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November 23, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Musings from a post-Champaign Penn State hangover

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O’HARE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – A few thoughts/observations/leftover notes from what was, for my money, arguably the most humiliating Penn State loss of the past decade:

 

—-It was, perhaps, a throw-away comment from James Franklin, who generally ensures his remarks to the media are well-orchestrated.  Or was it?

 

At the end of a long answer to a question that was originally about the coaching staff’s confidence level in quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Franklin initially explained that Penn State was so run-heavy (47 rushes; 16 pass attempts) against Illinois, quite simply, (paraphrasing) because the Illini have such a poor rush defense.

 

Then, Franklin meandered into talking about the dangers of being too predictable on third-and-longs. But what caught my attention was what he said at the end of his answer to this question about two-thirds of the way through an approximately 11 ½-minute postgame session with the media.

 

Another reporter was about to ask another question, but Franklin talked over him to make sure he said this (the context is the season-long struggles on offense and what the cause is):

 

“Our consistency in protection, our consistency in hitting the open receivers – our consistency is probably more an issue of being able to separate in our route ruining.

 

OK, again, forgive me if I read too much into this. But like I said, I am convinced Franklin usually calculates exactly what he wants to say. (Which, most times, isn’t much in terms of substance because he believes he’s protecting the program – which is fine). I found it interesting that, essentially, Franklin is “blaming” (that’s an awful word he would never use, but bare with me) the wide receivers more than he is the offensive line and quarterback for the offense’s ineptitude.

 

That would seem to make sense he would say that, based on his actions this season. Plus, after all, for as much attention as the lack of experience of the offensive line gets, remember that the wide receivers as a group entered this season with 24 catches. Total. Ever in college. The depth chart stands as such: Redshirt freshman-sophomore-true freshman-true freshman.

 

The wide receivers caught three passes for 33 yards – total, as a group – against Illinois. Recall also that Geno Lewis – by far the group’s most accomplished (despite having only 18 career catches entering the season) player as of the summer – was all but benched during the midseason. The reasoning remains vague, but… is it possible that he just isn’t getting open?

 

Hamilton, either? And who can blame true freshman (although Illinois’ Mike Dudek certainly doesn’t appear as if he needed a period of adjustment), but Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall, as well?

 

The four wide receivers were targeted a total of eight times Saturday (Lewis’ only catch was on the desperate hook-and-ladder at the end), a day in which Hackenberg avoided an interception for the first time in a game in which he played a full four quarters this season. Is that a complete coincidence?

 

We have definitely seen several cases of Hackenberg and the receivers not being on the same page in their routes. We’ve also seen some drops. I’m not a real knowledgeable football film buff, but my untrained eye can at least notice at times that these receivers are, indeed, are having trouble creating separation from defenders. And I will say that people whom I respect who have a much more keen eye that me assert that it is absolutely the case.

 

Franklin’s public treatment of Hackenberg has been intriguing. It’s obvious that Hackenberg’s stat-based production has been downright ugly this season. Two camps seem to be forming on him: One believes that, as an uber-talented future high NFL draft pick, Hackenberg is being done in by his line, his receivers and his coaches. Another faction of PSU observers is labeling him a bust who needs benched.

 

I would never suggest benching Hackenberg, but other than that, I go back and forth on him between these camps. I understand – I really do – all the explanations: He has no time to throw, he has precious few weapons, he has a new system that is not tailored to his skills, he’s still quite young, etc. But I also think everyone has to acknowledge that Hackenberg has missed open receivers and made poor decisions at times.

 

Franklin hasn’t once thrown Hackenberg under the proverbial bus, and no one expects him to. But Franklin also hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to prop up the budding superstar quarterback he inherited, either. His “Christian Hackenberg is our quarterback, and we love him,” answer to a recent question asking if Hackenberg could be benched, quite frankly, was weak and came across as a tacit acknowledgment on Franklin’s behalf that Hackenberg hasn’t been good. We’re all still trying to learn Franklin’s style in dealing with media questions, but is it notable that Franklin hasn’t come out in no uncertain and unambiguous terms and lauded the single most talented player on his team? One who just happens to play the most important position on the field?

 

That is a big reason why my eyebrows figuratively raised when I heard Franklin’s ever-so-subtle allusion to receivers not getting open.

 

One last thing on this subject: By all indications from coaches, analysts, scouting types and NFL personnel, Hackenberg’s status as a future first-round pick and pro quarterback remain safely intact. For all that’s ailed Hackenberg this season, that arm is still there – just about once a game, he’ll show off a reminder (Saturday, it was his touchdown pass to Godwin, along with another bullet of a throw that came while he was running and off his back foot). For what it’s worth, the intangibles are still there, too.

 

To borrow one of Franklin’s colloquialisms, pro scouts still “have a man-crush” on Hackenberg. The question is, will he ever again perform well enough for Penn State that Nittany Lions fans return to having that kind of affection for him, as well?

 

 

 

—-Another rare in-team target for Franklin on Saturday: The defense. Especially, its tackling.

 

Check out some Franklin quotes:

 

“We weren’t able to get pressure on the quarterback, probably less than we have all year long. Our tackling was not good – throwing shoulders. A lot of broken tackles, a lot of missed tackles, especially late in the game.

 

“We’re throwing shoulders. We’re not wrapping up; we’re throwing the shoulder and going for big hits. We were not fundamentally sound in tackling. “

 

Defensive players that were made available to the media postgame (C.J Olaniyan, Brad Bars, Nyeem Wartman, Jordan Lucas) acknowledged that it wasn’t their best tackling day.

 

“We definitely left a lot of plays out there where we didn’t wrap up and they got extra yards,” Lucas said.

 

Being down Brandon Bell (the team’s third-leading tackler) and Christian Campbell (a cornerback who’s shown his tackling acumen on special teams) didn’t help. And Franklin cited fatigue (both the late-game and late-season types) as a factor.

 

 

 

—-Penn State’s running game, statistically at least, wasn’t bad Saturday. Akeel Lynch amassed a 137-yard day and the team ran for 172 yards (third-most this season) in all. But it must be remembered that PSU was playing a downright awful run defense in Illinois (330 yards per game allowed to Big Ten opponents!). And Franklin didn’t sound like the running game passed the ol’ eye test.

 

“You look at the running game, we were able to block it pretty well, and then the safety was down there in attack,” Franklin said. “The (previous) couple weeks, we made safeties miss, we’d broken tackles. That didn’t happen today.”

 

It especially didn’t happen when the Lions needed it most. Here are Penn State’s carries over its final two full drives, when it was nursing a lead and desperate to run clock:

 

Lynch 3 yards, Lynch 6 yards, Lynch 2 yards, (punt… next possession:) Lynch 3 yards, Lynch 2 yards, (Hackenberg scramble, 4 yards… punt).

 

On the bright side locally, walk-in Cole Chiappialle of Blackhawk was given carries outside of proverbial “garbage time” for the first time in his career. An early-game injury to Bill Belton pressed Chiappialle into duty. He had 8 yards on three carries.

 

 

 

Enjoy your week. I think this is the part where I’m supposed to compel you to be nice (or something) to each other, right?

 

 

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November 19, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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TribLive Radio PSU show ep. 16: Fallout from McLean de-commitment; Beckman ‘kind of an open book – and it’s a children’s book’

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Had some fun Wednesday morning with the Nittany Nation show. Tim Owen of Blue-White Illustrated talked Penn State recruiting and the dominance of the Nittany Lions’ defense. Then, Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times had some good stuff on Illinois football, specifically coach Tim Beckman.

 

Owen and I discussed the de-commitment of four-star defensive lineman Adam McLean and the PSU recruitment of Austrian Robinson and Christian Wilkins. He also said of the PSU defense, “It impresses me more each week.”

 

 

Greenberg penned this about Beckman after a peculiar news conference the other day. On the show, Greenberg sayd Beckman “is kind of an open book – and it’s a children’s book.” It’s safe to say Greenberg is not too high on the Illini, multiple times saying, “If I’m Penn State, I’m not worried at all” about, well, pretty much every aspect of the Illinois team.

 

 

 

 

Here’s a link to listen with one click:

 

 

And to download the podcast:

http://filesource.abacast.com/tribtotal/1119PSU14.mp3

 

 

 

Stay warm.

 

 

 

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November 14, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Rare Beaver Stadium losing season? And other notes in advance of Penn State-Temple

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Random thoughts from a random man in advance of an otherwise random mid-November non-conference game Saturday at Beaver Stadium…

 

 

 

–Penn State has lost three home games in a row for the first time since 2004. It hasn’t lost four consecutive at Beaver Stadium since 2003. I went back 50 years (to the final two seasons of the Rip Engle tenure, before Joe Paterno took over) and that 1964 season (50 ago) was the only other home losing season the Lions have had.

 

Penn State went 2-5 at home in 2003, 2-4 at home in 2004 and 2-3 at home in 1964.

 

A loss in either of the remaining two Beaver Stadium home games (to Temple or to Michigan State on Nov. 29) clinches just the third losing home season since 1964 and fourth since 1931 (when it was called Beaver Field and the average crowd was 5,000 to see PSU go 1-4 against a home schedule of Waynesburg, Lebanon Valley, Dickinson, Pitt and Colgate). (Incidentally, Pitt claims a national title that season).

 

 

 

–Temple is averaging a non-offensive touchdown per game this season. Its also averaging almost two change-of-possession fumble recoveries per game and three forced turnovers overall per game.

 

“They’re doing unbelievable job creating turnovers,” PSU coach James Franklin said. “They’ve got 25 turnovers. I’ve never heard of 17 recovered fumbles, never heard of that before. They have six defensive touchdowns, and they have three special teams touchdowns.  So they have nine, non‑offensive touchdowns this year, which is an impressive number.”

 

Penn State has allowed two defensive touchdowns (both off interceptions, including one last week). Although – unlike last season – the Nittany Lions have not allowed a special teams touchdown, they did allow a 68-yard kick return against UCF that very well could have led to a touchdown (the Knights had three plays at the PSU 1 yard line) and also lost a fumble on a kick return of their own that led to a touchdown in a loss to Maryland.

 

 

 

–As I tweeted, the over/under in Vegas for Penn State-Temple is 39 — easily the lowest of any college football game this weekend.

 

For perspective: 11 single teams average 39 points per game and eight allow 39+ on average.

 

The average Penn State game features 36.9 TOTAL points. Nineteen FBS teams all by themselves score more points per game than that; 14 allow more on average.

 

I feel like anyone who watches the Big 12 on a regular basis and happens to flip on a Penn State game will assume they are seeing a completely different sport from another planet.

 

 

 

–My Saturday story talks about the relative lack of seniors on Penn State’s roster. Though in doing  my research for it, I realized that, in fact, having 11 seniors (or even nine healthy seniors) isn’t as rare as you’d think. At least as it relates to the Lions’ schedule this season:

 

 

 

Enjoy the game.

 

 

 

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November 12, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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TribLive Radio ep. 15: Is this one of Penn State’s best defenses? Preview of PSU-Temple

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Both of my guests this week on the Nittany Nation show were reached at phone numbers that began with “215” – but we won’t hold the fact they’re proud Philadelphians against them.

 

With Penn State (5-4) due to play Temple (5-4) in a, um, Bowl Eligibility Bowl on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, what better time than to get the perspective of Philadelphia Inquirer’s knowledgeable Nittany Lions beat writer, Joe Juliano ?

 

And for the proverbial “behind enemy lines” point of view, no one covers Temple athletics better than John DiCarlo of OwlScoop.com.

 

I broach the question about just how good/great/elite this defense is – I was skeptical at first, but grow more of a believer by the week. Juliano, whose coverage of PSU dates into the 1970s, says, “They’re playing as well as any Penn State defense I have seen.” Juliano also predicts it can be as good (perhaps better) next season.

 

DiCarlo dropped some nuggets, including that Temple is on the verge of announcing construction of an on-campus football stadium (sound familiar?). But mostly provided some in-depth analysis of the Owls’ ball-hawking defense (and special teams), its struggling offense and on the state of the TU program that has been trending up since almost disbanding a decade ago. DiCarlo also offers insights on Penn State alum Matt Rhule (the Owls’ head coach) and on Terry Smith, another PSU alum and current Lions assistant who was on the staff at Temple lasts season.

 

Please listen, won’t you?

 

 

Live right here:

 

 

Or download the podcast here:

http://filesource.abacast.com/tribtotal/1112PSU14.mp3

 

 

 

As James Franklin would say, have an awesome day.

 

 

 

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November 12, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Getting to know Penn State’s future quarterback: An interview with his high school coach

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IMG_4560

 

 

Tommy Stevens, to my knowledge, has not spoken with media since making a verbal commitment to Penn State’s incoming class of 2015 on Monday night. The athletic, 6-foot-3, 196-pound dual-threat quarterback from Decatur (Ind.) Central High School flipped from home-state Indiana University to PSU two days after the Nittany Lions beat the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Ind.

 

Stevens has not responded to text or voice messages I have left for him – and I have not seen him go on the record with anyone else, either. Which is understandable. By all indications, Stevens is a good kid. It probably wasn’t easy for him to “go back on” a commitment – especially to a home-state school. Once things settle a little, I expect him to open up publicly a little more. For now, this is his only public comment:

 

 

Anyway, so in lieu of not being able to interview Penn State’s quarterback of the future (well, one of them, at least), I tried the next-best thing: I interviewed his high school coach.

 

Justin Dixson was gracious enough to spend 15 minutes on the phone with me Tuesday morning. Here is the majority of that conversation…

 

 

 

On what kind of overall athlete Stevens is:

He’s an unbelievable just football player in general. You look at him, he’s dynamic with the ball, a physical blocker and tackler, he can throw it and he can run it, he can kick it – just an all-around unbelievable football player. He’s a coach’s kid – his dad’s been on my staff since I’ve been here. So he’s a football junkie, grown up around the game of football and has a legit passion for it and just plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.

 

 

On what kind of overall person he is:

I just think he’s a natural charismatic leader that people like to be around. Part of that is the way that he approaches practice and the way that he approached games. He does what’s in the best interest of the team, whatever it takes to win. He wants to get better everyday – and his teammates see that and his coaches see that, and I think that’s why a lot of people are drawn to him and follow him and like being around him. Obviously, he’s well-respected in our school, he’s a great leader, a great student — teachers love having him in class – just an all-around great guy. The two biggest things that I really think set Tommy apart: One, I never thought I would coach a player that loves the game of football more than I do – and he might be close. That just tells you the type of passion he has for the game. And, especially in this day and age, I think where kids can tend to be a little bit selfish and it tends to be about them and about their recruiting and about how many stars they have, I think Tommy was 100 percent opposite of that. He really wanted to minimize the recruiting process so it wasn’t a distraction for his team through this whole thing. His teammates didn’t resent the attention Tommy was getting because they know what type of guy he is. In a lot of situations guys who are as high-profile as Tommy and getting all the attention and articles and interviews and media coverage, that never went to his head and his teammates didn’t obviously resent him for that so that shows you what type of kid he is.

He’s a top-notch guy and we are going miss him.

 

 

On how often Stevens played defense (some colleges were reportedly recruiting him as a safety):

We tried to use him in what we consider ‘championship situations’ … There’s no doubt he’s our best defensive player but also being our starting quarterback and as big a part of the offense that he was we wanted to be very systematic in how we used him, and we decided we were going to play him both ways when we felt like a championship was on the line so late in the year… He played every snap on both sides of the ball (for a late-season must-win game). That also tells you what type of gritty competitor he is. And he’s doing it at a high level – it’s not like this is small-school level, he’s doing against Marian County and Indianapolis athletes.

 

 

On why he selected Penn State:

I don’t want to speak for him… I just know during in the entire recruiting process, he was very deliberate and open and honest with everybody about what was going on. I think he did his homework and research on every school that recruited him, and obviously ultimately felt best about Penn State.

 

 

On what coaches recruited him to Penn State:

Well, you know, not necessarily (any). We’ve got a 2016 offensive tackle that is being highly-recruited (Trent Maynard) that they were able to come and at least get information on. As far as I was concerned, Tommy’s recruitment was done when he committed to Indiana so the contact that they had was really outside of our program, and the talks they had with him was really outside of me and outside of our program.

 

 

On if he struggled with “de-committing’:

I think he told everybody (during the spring of 2013) that he would see what offers he had after his junior year and be able to visit and try to make the best decision possible to kind of minimize the recruiting process during his senior year and not be a distraction for his team. And that’s what he did. And that’s when he made the commitment to Indiana (in June). At that point, Penn State wasn’t an option – it became an option late in his senior year (when PSU needed a QB after Brandon Wimbush decommitted). He was able to weigh that and obviously make his decision based on how he felt and what he saw. I know Tommy and his family are high-character people. They’re the most unselfish people you will ever meet, and I think it was hard for them because he genuinely wanted his word to mean something and didn’t want to be a guy who de-committed. But at the end of the day, I also think he felt he had to do what was best for him in this situation – which ended up really, really opposite of his personality because he wants to do what’s best for everybody and what’s best for the team. So it’s kind of against his personality to be honest with you, so I think that was a little bit tough for him. But I don’t want to speak for him.

 

 

On the offense Stevens ran at Decatur Central:

A multiple option spread offense. We run some under-center option and some ‘gun option and some run/pass option stuff, so there’s no doubt we’ve always put an emphasis on having a guy who can beat you with his arm and beat you with feet; it just so happens that Tommy is at an elite level at doing that. So obviously any time you get a guy like that in an offense like a lot of people are running, it’s extremely hard to defend, and that’s why we were so able to be successful on offense the past two years.

 

 

On if Dixson was familiar at all with what PSU offensive coordinator John Donovan ran at Vanderbilt, and if that was similar to what Dixson had Stevens run:

Without really breaking down the schematics of it, I would say if it’s an offense that asks the quarterback to make decisions based on what the defense is giving them, and has run/pass options and different types of read-options within the run game, I would say, yes, that’s what we do and that’s what he’s good at.

 

 

On what other schools Stevens was interested in:

I think coming down to June he really liked Nebraska, really liked Michigan State and obviously really liked Indiana. Those were the schools I felt like were at the top of his list, and he ultimately made the decision to pick Indiana until the Penn State option came in late in his senior year.

 

 

 

 

(Photo: Tommy Stevens, second from left, during his official visit to Penn State on Oct. 25 for the Ohio State game. Baldwin HS offensive tackle and PSU recruit Sterling Jenkins, left, spent plenty of time with Stevens that day while on an official visit of his own. Lions coach James Franklin and four-star uncommitted offensive guard Matthew Burrell are also in the “selfie” — Courtesy of Sterling Jenkins)

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November 9, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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The Day After Penn State’s skid ends: Notes/Etc. on a win in Indiana

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CHARLOTTE DOUGLAS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – As I make the trek from the Midwest to the South and back home, some more notes/observations/quotes from Penn State getting itself off the proverbial schnide. (I have no idea how to spell that fictitious word – it is fictitious, right?)…

 

 

 

Christian Hackenberg’s statistics weren’t any better. A handful of his throws weren’t, either. But what did appear vastly improved from the recent prior weeks was the Penn State quarterback’s on-field demeanor and body language.

 

Whether it was an intentional effort to do so or more of a function of being part of a victory instead of a loss, Hackenberg wasn’t spotted barking at teammates, arguing with coaches, slamming his helmet or otherwise carrying an expression of general disgust and miserable-ness (another fictitious word) that characterized, in particular, last week’s home loss to Maryland.

 

Franklin and Hackenberg had a meeting last Monday. Hackenberg, a five-star recruit who’s often been projected as a future top-10 NFL draft pick, has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the country this season in passing efficiency rating – though, certainly, a porous offensive line and lack of any consistent running game has affected his play.

 

Hackenberg said that body language and on-field displays of emotion were broached during his Monday chat with Franklin.

 

“That was part of it, (but) I think there was a lot that went into that conversation,” Hackenberg said. “But sometimes things that you can’t control happen and you’ve got to be able to bounce off of that and react. And that’s one thing I had a hard time doing earlier. So I think I just made the correction, easy as that.”

 

 

 

**What drove Belton 92 yards**

Bill Belton, in general, speaks quietly. He’s been known to be introspective (almost Zen-like) on Twitter. But he can be a lot of fun to talk to. I can’t decide if he intentionally has an understated, deadpanned delivery – or if it’s really just an overall indifference that comes across as an attempt at humor. Either way, he makes me chuckle. (As I type it, maybe it was one of those proverbial “you had to be there” kind of things; oh well).

 

Here was Belton’s exchange with a small handful of media after the game Saturday about his 92-yard touchdown run…

 

On what enabled him to outrun two defenders who were pursuing him: “I told (cornerback) Trevor Williams I’ve never gotten caught from behind, and basically that’s all I was thinking about at that time – it would have been a big deal in the running back room and stuff like that. That was the biggest thing.”

 

Asked if is possible to maintain a 4.5-ish speed for a 40-yard dash while running more than twice as far: “I was able to. I don’t think I got touched going through the line so I was able to get to top speed quickly. My biggest thing is I didn’t want to get caught from behind. So once you see the touchdown in front of you, you’re kinda just like ‘All right, I gotta get there. I GOTTA get there.’

 

Belton said he did not hear the two pursuers. So he shrugged when asked how did he know they were there: “Intuition, I guess… I just kind of felt them.”

 

On how that intuition is developed: “In the summertime we all met with (running backs coach Charles) Huff, and he had this thing where he kind of took us to a film session called RB School. It taught us about leaning away from defenders and creating positive angles on defenders to enable longer runs. Those are some of the things that helped that run get where it was.”

 

On his emotions after the game: “I celebrated with my teammates; celebrated with (sophomore running back Akeel Lynch) and Coach Huff, Those were the people who were, honestly, with me at the time things that happened last week and the Ohio State game, along with my family, too. I celebrated with them because they were always with me every step of the way.”

 

On what was so difficult about these past two games (Belton gained 22 yards on 17 carries in them, falling behind Lynch on the depth chart for each): “I didn’t play well on a very big stage couple weeks ago. And that wasn’t something I wanted to have happen. Akeel came out and continuously got better each week. He’s a great teammate and a great player and I know he’s going to be a great player for this university.

I didn’t play well. I didn’t show up. I didn’t play well. I didn’t affect the game, didn’t have a positive effect on the game. I pride myself into coming into each week and playing well and I didn’t play well those particular games.”

 

 

**Indianapolis media reaction**

Bloomington is less than an hour’s drive from Indiana’s largest city and capital, Indianapolis. But to show how little IU football registers throughout the state, consider its coverage in the Sunday Indianapolis Star.

 

The PSU-IU game story was buried below the fold on page 4 of the sports section. There was no column (none for us at the Trib, either, to be fair), no notes, no “Matchup,” “Grades,” or any other apparent regular coverage.

 

The game story length was fairly standard – but for basis of comparison, a game story for the Butler University basketball team’s exhibition against a Division III game Saturday was slightly longer.

 

As for the content of the story written by The Star’s David Woods (), the tone was set immediately with a lede of “Piling on the Indiana University football program at this point would merit a penalty. What would be the point?”

 

 

**WPIAL lettermen in attendance**

Former Penn State offensive lineman A.Q. Shipley (Moon) and former PSU quarterback Anthony Morelli (Penn Hills) were in the Lions’ locker room after the victory. They were in front of current players in coaches posing for the photo sent back to Keiser.

 

Shipley plays for the nearby Indianapolis Colts; Morelli now lives in Indiana.

 

 

**Nittany notes**

Hackenberg became the eighth Penn State quarterback to surpass 5,000 career passing yards. … Each of the Lions’ three victories away from Beaver Stadium this season were decided by six points or fewer. … Indiana went 3 for 17 on third downs, not converting any until the final 18 minutes of the game. Over its past two games, Penn State’s defense has held opponents to 4 for 31 on third downs. … The only PSU player to have more receptions in a season than DaeSeasn Hamilton has in 2014 is Allen Robinson. Hamilton had two catches for 33 yards to give him 64 this season. Robinson had 77 in 2012 and 97 last season. … The 330 yards and 13 points Penn State managed against Indiana were both the fewest the Hoosiers have allowed in 28 Big Ten games under coach Kevin Wilson.

 

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November 7, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Notes to get ready for Penn State-Indiana

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 CHARLOTTE DOUGLAS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – Because, why wouldn’t I go farther in a different direction than to my final destination merely to begin my trip to Indiana?

 

Just some random Penn State football-related thoughts as I have a bit of free time during my sojourn to the heart of the Midwest.

 

The first two notes actually will appear in the print edition Saturday on our GAMEDAY page (in a slightly cut-down form), but since we do not offer them with the online coverage, I included them in this blog post. (Probably a good idea for me to continue to do that in the future, because sometimes there’s some hidden gems here).

 

Enjoy the game Saturday. Give the TribLive PSU show podcast a listen, if you are so inclined.

 

 

**Youthful PSU roster just keeps getting younger**

As the season progresses, freshmen have earned the Penn State coaching staff’s trust and some upperclassmen have been unable to play because of injury. The result is the further erosion of the experience of the Nittany Lions’ already-youthful roster.

 

PSU began the season with the second-highest percentage of seniors and juniors of any FBS team in the country. But with junior linebacker Ben Kline, senior guard Mikes Dieffenbach, senior running back Zach Zwinak and senior safety Ryan Keiser all missing significant time because of injury (of that group, only Dieffenbach has a chance to play at all during the remainder of the season), the Lions’ youth is even more magnified.

 

Check some of the player-participation notes from this past Saturday’s game against Maryland:

 

  • The offense had exactly one senior play (running back Bill Belton, who gained 14 yards on his eight touches)
  • Four freshmen and four sophomores started on offense, in addition to three juniors
  • More freshmen (five) than seniors (four) were in the starting offensive and defensive lineups combined
  • Breakdown by class among the 22 starters: Four seniors, seven juniors, six sophomores, five freshmen
  • On opposite ends of the eligibility spectrum, there were two true freshmen who started and nine overall who played; there were two fifth-year seniors who started and three overall who played
  • Even forgetting fifth-year players, there were more true freshmen who played (nine) than seniors (eight) – when redshirt freshmen are counted, that former number swells to 14

 

 

**‘Genius’ turns around PSU defense**

Last season’s Penn State defense ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten in scoring and yardage, and was in the middle of the conference against the rush.

 

From it, four starters were subtracted – two of whom are currently in NFL rosters – heading into 2014. Any new additions to the roster are mostly freshmen who, while their impact is gradually growing, have generally played complementary roles over the first two-thirds of this season.

 

The result? The Nittany Lions rank No. 3 in total defense, No. 9 in scoring defense and No. 1 in rushing defense in the country.

 

How? Why?

 

“Coach Shoop is a genius,” sophomore defensive tackle Austin Johnson said, unsolicited, of PSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.

 

Shoop, a Riverview High School graduate, also counts Yale among his alma maters.

 

“I think he’s just a genius,” said linebacker Brandon Bell when told of Johnson’s comment. “When he says things are going to happen (a particular) way, they do. It shows up.”

 

 

**Gattis-speak**

The current coaching staff has no shortage of candidates to be a future college head coach. For many of them, their youth suggests that, if their career ascension continues and success at PSU follows, it could be, in theory, within the realm of possibility.

 

Wide receivers coach/offensive recruiting coordinator/assistant special teams coordinator (these hyphenated titles kill my word counts) Josh Gattis is certainly among that group. Barely into his 30s, Gattis has a charisma that helps allure recruits, and he is well-spoken and intelligent enough to be the proverbial face of a program with the media.

 

That was on display Thursday, when Gattis was the one assistant that is available to the media weekly. (Don’t get me started on how they are doubling up on some coaches, while others – offensive coordinator John Donovan, anyone? – have been shielded… but that’s for another time).

 

Among the highlights was his opinion on the two true freshmen who are playing at receiver this season, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall: “I think those guys are really progressing. I’m really happy about Saeed and Chris. Those guys are playing really good ball. They are making some plays out there. It’s hard sometimes when you have a bunch of guys rotating in. Some of the opportunities they aren’t in for, they can’t make. But as far as their attempts, their completions and their targets, I’ve really been pleased with how they are playing as they continue to develop. This is a young group. DaeSean still has room to develop, but he has been playing really good football. Geno is a young player who is playing good football, but he still has a lot more room to grow. I think as a group, we have to continue to find ways to get those guys more active as far as Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin. We need to continue to get those guys more and more reps.”

 

 

**Zettel a playmaking machine**

Even the previous two seasons, when he was playing much more sparingly, Anthony Zettel was making an impact seemingly every time he was on the field. Now, in 2014 – at a different position, no less – Zettel is emerging as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive linemen.

 

Listen to opponents’ press conferences in the week leading up to playing Penn State. They invariably always mention the 6-4, 274-pound fourth-year junior. I expect a monster 2015 from him, after having had a full season to settle into playing on the interior and another year of experience and physical maturity to rely on.

 

Still, despite being among the Big Ten leaders among defensive tackles in sacks and tackles for loss (and interceptions and touchdowns, for that matter), Zettel doesn’t sound overly impressed with himself.

 

“Yeah, I’m pleased, but I also know I have a lot of stuff to improve,” he said. “I’ve left a lot of plays out on the field that if I could have done something simple or technique‑wise, I could have made more of a play.  So I know I have a lot to improve to be a great player.  I’m just going to keep striving to be that.”

 

 

**Not-so special**

Penn State’s special team rankings in the Big Ten: Kickoff returns (seventh), punt returns (13th), punting (12th), kickoff coverage (11th).

 

Good thing for Sam Ficken, who’s missed just two of 36 kicks all season (mid-range field goals against Rutgers and Northwestern in September) and has a respectable 18 touchbacks on 41 kickoffs this season.

 

Too bad he can’t punt.

 

Or can he?

 

“I did a little bit of that in the spring,” Ficken said Tuesday. “ But right now that’s something that I’m not focused on. We have faith in our guys right now, so I don’t think you’ll see me punting.”

 

 

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November 5, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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TribLive show ep. 14: PSU-IU preview, Has the losing streak changed the perception of Franklin? Is it time to blame Hack?

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The first thing James Franklin said as he sat down to begin his weekly news conference Tuesday – after his standard thanking of everyone for being there, anyway – was, “I’m in a great mood.”

 

Setting the narrative as he is so adept at doing, Franklin clearly wanted to keep a positive spin on things, as a man on the heels of a four-game losing streak (PSU’s longest in a single season in more than a decade) who hadn’t experienced a victory in 45 days to that point.

 

Franklin might be in a great mood… but are Penn State fans? Has this seven-week span of futility (a handful of high-profile recruiting losses have been part of it, too) changed your mindset and outlook for the program under Franklin going forward?

 

For what my opinion’s worth (not much), 4-4 is right about where everyone thought (or should have thought) this team would be at this point. And a top-15 (but not top-5) recruiting class is right about where everyone thought (or should have thought) this program would get. The disappointment comes in how it got to these places (from 4-0 to 4-4 and from a brief period as the No. 1 recruiting class down to what is now No. 13, per Rivals).

 

On whole: Not much has changed in how I view the ability of Franklin and his staff to carry the Nittany Lions to the proverbial “next level.”

 

Now, as for my opinion of Christian Hackenberg’s ability to do the same… well…

 

To discuss those issues and more, I was glad to have Travis Johnson and Mike Miller join me. Johnson is the PSU beat writer for its hometown paper, the Centre Daily Times; Miller the IU beat writer for its hometown paper, the Herald Times of Bloomington.

 

 

 

Listen with one click right here:

 

 

And download the podcast here:

http://filesource.abacast.com/tribtotal/1105PSU14.mp3

 

 

Enjoy the rest of the week (and weekend)…

 

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October 29, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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TribLive Radio PSU show ep. 13: How Saturday felt like a win, recruiting recap from Ohio State weekend

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NORTH SHORE – Unlucky episode No. 13… during Halloween week?!

 

Not with Sean Fitz on this week’s Nittany Nation show on TribLive Radio. The editor of Lions247.com is connected and knowledgeable about Penn State’s team and its recruiting. He breaks down what this past Saturday’s Whiteout double-overtime loss to Ohio State means to the 100-plus high school prospects who were guests of the program that night. He also goes in-depth in what Nittany Lions recruiting storylines are for the rest of this winter for both the 2015 and ’16 classes and beyond.

 

For the weekly opponents’ viewpoint segment, Maryland beat writer Matt Zenitz  of the Baltimore Sun Media Group enlightened us on the state of the Terrapins’ program and its plight this season as well as sixth-year quarterback and Seneca Valley graduate C.J. Brown’s up-and-down Maryland career as it approaches its close.

 

 

Listen with one click here:

 

 

And download the podcast here:

http://filesource.abacast.com/tribtotal/1029PSU14.mp3

 

 

Until we chat again, enjoy the rest of your week.

 

 

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October 27, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Nittany notes: Where’s Geno? DaeSean the new A-Rob? Recruiting rundown

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I’m done trying to decipher what, exactly, has gone sour with Geno Lewis’ season.

Penn State trotted out Geno Lewis as the lone player available at the podium during the weekly news conference Tuesday. Trust me, PSU would not have done that if it didn’t want to, or if it was a sensitive situation with his status on the team or if it didn’t want him talking.

 

Lewis then started Saturday. All is forgotten for the player who entered the season as by far the Lions’ most accomplished receiver and began it with 25 catches for 462 yards over its first four games but then quickly (inexplicably?) became an afterthought in the offense, right?

 

Wrong. Lewis was targeted just three times (once each during the first half, second half and overtime). He ended up with one reception for 11 yards (it came during the tying drive late in the fourth quarter).

 

For whatever reason, freshmen Saeed Blacknall (six targets) and Chris Godwin (four targets) both have surpassed Lewis on the depth chart and/or in the minds’ of the playcallers and/or in terms of the trust quarterback Christian Hackenberg has in him.

 

After being cryptic about the reasons for Lewis’ apparent demotion following the Michigan game, Franklin said Tuesday that Lewis is “back to feeling 100 percent” and that the two had a meeting that “went extremely well.”

 

**Spreading the wealth?**

Lewis’ near-disappearance from the offense helped contribute to DaeSean Hamilton being targeted 22 times by Christian Hackenberg on Saturday – accounting for almost half of Hackenberg’s 49 attempts. The rest of the wide receivers accounted for 12 targets, the tight ends eight (four to Jesse James and two each to Mike Gesicki and Kyle Carter) and the running backs four (Akeel Lynch, 2; Bill Belton, 2). Two others were intercepted and one a spike.

 

Penn State’s offense is in danger (if that’s the right word) of emulating the 2013 version in which the passing game became Allen Robinson… and then, everyone else.

 

Robinson, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, had 97 catches for 1,432 yards last season. He had 40 percent of the Lions’ overall receptions and 60 percent of the wide receivers’ share.

 

Over the past three games (since Lewis went AWOL), Hamilton has 36 percent of all PSU catches and 60 percent of the wide receivers’ catches.

 

 

**Recruit-out **

As I’ve said in this space before, I never was a recruiting kinda guy – as a consumer. I totally get it and why it’s interesting to some people and why so many people are so hyped to track it. And more ppower to them, to each his own, etc., etc. I just, in my mind, have always wanted to draw a line somewhere (again, as a consumer/fan). I’ll start tracking athletes once they get to a certain level – not before it (I have similar thoughts about the NFL Draft).

 

Anyway… without getting too deep into this tangent, what I’m getting at is that Saturday was my first visit to a pregame field to mingle with the bevy of prospective recruits (and their guests) who are there for a game. The annual Whiteout game at PSU, more than most, draws people. It’s the “showcase game” (for lack of a better way of putting it) for the program.

 

What struck me was how festive the atmosphere is. The mood is celebratory – and this is pregame. Coaches – who have to be weighed down mentally from countless hours of game prep that is about to be put to use at kick off – are enthusiastically greeting kid after kid after kid.

 

Nobody made a verbal commitment, but there are plenty of other reasons to celebrate. Some – like Gateway lineman Robert Hainsey – have a reason to celebrate in receiving a scholarship offer. Others are happy just to be invited (let’s face it: Of the roughly 100 high school players who are invitees of the program, most will never receive a scholarship offer. And while there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with playing for a Division II or I-AA or, say, MAC school, some of these kids just get to get a kick out of being in a 107,000-seat stadium – even if just to watch). Then, there’s the families. Little brothers and sisters are in heaven. Heck, BIG brothers and sisters, too. Dads, moms, grandpa and grandma? Yep.

 

What I’m saying, basically, is that everyone is jovial and the mood is festive. Throw in a couple of juiced-up teams about to embark on a nationally-televised game, a growing number of tens of thousands of (many-intoxicated) revved-up fans… and, of course, a DJ blasting tunes… and it’s quite the scene.

 

Just wanted to share. When it comes to actual useful takeaways? Baldwin’s Sterling Jenkins (whose family was there; it was his official visit) seemed like one of the VIPs of the VIPs. Seemingly always at the center of attention.

 

Often next to him? Matthew Burrell. Burrell, another one of the top linemen in the country in the 2015 class (he has dozens of scholarship offers), was hanging with Jenkins throughout most of the roughly 90 minutes I was on the field.

 

Players who I ran into who have scholarship offers from Penn State included Central Catholic junior Damar Hamlin, Kittanning tight end Nick Bowers (a Pitt verbal recruit), junior receiver Trevon Diggs, and cornerback Julian Briscoe.

 

Additionally, several players who have made verbal commitments to PSU were on hand – among them were Jenkins, Sanders, Jonathan Holland, Andre Robinson, Ruan Buchholz, Brandon Polk, Adam McLean, Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles.

 

Aiden Howard (Gateway), Malik Mathis (Penn Hills), Aaron Matthews (Clairton), Khaleke Hudson (McKeesport), Darius Wise (Beaver Area) were among the WPIAL players I came across, in addition to Hamlin, Jenkins and dynamic Woodland Hills running back Miles Sanders.

 

Speaking of the WPIAL:

 

 

**Nittany notes**

Left tackle Donovan Smith left late during Saturday’s game with an apparent undisclosed injury. Smith was the only returning starter entering the season. … An injury to safety Ryan Keiser meant only four seniors were in the Penn State starting lineup. … The Lions’ tying field-goal drive late Saturday lasted 19 plays – their longest in five years. … Penn State’s 16 net yards rushing were its fewest since having minus-14 against Michigan in 2006.

 

 

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