Offense sputters, shows full potential during second half

UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State started the fourth quarter with a 45-yard touchdown pass from Christian Hackenberg to Allen Robinson and a 51-yard touchdown bolt right up the middle by Bill Belton.

The Lions offensive line blew open a huge hole that was a fitting reflection of the way Penn State was blowing open the game at that point.

However, up until that point, much of Penn State’s afternoon from an offensive standpoint was a mixed bag of brilliant flashes and maddening letdowns.

“It’s not frustrating. We’ve just got to be patient,” said Belton, who finished with a career-high 108 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries. “It’s all about timing. I feel if we click at the right time and get the ball rolling, there’s no telling what will happen.”

That was the universal tone echoed by the Nittany Lions’ offensive personnel following Penn State’s 45-7 dismissal of overmatched Eastern Michigan at Beaver Stadium on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. They chose to take a very workmanlike, positive approach of working out a few kinks and letting an offense that looks like it has all the pieces to be prolific down the road build to its potential.

“I feel we’ve performed pretty well. We’ve got some things we have to clean up. We had some turnovers. But, on the whole, I thought we did pretty well,” center Ty Howle said. “It’s encouraging that we played well in the fourth quarter. We’ve got to play better in the first three.”

“I felt we built on last week well. We’ve still got a lot of improving to do on offense,” freshman starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg added. “Going forward, we’ve got a lot to improve on, but a lot of great things happened today.”

Hackenberg was a microcosm of Penn State’s offense as a whole. He set a school record for passing yards in a game by a freshman – OK, granted, there’s not a lot of competition for that – with 311 and threw two tremendous passes to Allen Robinson, one for the touchdown and another for a first down deep in EMU territory. Of course, he also took four sacks, including one where he lost the ball without being hit which was taken in by Hunter Matt for Eastern Michigan’s only points, was picked off on a deflection deep inside Eagle territory and was missing his receivers high for most of the first quarter.

A holding penalty brought back about a 15-yard run by Zach Zwinak to start the game and two consecutive holds at the end of the first half deflated a very good-looking two-minute offense, forcing the Lions to settle for a field goal.

“We couldn’t start fast today, we didn’t start fast last week, and that’s something we’re going to try to improve on as we go throughout the season. I’m sure we’ll pick it up,” tight end Jesse James said. “It’s not a concern, because we know we can. It’s more a matter of dumb mistakes we’ve made starting early. I’m not sure why. Today it was a holding call. Last week I believe it was a false start. They’re just dumb little mistakes, and I’m sure we’re going to get a lot better.”

What the Lion offense might be capable of became very apparent in the fourth quarter. Penn State scored on three straight drives to post a final score more in line with what everyone was expecting.

During that stretch, the Lions looked like a fine-tuned touchdown machine, piling up 244 yards on 17 plays. The shortest distance they covered was 77 yards, which took them all of 3:28, finished off by freshman Akeel Lynch’s 18-yard jaunt.

Hackenberg’s connection with Robinson off a great play-action fake was a thing of beauty, leaving the Big Ten receiver of the year for 2012 all alone behind the secondary. Hackenberg found James for 19 yards to set up Belton’s 51-yard burst straight up the middle into the proverbial hole you could drive a truck through.

“The first half, we had our struggles. But we have great coaches on our staff. They made adjustments, we made changes, we went out and had a great game,” said receiver Brandon Felder, who had had six catches for the second straight game. “With the first [home] game, there’s a lot of fans, a lot of noise. You just have to get comfortable with it. As the game progressed, we did a lot better.”

Lynch came off the bench to equal Belton for game-high with 108 yards on the ground, showing off for the first time this season the Lions’ promised three-headed monster at running back. Zwinak, the starter who gained 1,000 yards in 2012, added 43 on seven carries.

“When defenses wear down,” Belton said, “we know we have a fresh back coming in.”

Although it seemed like the Lion ground game probably had more plays that didn’t succeed than did, Penn State averaged more than 6 yards per rush. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not this was a good indicator of where the Lion rushing attack is headed – it netted less than 2 yards per attempt in the opening-day win against Syracuse. That will be key moving forward.

“A good, effective running game opens the whole offense up,” Felder said.

And the potential is undeniable. With a new starting quarterback, a new starting center, a new right tackle, an injury that slowed tight end Kyle Carter out of the gate, another that has knocked out tight end Matt Lehman for the season and a third that wiped out freshman tight end Adam Breneman’s senior year of high school, it’s logical to believe this offense should get better even as it gains continuity heading into the meatier part of the schedule.

“We’re light years ahead of where we were last year,” all-Big Ten tackle Donovan Smith said. “We’re way ahead.”

If the Lions can eliminate the penalties, get rid of the unforced turnovers and tighten up the execution, they feel pretty good about what this offense will be able to do down the road.

Coach Bill O’Brien’s biggest problem might be deciding what weapon to unleash on opposing defenses.

“If we all come out with our A-game, there’s no telling what you can expect,” Belton said.