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Penn State Tale of the Tape: What the Buffalo win means going forward

Written by Andrew Callahan, The Evening Sun | Sep 15, 2015 2:00 PM
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Penn State coach James Franklin should continue to open up the offense after the Nittany Lions' success with a more aggressive approach in the second half Saturday against Buffalo. (Chris Dunn -- Daily Record/Sunday News)

(State College) -- We march on with the Tales of the Tape to a happier tune this week, thanks to Penn State's first victory of the season, a 27-14 triumph over Buffalo on Saturday. Excluding a metaphorical James Franklin post-game, few in State College would ever describe the rain-soaked affair as pretty.

But when faced with a leaking foundation, as the Nittany Lions did following the Temple loss, you don't expect quick fixes. Nor do you worry about cosmetics.

For those who missed this series' grand opening last Monday, Tales of the Tape are not about cosmetics. They concern only hard, cold analysis born from multiple rewinds of every Penn State snap from the previous game. What you'll find here are thoughts on personnel, scheme, technique and other pillars of the game.

Keeping all that in mind, here's what we learned from the Nittany Lions' film this week.

4 Offensive Takeaways

1. SHAKING OFF THE TEMPLE COBWEBS >>In certain ways, sans those 10 infamous sacks, Saturday essentially unfolded as the Temple loss in reverse. Low and behold, the end result was turned around, too.

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Christian Hackenberg bounced back from a tough showing against Temple to help lead Penn State to a 27-14 win on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. (Chris Dunn -- Daily Record/Sunday News)

Four of the Nittany Lions' first six drives against Buffalo were hampered, if not ended, by running plays that went for zero or negative yards. In the second half, every Penn State rush went for positive yardage and Hackenberg wasn't sacked all afternoon.

That's a critical step forward, as any coach will tell you the first step toward winning is stepping around the pitfalls that cause losing. And outside of fatal turnovers, moving backwards is the No. 1 killer of offensive possessions.

Penn State's second-half march forward was in part eased by the wear-down effect its offensive line had on Buffalo's front. As much as fans might've been chewing off finger nails while the score remained close and the clock wound, time was most definitely the Lions' friend Saturday. And better blocking at the second-level was an even better pal.

Center Angelo Mangiro stood out in this area especially, which can best be seen during Saquon Barkley's two touchdown runs. You can credit right guard Brian Gaia, too, and even the much maligned, benched left tackle Paris Palmer. And, of course, Barkley's hard running.

Meanwhile, Hackenberg caught fire in the rain, particularly against the blitz. He delivered a perfect strike on all five snaps when faced with a six-man pressure. His fourth-quarter deep throws were also pristine. Were it not for the team's five drops, Hackenberg would've completed more than 70 percent of his passes for 200-plus yards and perhaps another score.

Indeed it's a boring and obvious point, but the biggest favor Penn State did itself Saturday was avoiding plays that cause losing.

2. MIXED REVIEW FOR THE COACHES >> New personnel groupings, more diverse formations and a better run-pass balance in non-obvious downs. While too cumbersome to fit into song, those would certainly all fit well into an offensive coach's parody of The Sound of Music's "My Favorite Things." The Lions staff delivered an improved, albeit still somewhat white-bread, game plan against Buffalo through these elements.

As most following the game on Twitter noted, there was some carryover from the Temple plan, namely the regular use of a certain run action, which Saturday was the end around (not, as a few prominent beat writers mislabeled, a jet for fly sweep). Franklin used these fake hand-offs to a lateral running Brandon Polk to eventually set up the freshman's touchdown in the second quarter on a real end around you or I might've been able to take in for six points.

Penn State also had a long con in the works for its second touchdown, DaeSean Hamilton's 5-yard bubble screen that opened the fourth quarter. Hamilton's passing score was manufactured from the same look the Lions had shown on a second-quarter red zone trip, but instead dialed up a weakside hand-off.

Save for these wrinkles, though, the coaching staff did little to maximize the talent available, particularly via Hackenberg and the intermediate to deep passing game. For folks who would argue the severe weather caused them to call a more conservative game, consider only the first-quarter deep shot Hackenberg took on second down and one, two snaps after Franklin called a running play on third 12.

Perhaps the offensive coaches believed they could simply beat Buffalo off the snap, as they certainly did during preparations for Temple. But when simple brute force didn't work yet again, they threw overcaution to the wind and enjoyed success.

Case in point: Penn State ran the ball 13 times over its opening 20 plays. Those 20 plays gained a total of 60 yards. The remaining 46 offensive snaps, which better featured an open passing game, produced a yards per play average nearly double that of the opening 20.

Imagine the results if Hackenberg and co. had been let loose from the very beginning.

3. A THUMBS UP FOR UP FRONT>> Andrew Nelson's injury at the end of the first half dampened an otherwise positive afternoon for the offensive line.

You could start with the 10 fewer sacks allowed, but the focus here for me is the steady improvement over the course of four quarters.

The Lions' running game enjoyed greater success going left in the first half, then switched to a right-heavy approach once Nelson (who had been moved from his usual right tackle spot to the left side) took his exit. Their biggest gains came late and up the middle when Mangiro went to work with some gorgeous reach blocks.

Now no one's calling these guys or what they do necessarily sexy. But their job, as often demonstrated over the last season-plus through painful losses, is damn important, and the bigger tests are coming down the road, For now, Saturday was an encouraging sign of progress in the face of a lackluster start.

4. PRESIDENT HACKENBERG? >> Warren G. Harding and Christian Hackenberg should never be put in the same sentence. And yet look, there they are.

Harding, for those who aren't up on their presidential history, was best known for presiding over one of the worst U.S. presidencies in history from 1921-1923. Rich with scandal and controversy, Harding's term essentially came to be because he had powerful friends, one of whom later explained his support for Harding by saying "he looked like a president."

Kid you not. It's on his official White House web page.

The crux of this final takeaway is, the very same question all NFL scouts of quarterback-needy teams are asking: What can and does Hackenberg show outside of looking like a quarterback? The 6-foot-4, 225-pound build and arm talent are obvious to any and everyone who watches him. What about his decision-making, ability to handle pressure, throw with anticipation or read coverages?

Akin to real questions about Harding's ability to govern, those questions are far more important to quarterbacking than Hackenberg's appearance. They're also unlikely to be answered in full until the season's over, and even then, we have the silly season of stocks rising and falling before the NFL Draft.

Personally, I believe Hackenberg has the makings a successful NFL quarterback, and we saw elements of that shine through against Buffalo despite a highly average stat line. But be careful to jump to absolute certainty here by falling in love with how Hackenberg looks on gameday. There are far more important traits than what simply meets the eye.

In the meantime, Hackenberg's pro potential continues to be a fascinating topic of discussion. So after a down showing against Temple, it was good to see the junior gunslinger flash that teeming, teasing pro ability on Saturday. See below for the full, weekly breakdown of Hackenberg's performance.

4 Defensive Takeaways


1. LINEBACKER U GOES TO BACK 100-LEVEL>> It's tough to take much away from an overall dominant performance hindered only by stellar throws and the occasional penalty. But if defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has his work cut out anywhere it's at linebacker.

Linebacker U may need to offer some crash courses at its premier position soon because Penn State's injury fill-ins Saturday looked like they have some catching up to do. The collective performance of second-stringers Troy Reeder, Von Walker and Jake Cooper was serviceable, but each took poor angles or played himself out of run fits, thus leading to some of the Bulls' biggest gains of the day.

Fortunately for Shoop unit, either their play will either improve over time or starters, such as Brandon Bell, will return possibly as early as Saturday against Rutgers. Not to mention, the outstanding group of defensive linemen lined up in front of them aren't going anywhere.

2. ANTHONY JOHNSON IS A MAN'S MAN >> Johnson's partner in defensive tackle crime, Anthony Zettel, stole all of the preseason headlines, but the two have undoubtedly been co-stars since the two hit the field. Johnson racked up nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks against the Bulls. Overall, Johnson and the Lions line simply dominated despite a game plan designed to circumvent them. Buffalo threw repeated screens, quick hitch passes, draws, moving pockets and even illegal cut blocks at the front four.

It just didn't matter. Johnson tracked down runs on the sidelines, sometimes more than 10 yards upfield, stuffed hand-offs up the middle and applied heat on Bulls quarterback Joe Licata. He was outstanding.

3. THE SCORING DRIVES >> The Bulls' two touchdown drives stemmed from two things: the aforementioned poor run fits at linebacker and Licata making perfect passes. Buffalo's final march to the end zone also took advantage of a softer version Penn State's base Cover 4, as the Lions sat back in zone coverage armed with a 20-point lead and content to not let balls sail over their heads.

The last play, a 14-yard throw to Ron Willoughby, was an excellent pitch and catch and an unexpected one, too, given the Bulls' earlier propensity for running on second down and long. Nothing much to worry about

4. CRYSTAL BALL SAYS WATCH PLAY-ACTION>> If I'm an upcoming Penn State opponent, I'm getting busy sharpening up the play-action passes in my playbook. Young and/or inexperienced linebackers are susceptible to play fakes and this was on display at times against Buffalo. Keep an eye on this moving forward.

Quarter by Quarter

1ST QUARTER >> The Lions' opening drive was done in by poor man-blocking in the running game and even worse coordination on a fourth-down pass design. Hamilton ran a 3-yard slant with six to go and was tackled well short of the sticks. A new personnel grouping featuring three tight ends then popped up on the next series, yielding seven quick yards on the ground. Franklin began laying his "end around trap" with fake hand-offs to a sprinting Polk in the opposite direction, before a disastrous snap in the Wildcat ended the second series.

Penn State's defensive line transported the line of scrimmage into the backfield on the Bulls' first drive, forcing Buffalo's game plan of avoiding opposing linemen into overdrive. Anthony Johnson was everywhere.

2ND QUARTER >> Johnson continued to give fits to Buffalo's line, but it was a missed toe-tap on the sidelines that ended what could've been a promising Buffalo series. Andrew Nelson had an excellent block on Polk's touchdown run, which, as documented above, was well set up by the coaching staff.

3RD QUARTER >> Johnson shows up again immediately with a sack, thanks to outside pressure from Garrett Sickels. Buffalo's first touchdown drive was sprung by its longest play of the day, a 29-yard scamper. Lions sophomore safety Marcus Allen got out of position on the snap and shoddy tackling did the rest. Offensively, more drops hurt Hackenberg this quarter, as well as his own decision-making on packaged plays (those with run or pass options built in). Polk is a terrific runner in the open field.

4TH QUARTER >> Buffalo started pressing after the 20-7 deficit. In addition to better second-level blocks, greater creativity in Penn State's running game starting yielded better results. Hackenberg's deep play-action throw to Godwin that drew pass interference was excellent. His 38-yarder completed not long after was just as good.

The Hackenberg file

Each week I'll provide an updated look at Hackenberg's progression in what could be his final season before turning pro. Below are the quarterback's stats against different pressures. In the chart farther down, you'll find a breakdown of his throws by area of the fields. The yards listed are those accumulated by each pass, but the throws have been placed in each square by yardage covered in the air.

VS. 7-MAN RUSHES >> 0-0

VS. 6-MAN RUSHES >> 3-5, 52 yards (2 drops)

VS. 5-MAN RUSHES >> 3-6, 25 yards (1 drop)

VS. 4-MAN RUSHES >> 8-15, 40 yards, 1 TD (2 drops)

VS. 3-MAN RUSHES >> 1-1, 11 yards

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Christian Hackenberg passing chart through week 2. (The Evening Sun)

2-minute drill

• Akeel Lynch can get too eager in pass protection. He'll fire out to help on pass-rushing defensive linemen instead of waiting on potential blitzers, which has given free runs at Hackenberg for Temple and Buffalo defenders.

• Zettel and Johnson can really do it at all, including dropping into coverage on certain zone blitzes. Mind you, the purpose of a 300-plus lineman dropping into zone isn't necessarily to have him put a short area on lockdown, but rather keep the integrity of the coverage whole. Nevertheless, both of these guys have proven an ability to run and cover, if need be.

• Really good day for Penn State special teams.

• Penalties for touchdown celebrations are stupid. It's not your fault, DaeSean Hamilton.

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Anthony Johnson led Penn State with nine tackles Saturday against Buffalo and recorded 1.5 sacks of Bulls quarterback Joe Licata. (Chris Dunn -- York Daily Record)


This article comes to us through a partnership between The Evening Sun and WITF. 

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Comments: 1

  • teejay img 2015-09-16 14:04

    Love the analysis.

    Andrew, you mention 'the Lions line simply dominated despite a game plan designed to circumvent them. Buffalo threw repeated screens, quick hitch passes, draws, moving pockets and even illegal cut blocks at the front four.

    I also noticed and loved how Buffalo would break their offensive huddle only seconds before hitting the line and snapping the ball thus giving our 'communication-challenged' D even less time to make defensive calls. Brilliant.

    Those are 2 examples of coaching that Buff did in their game plan vs PSU. What can you say that PSU did as gameplan for Buffalo?

    My concerns are Franklin's ability to recruit are obvious.....can he/the staff coach?

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