PSU, Hackenberg heat up
STATE COLLEGE It took Penn State true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg a little time to get heated up on Saturday.
The Penn State coaching staff, fans, and players were visibly frustrated with the Nittany Lions inability to get things going offensively early on, and they had good reason to be.
PSU's first three possessions did not look good and Hackenberg capped off their third drive with a turnover, fumbling the ball on their own 20 yard line. The play resulted in an Eastern Michigan touchdown, after Hunter Matt scooped up the ball and ran it into the end zone, giving the Eagles a 7-0 lead with 4:01 in the first quarter.
However, as the old adage says "good things come to those who wait," and boy was Hackenberg good after the Lions slow start.
"Hack" started the game 0 for 3, but after that went 23 for 30 for 311 yards, throwing one touchdown and one interception, leading Penn State to a 45-7 non conference victory.
The Nittany Lions offense awoke from their slumber once Hackenberg got things going and the Eagles had no answer defensively. After Penn State couldn't generate any points on either of their first three drives they scored a touchdown or field goal on seven of their next 11 possessions with six of them being touchdowns.
"Our offense is still a work in progress, we have to execute better, especially at the beginning of the game," said O'Brien. "It's a lot of fun to coach this group. It's a resilient football team. We try to take it one day at a time. We told them that we won the day today, we have to try to win the day tomorrow. Just try to take it one game at a time, try to get better every single day."
A big reason why Hackenberg was able to get the Penn State offense going was the success of the running game. The Nittany Lions' run game was not impressive against Syracuse in week one. The PSU running backs gained just 57 yards on the ground against the Orange.
Week two was a much different story as the Nittany Lions gained 251 yards rushing, at an impressive 6.1 yards per carry. Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch each rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown, while Zach Zwinak added two rushing touchdowns and 43 yards.
"It took a little while to get it going, to execute it," said O'Brien. "A little bit of a slow start there. It was nice to see them get it going."
The Penn State defense was once again solid, which was expected. The Nittany Lions "D" surrendered just 183 yards of total offense. Their performance against the Eagles was the fewest yards a Penn State defense surrendered since allowing 170 against Indiana State in the 2011 season opener. It was the fewest yards of offense allowed against an FBS opponent since holding Minnesota to 138 yards in 2009.
Leading the charge was the Nittany Lions' defensive front. They caused problems for the Eagles offense all day long, creating pressure on quarterback Tyler Benz and the EMU rushers.
"They're playing very well right now. There's some veteran guys over there that have played a lot of football for us, which is good. I haven't had the opportunity, obviously, to watch the film yet, but I'm very pleased with our defense. They shut the team out; we gave up a touchdown on offense. Very, very pleased with our defense."
Penn State defensive tackle DaQuan Jones was impressive yet again in week two, recording nine tackles for the second consecutive game. He looks to be the next in line of multiple defensive tackles that have been drafted to the NFL over the last few seasons. Jones leads the Big 10 in tackles for a loss with five.
"He's a very, very good player. He's improved his strength, he's improved his conditioning. He's one great example of a guy that's taken his game to the next level," said O'Brien." "I'm sorry that he's a senior. He's a fantastic kid. As hard as he works on the field, he works even harder in the classroom. He's just a great representation of Penn State."
Penn State's win over Eastern Michigan puts the Nittany Lions at 2-0 as they head into a 6 p.m. match-up at Beaver Stadium against Central Florida on Saturday. Their victory against the Eagles puts the Lions in a much better position than they were in last season, as they were 0-2 heading into the third week of the season at this point last year.
Penn State field goal kicker Sam Ficken took a lot of the blame for PSU's struggles early on, especially after his 0 for 4 performance against Virginia in week two of the 2012 season.
Now, Ficken is "Mr. Reliable" as he has made his last 14 field goal attempts, setting a PSU record on Saturday when he successfully booted a 39-yard field goal.