to not just slip past the Badgers, but to totally outplay them. Penn State's defense stopped one of the nation's best rushing attacks, and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg picked on the Wisconsin secondary. If there's one thing we should learn from this game, it's that we should never count these Nittany Lions out.

2. The future looks bright. Next season should have its share of question marks, but even look past that. Hackenberg is playing beyond his years, freshman LB Brandon Bell garnered his first start (and grabbed six tackles), and PSU dressed 23 total freshmen. Adam Breneman and Eugene Lewis still have three years left and had terrific performances on Saturday. And then there are other freshmen such as Akeel Lynch, Richy Anderson, Nyeem Wartman, Austin Johnson and Malik Golden who have seen quite a bit of time this season.

3. Sam Ficken's struggles aren't behind him, after all. Ficken had a miserable stretch last season before he seemingly turned it all around -- but those issues are most certainly back. He has made just seven of his last 13 field goals (54 percent) and also missed a PAT last week. He went 1-of-3 against Wisconsin, missing a 31-yarder and 34-yarder, and he'll need to find more answers over the offseason. He's bounced back once already, but he'll need to find a way to do it again. Otherwise, freshman Chris Gulla could push him for time.

4. The offensive line needs to be more disciplined, as far as penalties. Either it wasn't prepared for Wisconsin's defensive linemen moving around or it wasn't focused. Whatever the reason, it was one of the odder sights during Saturday afternoon's game. Penn State was called for at least eight motion penalties, with left tackle Donovan Smith responsible for four of those. Offensive line coach Mac McWhorter was clearly frustrated on the sideline and, although the line played well overall, it certainly needs to concentrate more on the snap count and less on what the opposition is doing. Those mistakes nearly lost PSU the game.

5. Secondary, bad; front seven, good. Joel Stave had difficulty locating quite a few open targets, and that came as a big break for Penn State. The secondary still struggled, but it came up with key interceptions off Stave mistakes to somewhat atone. It's still clearly the weak link of this defense, but the front-seven -- especially the defensive line -- played very well yet again Saturday. They finished with five quarterback hurries and three sacks, and the line really limited the Badgers' rushing attack. Wisconsin was held to its second-lowest rushing total of the season (120 yards), and defensive coordinator John Butler deserves a lot of the credit. That should bode well moving forward.

Week 14 helmet stickers

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 14's season finale:

QB Christian Hackenberg: This was easily his best game of the season and certainly should provide PSU some hope moving forward. He was 21 of 30 for 339 yards with four TDs and no interceptions. He played especially well in the first half -- throwing just one or two bad balls -- and was the driving force behind the Penn State offense. He was able to spread the field, showed composure when Wisconsin called for a heavy blitz, and was the biggest reason for PSU's huge upset win over the Badgers.

DE C.J. Olaniyan and the PSU defensive line: The average Wisconsin offensive lineman weighs 321 pounds, which is about 8 pounds heavier than the average Green Bay Packers' lineman. But PSU still managed to pressure Joel Stave and limit the rushing attack to only 120 yards. The entire line played well, but Olaniyan deserves special consideration after finishing with three quarterback hurries and returning an interception 33 yards. Anthony Zettel added two stops in the backfield, Kyle Baublitz (1 TFL) and Austin Johnson led all PSU linemen with four tackles apiece, and Deion Barnes deflected a critical third-and-3 pass.

WR Allen Robinson: No explanation is needed here. Seriously. He caught eight passes for 122 yards. You know how good he is by now. He's on this list every week, and he's one of the best receivers in Penn State history. He showed that yet again against Wisconsin.

RB Zach Zwinak: The 240-pound back gets this award mainly because of one play, his 61-yard rush on a draw with less than 4 minutes left in regulation. Had he not picked that up, Wisconsin would've had great field position and plenty of time left to score the tying touchdown. That was a critical play, and Zwinak played especially well in the second half. He carried 22 times for 115 yards, with more than half of his yardage coming off that one play. Wisconsin players vowed revenge earlier this week after Zwinak ran all over them last season -- but he once again quieted the Badgers.

WR Eugene Lewis and TE Adam Breneman: These two freshmen -- Lewis a redshirt; Breneman a true -- will be looked upon a lot in the future, so their performances were good to see for PSU fans. Breneman caught three balls for 78 yards and a touchdown. But his big play came early in the game when he took a short pass, broke a tackle and rumbled 45 more yards for the score. Lewis also finished with three catches but came down with 91 yards and two touchdowns. Every catch he made was a big one. The first was a 29-yard catch that came on third-and-7, the second was a 3-yard TD and the third was a 59-yard TD bomb that acted as a nice bookend to his Week 1 TD catch.

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 23-20 overtime loss to Nebraska in Week 13:

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.

Five things: Purdue at Penn State

November, 16, 2013
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Both the Nittany Lions and the Boilermakers are still trying to find their footing late in the season. A win gives Purdue something to build on for next year, while a PSU win would at least get the Lions back on some kind of track before 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.

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.

Penn State arrives at critical juncture

October, 11, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Nittany Lions have found themselves at a crossroads early on this season.

Expectations last year were low. Students walked around campus with "We Still Are ..." plastered on their T-shirts and in their minds. The team, held together by shoestrings and their dimple-chinned coach, came out of nowhere to capture the admiration of Big Ten coaches and the respect of many who sat in front of their couches on Saturday afternoons and watched the Nittany Lions pummel teams that many thought they'd get pounded by.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesBill O'Brien has seen more growing pains with his young team this season.
That's changed this season. Eight to 10 wins were expected. Christian Hackenberg was heralded as a savior before he moved in to a dorm. The group of tight ends smiled and referred to themselves as "TEU." The sanctions were wrongly thought to be behind them. And PSU has come out wheezing like a short-distance runner asked to run a marathon.

The defense, without Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, isn't the same. The tremendous story of a determined Matt McGloin has given way to a talented true freshman trying to find his footing. The lack of scholarships, whether or not O'Brien wants to keep discussing them, has impacted the team.

The narrative has clearly shifted. And it sure seems as if O'Brien and the rest of these Lions are aware of that.

Last October, on the Tuesday before the Ohio State game, O'Brien took the dais like he has every week and discussed the upcoming opponent. He was asked about the importance of the home game, just as he's always been. And this was his response on Oct. 27, 2012: "I think every game we play is a very important game here at Penn State. I would say that for every team. ... And this year we only get the chance to lay it on the line 12 times; 12 Saturdays. So every game for us is a very, very big game."

Contrast that with what a feisty O'Brien said on Tuesday before this weekend's contest against Michigan. A reporter asked if he needed to emphasize to this team not to buy into the hype, that this is just another game.

"No," O'Brien said. "We tell them, 'Look, this is an exciting opportunity. Penn State-Michigan. ESPN. 5 o'clock. 108,000 [fans]. You got Nittanyville going crazy over there.'

"It'd be crazy to think this is just another game."'

It would be crazy. This isn't just another game because this isn't last season. Fans' memories are shorter than coaching tenures nowadays and some of same ones who wait around at Damon's every Thursday in hopes for O'Brien's autograph after his radio show have logged onto message boards and spit venom about how Joe Paterno never would've lost to Indiana. And how defensive coordinator John Butler should be fired.

Penn State is 3-2 right now. That has to be stated because, by the looks of the record alone, it seems as if it might be premature to inch closer to the proverbial panic button. Well, it's not.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said after the UCF loss that the defense's performance was just a one-time mistake, a bad day. It wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And Eugene Lewis said on Twitter, "We going to be better promise that."

You can only believe so many times that it's going to get better. And that's why Saturday's contest against Michigan is paramount to the Nittany Lions. Win; and all the concern, all the message-board fodder, all the doubt -- that can be looked back upon and labeled an overreaction. Lose, and those generalizations and critiques seem about right, especially with a tougher Ohio State team up next.

O'Brien likes to say he's not a genie. He also said Tuesday he's no psychologist or psychiatrist. Well, he's no magician either. Different reporters, fans and analysts have their own ideas about why Penn State has struggled. It's the lack of leadership or the lack of talent or maybe a play-calling problem. Maybe it's a combination of the three.

But, whatever the exact issues are, the only panacea is winning. And O'Brien isn't the only one who knows that.

"Penn State vs. Michigan has always been a big-time game," safety Malcolm Willis said. "And I'd be lying to you to tell you it wasn't."

Bye week to-do list: Penn State

September, 27, 2013
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At 3-1, Penn State is feeling relatively good during the bye week. Sure, its record could be better -- but the Nittany Lions lost to a good UCF team and already are ahead of where they were last season.

This is the perfect time to shore up some weak spots, heal up and regroup before the Big Ten season begins. Here are a few things Penn State needs to work on to take a step forward:

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsFreshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg needs more pass catchers to step up.
1. Find a solid No. 2 receiving target. Allen Robinson is the most dangerous receiver in the Big Ten, but the Nittany Lions' passing attack can't rely just on him. When Kent State shut him down in the final three quarters, Christian Hackenberg went just 6-of-25 with an interception. And Big Ten opponents undoubtedly will focus on the receiver come passing downs. That means someone else -- anyone else -- needs to step up. Brandon Moseby-Felder had six catches in each of the first two weeks but had 39 yards combined in the last two weeks. Only one other target has caught more than three balls in a game, and that's true freshman Adam Breneman -- who has just five catches total this season but had four for 22 yards vs. UCF. Penn State has to hope Kyle Carter returns to his old self in a hurry, Eugene Lewis takes a giant step forward or Moseby-Felder can form more consistency. A-Rob can't do it all.

2. Tighten up the secondary. OK, sure, PSU shut out Kent State and limited Colin Reardon to a QBR of 9.4. But PSU's next opponent, Indiana, has a high-powered passing attack that more closely resembles UCF -- and the Lions did not fare well against the Knights. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams was targeted repeatedly early in that game, as UCF threw short when he played off receivers and threw longer when he played tight. Defensive coordinator John Butler eventually benched Williams and slid safety Adrian Amos to his spot, and Butler again will have to gameplan around another good offense in Indiana. Williams isn't the only issue here -- the young corner certainly has had bright spots this season -- but the secondary as a whole has issues that need to be ironed out during the bye.

3. Continue to improve on third downs. For the first three weeks of the season, no team in college football was worse on third down than Penn State. The Lions converted just four of 34 third downs, and nothing they did seemed to work. Bill O'Brien played it conservative by mostly calling run plays in Week 1, and the third downs didn't go well. Then he passed on eight straight third downs in Week 2, and it didn't go well. And then he mixed it up in Week 3, and it still didn't go well. PSU did better against Kent State by converting 7-of-18 ... but the opponent was Kent State. Penn State still ranks 120 out of 123 teams in the third-down department, and it can't expect to live off big offensive plays in the conference season.

Five things: Penn State-Kent State

September, 21, 2013
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The Nittany Lions' defense will seek redemption at Beaver Stadium after a disappointing performance last week. Here's what we'll be watching in Penn State's final non-conference game before the Big Ten season.

Turning around the defense: PSU surrendered more than 500 yards to UCF, but the defense's test should be markedly easier this week. Kent State's top player, Darren Sproles-clone Dri Archer, is doubtful, and the Golden Flashes rank No. 108 in scoring. Kent State doesn't have much of a passing game, and its offensive line is overmatched. This is either the game that helps get PSU back on track ... or shows that PSU will be in for a long Big Ten season.

Hackenberg Fever: Christian Hackenberg has already won two Big Ten freshman of the week honors, and he could be in for a third this week. He has continually evolved since Week 1, and even Adam Rittenberg decided to drop Taylor Martinez on his fantasy team in favor of Hackenberg. The true freshman is completing more than 70 percent of his passes, and he'll likely pad his stats some against a not-so-good Kent State defense. At his current pace, he'd surpass Matt McGloin's single-season record of 3,266 passing yards in the final game.

Three-headed running attack: Who will lead the Nittany Lions in rushing this game? Well, you have about a one-in-three chance of being correct. PSU likes to involve each of its three scholarship tailbacks, and Bill O'Brien tends to go with the hot hand. Zach Zwinak gets most of the carries as the bruising, 240-pound back -- but Akeel Lynch is a one-cut, speedy change-of-pace runner. And Bill Belton actually leads the team in average yards per carry with 8.1. The trio has combined for 535 yards and eight touchdowns through the first three weeks.

Gambling O'Brien: For those who know the Penn State head coach, it comes as no surprise that only three teams this season have gone for it more on fourth down. It's expected. Of the 26 fourth downs that Penn State has faced, it has opted to go for the first down six times, punt 14 times and attempt a field goal six times. The Lions have converted all but one of their fourth-down attempts, which ties them for 10th in the country in conversion percentage. It's a strategy that has paid off for O'Brien, and it's a trend that doesn't look to end anytime soon.

Especially special teams: The Nittany Lions ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in every special teams category in 2012 but are at the middle or near the top this season. PSU is No. 6 in kickoff return average (22.7 yards), No. 3 in punt return average (14.6 yards) and has missed only one field goal -- a 57-yard attempt that fell just short. Eugene Lewis has added a lot to the return game and seems poised to break one eventually, while kicker Sam Ficken is the most improved player since last season. If Alex Butterworth can improve his leg strength and/or consistency, these special teams would be in great shape.

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