Penn State and Indiana were both in desperate need of a win Saturday afternoon when the Hoosiers visited Happy Valley. Both teams came into the game with 4-1 records overall and are trying to keep pace in a very competitive conference.
Kevin Wilson‘s group nearly pulled off the upset against the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes last weekend but failed to convert a goal-to-goal situation to tie it late and came up just short. Hopes were high for Indiana this season with the return of quarterback Nate Sudfeld from a season-ending injury in 2014 and an 0-2 start in the Big 10 would no doubt end their chances of a conference championship.
The Nittany Lions came in with four straight wins, but last weekend’s performance against Army brought a lot of negative media to the program with James Franklin being questioned after the games as if they had lost. There’s been a lot of heat in the kitchen for the offensive coaching staff and they desperately needed a big performance in a nationally televised game.
Christian Hackenberg completed just one of his first seven throws, which included a few missed throws and a couple of drops by his receivers. It looked much like the offense we’ve been seeing all season long and on their third possession, Hackenberg fumbled on third down, giving the ball to the Hoosiers in scoring territory. The only problem was that defensive tackle Darius Latham got his hands up into the face mask of center Wendy Laurent, giving the Nittany Lions an automatic first down.
Sometimes, all an offense needs to find a rhythm is for the defense to make a mistake and give them a second chance. Penn State cashed in on Latham’s mistake when Hackenberg found true freshman Brandon Polk on a wheel route for a 39-yard touchdown grab just two plays after the penalty. The offense didn’t look back.
Hackenberg was fantastic for the remainder of the afternoon, completing 20 of his final 32 and finished the game with 262 yards and two touchdowns. It’s also worth mentioning that for the second straight week, neither of Penn State’s top two backs were available. Junior Akeel Lynch and freshman Saquon Barkley went down in the second quarter two weeks ago against San Diego State and it’s unclear if or when either will return. Freshmen Nick Scott and Mark Allen have been shouldering the duties in their absence.
DaeSean Hamilton got in on the action Saturday, reeling in Hackenberg’s second touchdown pass on another 39-yard hook-up to give Penn State a 13-7 lead. Franklin promised a more aggressive offense against a weak secondary and he delivered. It was another perfect pass from the junior and the deep ball was working beautifully for Hackenberg and the offense.
The Nittany Lions’ offense was far from perfect on Saturday, but they showed us a few things that we haven’t seen since last season’s Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College.
Hackenberg missed on a few more throws later in the game, and the staff will have to work with him more on his footwork, but he showed us why he’s still one of the most talented passers in the nation. He also looked a lot more instinctual in the pocket and demonstrated his athleticism with 21 rushing yards and adding two more touchdowns.
Penn State’s defense was phenomenal but that’s not out of the ordinary. The defensive line is arguably the best in the country and the young pieces on the next level are really coming together. Sophomore linebacker Jason Cabinda and freshman John Reid have stood out as playmakers in recent weeks, turning Bob Shoop‘s defense into a well-rounded unit.
One concern that remains moving forward is the kicking game with Joey Julius missing two extra points Saturday afternoon. It didn’t hurt the Nittany Lions against Indiana but it could be something that costs them a game against stingier defenses.
Up next for the Nittany Lions is Ohio State. The game will be played at the Horseshoe in Columbus next Saturday night and it will be a true test as to whether their recent offense performance is for real or if it was a product of a bad opposing secondary. The encouraging news for Penn State is that the defending national champions have looked like anything but despite their 6-0 record and could be susceptible to a dominant defense.
Jason Shawley is a Featured Writer for RantSports.com covering Big Ten Football. Follow him on Twitter @jshawls.