Lack of offensive identity catching up to Lions

MINNEAPOLIS – In his short tenure as Penn State’s head coach and his even shorter tenure as the Nittany Lions’ quarterback, we’ve seen some of the impressive chemistry Bill O’Brien and Christian Hackenberg have already formed.

Overtime victories over Michigan and Illinois are exhibits A and B.

Saturday, though, in a 24-10 loss we saw the inevitable growing pains from the young tandem as Hackenberg’s fumble at the Minnesota 1-yard-line in the fourth quarter cost the Lions mightily, and O’Brien’s impatience hurt their red-zone offense.

The combination added up to Penn State being shut out in the second half against a game opponent but one that is not two touchdowns better than the Lions.

O’Brien, as he often does after defeats, shouldered the blame and pledged to do a better job with the Lions (5-4) now facing the possibility of a 6-6 record.

“We got to coach them better, and we have to do a better job,” O’Brien said.

“We have to make sure we put them in better positions to make plays.”

Down 17-7 late in the second quarter because, once again, the Lions’ defense was springing too many leaks, especially against the pass, Penn State faced a fourth-and-2 at the Minnesota 10-yard line.

The Gophers had been unable to stop Penn State’s run to this point, especially Zach Zwinak, and a touchdown there would ultimately prove to be the Lions’ best chance to seize momentum and pull within a field goal.

After a Minnesota timeout, O’Brien changed his mind and settled for a 27-yard Sam Ficken field goal to cut the lead to 17-10.

“It was fourth-and-2, not fourth-and-1 [initial call], and I felt coming away with some points was the big thing there,” O’Brien said.

In that instance, O’Brien showed patience, but after his defense settled down and made adjustments after halftime, pitching a second-half shutout of its own, the Lion offense tried to rely on red-zone passing, and it didn’t work.

At the Minnesota 39 early in the fourth quarter, Hackenberg tried to hit Brandon Felder twice and then seldom-used Matt Zanellato, and when the Nits moved to the Gophers’ 16 with 10 minutes to play, still down 24-10 but not out of it, O’Brien called four-straight passes that fell incomplete.

“I felt we could run the ball,” he said of his game strategy that did work since Zwinak and Bill Belton combined 197 yards on 30 carries (6.5 per try).

But then he felt he needed quicker scores in the fourth quarter and got away from the run.

“We when it got to a point in time when it was 24-10, we thought we had to throw it,” he said.

They could have continued to mush Zwinak there, and after forcing a punt and taking over at its 39, Penn State mixed it up and moved to the Gopher 1 before Hackenberg fumbled with 6:40 to play.

O’Brien was clearly annoyed after the game, and made no players available for comment. He pledged to “do everything as a coaching staff to make sure the seniors go out as winners.”

With an unpredictable defense and an offense that has now struggled in three straight games and clearly lacks an identity, that will be difficult.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or