On a day where much of the story was the impressive debut of Christian Hackenberg, or perhaps Allen Robinson’s 2 quarter suspension, and subsequent 133 yard 2nd half, there was still a significant concern. What happened to that powerful Penn State running game? In 30 carries by the two PSU tailbacks (Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton), the Lions put up just 80 yards. With veteran experience on the line, and a returning 1,000 yard back in Zwinak, it was widely assumed O’Brien would rely heavily on the ground game, especially early, while his young quarterback gets up to speed. So after 4 quarters, we should be panicking, right? Not so fast, my friends.
After re-watching the game on Monday, a couple things jumped out to me. The first was how aggressive the Syracuse defense was to stop the run. It’s a tactic I would expect PSU to see throughout the year, or at least until Hackenberg proves consistently he can beat 8 or 9 man fronts. For one, I doubt O’Brien is going to give his true freshman QB the freedom to check out of plays the way he let Matt McGloin a year ago early on.
The absence of of Allen Robinson in the first half can’t be understated either. He’s clearly PSU’s best player on the offensive side of the ball, and the biggest deep threat on the roster. The quickest way to back off a defense cheating up against the run, is to make them pay over the top with the play action pass. They did that once on the 54 yard strike to Geno Lewis, but Hackenberg will need to take more chances downfield as the year goes on.
Finally, I think the play calling will naturally loosen up as the year goes on. While I don’t think that things were as predictable on Saturday as they may have seemed at the time, it was still a more conservative game plan than we came to expect from O’Brien a year ago. As Hackenberg’s grasp of the offense improves, it’s only natural that O’Brien will show more confidence in the freshman.
My point? Let’s give things a little more than 60 minutes to shake out. Back off the ledge, and let this offense continue to evolve.
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