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Soccer-Style Player Grading For Penn State

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John Urschel is supposed to be Penn State's best offensive lineman, but he let a defender shed his block on eight out of 18 first-half runs. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images.
John Urschel is supposed to be Penn State's best offensive lineman, but he let a defender shed his block on eight out of 18 first-half runs. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images.

In Bill O’Brien’s most recent press conference, he pointed the finger at himself for Penn State’s first-half offensive woes. While it’s commendable, even expected, that coaches deflect criticism from their players and onto themselves, Syracuse exposed several of Penn State’s inadequacies in the season opener. Chief among them were Penn State’s ineffectiveness on third downs. In fact, the Nittany Lions only mustered one third down conversion on 16 tries.

Quarterbacks: C+

We got our first glimpse of true freshman Christian Hackenberg’s potential in his first career start. He completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards. He showed the ability to throw a deep ball when he hit Geno Lewis for a 54-yard touchdown on a deep post and also displayed elusiveness outside of the pocket. However, the majority of Hackenberg’s completions were on screens to Allen Robinson and Brandon Moseby-Felder. He also threw two interceptions on passes of less than 10 yards due to poor coverage reads. Grade: B-

Tyler Ferguson’s debut lasted for only three plays while Hackenberg recovered from an in-game injury during the first half. Ferguson also displayed his arm strength with a blistering pass over the middle of the field for 18 yards, but lost a fumble on the next play after failing to secure the ball while throwing. Grade: D

Running Backs: C

Zach Zwinak displayed early on why he is such a coveted ball carrier. Despite a flimsy performance by the offensive line, Zwinach rushed for 51 yards on 13 carries in the first half. He gained the majority of his yards after first contact and even broke three tackles in a single play. However, Zwinak was completely ineffective in the second half, rushing for less than a yard per carry. He also missed two blocks in pass protection. Grade: C+

Bill Belton is Zwinak’s opposite. A shifty running back, Belton tries to make tacklers miss. Unfortunately, Belton was tackled twice in the backfield on six carries. He also failed to make the correct read on four of his carries, leaving a lot of yards on the field. He also allowed a sack after completely missing a defender on a cut block. Grade: C

Wide Receivers: B

Allen Robinson missed the entire first half due to an undisclosed violation of team rules, which turned a potential blowout into a close game. Robinson made his mark early the second half, gaining 25 yards on a screen and then coming back to an underthrown ball for a 51-yard touchdown. However, Robinson also fumbled on his third reception, one of four Penn State turnovers. *Grade: C-

Brandon Felder looks like Hackenberg’s go-to receiver underneath, having caught six passes that all went for less than 10 yards. Felder helped Hackenberg twice during quarterback scrambles and found open spots to settle in for easy completions. Felder had a solid, though unspectacular game. Grade: B

Geno Lewis was on the receiving end of Hackenberg’s longest pass of the day, a 54-yard touchdown. Lewis also played during much of the first half with Robinson out, though he was only targeted twice for two catches. Grade: A

Matt Zanellato was the recipient of two passes and two large collisions upon catching the ball. He held on to each for first downs. Grade: A

Tight Ends: C

Matt Lehman suffered a non-contact, season-ending injury on an out route. Lehman dropped one pass and missed blocks on defenders twice in the running game and once in the passing game, leading to a big hit on Hackenberg. Grade: C-

Jesse James might be Penn State’s most athletic receiving tight end, thus the one with the most NFL potential. However, he only caught two short passes and dropped a second-and-long pass that would have been a first down. Grade: C-

Kyle Carter, the most experienced tight end on the roster, saw limited action with a wrist injury. He did not catch any passes, but was effective run blocking. Grade: B

Offensive Line: C

Donovan Smith, left tackle, missed three blocks in the running game, but was effective in the passing game, allowing a defender to defeat him just once on the outside. He’ll have to continue to protect Hackenberg’s backside well. Grade: B+

While right guard Miles Dieffenbach was nearly flawless in pass protection, he was a liability to Penn State's running game. By my count, he missed six blocks in the running game, two of which led a loss of yards. Grade: C

Center Ty Howle was a solid for three quarters, allowing just three defenders to make plays in the running game. He became ineffective during Penn State’s last two drives, missing three more blocks. Grade: C

Right guard John Urschel is supposed to be Penn State’s anchor on the offensive line, but he had an uncharacteristically terrible first half in which he missed eight blocks. He rebounded during the second half, but it's difficult to forget that he failed to block his man on every other running play during the first half. Grade: F

Garry Gilliam moved from tight end to right tackle for his senior season and had a somewhat shaky first start. He only missed two blocks in the running game, but was beat by defensive ends four times in pass protection and once failed to recognize a late blitz. Gilliam gave up one sack and nearly gave up another. Grade: C-

Eric Shrive saw limited playing time along the offensive line and missed two blocks in the running game. Grade: B-

Defensive Line: B

Defensive end Deion Barnes didn’t rack up sacks, but his effectiveness can’t be seen in a box score. Barnes had a rough first quarter, losing containment on an outside run and being burned on a screen, but the sophomore learned quickly. He played discipline against the run for the rest of the game and deflected a screen late in the second quarter. He ended the game with three tackles and pressured the quarterback four times. Grade: B

Defensive tackle Daquan Jones dominated Syracuse’s interior linemen. Jones recorded six tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. However, he took himself out of plays by over pursuing the ball carrier twice. Grade: A-

Kyle Baublitz — what a great name for a defensive player — is Penn State’s less talked-about defensive tackle. He struggled early against Syracuse’s running game, but excelled as a pass rusher. Baublitz finished with two tackles, four hurries and a pass defensed. Grade: B

Despite strong performances by the rest of the defensive line, defensive end C.J. Olaniyan struggled during the majority of the game. He failed to contain outside runs and was largely bullied. However, he did occasionally show flashes in the pass rush. Grade: C-

It’s rarely done, but defensive tackle Austin Johnson may be a better performer as the second starting defensive end on the team. He showed the ability to stop the run at the line of scrimmage, recording four tackles within three yards of the line of scrimmage in limited playing time. He could be used as a two-down defensive end with Olaniyan coming in for third down and long situations. Grade: B-

Anthony Gaia saw limited playing time at defensive end, but didn’t do anything particularly good or bad. He struggled to shed blockers, but contained outside runs. He did not pass rush well. Grade C-

Linebackers: B

Glenn Carson has stepped up in a big way as Penn State’s middle linebacker. With six tackles and two passes defended, he immediately proved himself as a three-down linebacker after being thought of as just a two-down player one season ago. However, he did miss a tackle and struggled to shed blocks at times. Grade: A-

The Nittany Lions need Mike Hull to be the breakout star that they believe he can be. Unfortunately, he sustained a knee injury early in the season opener and only saw limited action afterwards to prevent further damage. Grade: B

Nyeem Wartman is the least-experienced starting linebacker on the team, so a few less than stellar games should be expected. He missed as many tackles, two, as he made and was regularly out of position. He did force and recover a fumble near midfield. Grade: B

Ben Kline likely will rotate into the linebacker corps throughout the season, and he played for more than three quarters against Syracuse. He made three tackles, one for a loss, but was largely a non-factor in the second half. He also struggled in coverage. Grade: B-

Secondary: B

Jordan Lucas definitely has a mean streak at cornerback. While Syracuse tried to pick on him, he made six tackles and did not give up any big plays. He also appears to be a potential vocal leader on the team as long as he keeps his cool in between plays. Grade: B+

Cornerback Trevor Williams had two tackles, defended a pass and intercepted another. He was soft in coverage at times. This may prevent deep completions, but he gave up too many easy catches. He also needs to be more of a factor in run support. Grade: B+

Adrian Amos had a shaky first half, missing a tackle and providing only soft coverage. However, he did make two tackles in the open field in the second half and defended a pass. It was a perplexing performance for a veteran player that has a lot of potential. He also needs to be more aggressive in run support. Grade: C

Free safety Malcolm Willis was by far the most aggressive defensive back for Penn State in its season opener. He made five tackles, one for a loss, and nearly intercepted a pass. However, his aggression also got him burned in the third quarter on a deep pass that led to Syracuse’s first touchdown. Grade: B-

Back-up safety Ryan Keiser, who barely lost the starting free safety job, had a solid game. He made two tackles in limited action and allowed just one catch. Grade: B

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong — try saying that five times quick —  played really well as Amos’ back-up. He made three tackles, a sack and intercepted a pass. However, he took several bad angles to the ball-carrier and often gave up outside containment. Grade: A-

*indicates a grade deduction for half-game suspension