Shawn Annarelli

What We've Learned: Penn State 101

Created on Sept. 25, 2013 3:04 PM EST

New identities form when major overhauls occur.

While some key figures still are left over from Bill O’Brien’s freshman year as head coach, the new, young guys are shaping this team’s success and future.

From Christian Hackenberg to Trevor Williams, Penn State’s team is evolving, but suffering through intense growing pains, as evidenced by the team's 34-31 loss to UCF.

Hackenberg A Leader, But Still Learning

Three of his four interceptions came when he failed to read the coverage correctly. The fourth came when he hesitated to hit an open receiver on an out route.

That’s not all, though. Hackenberg has lost a no-contact fumble and has thrown seven incomplete passes on errant throws while getting sacked nine times.

He will pay for those poor decisions when his luck runs out.

However, Hackenberg is the clear leader on offense. O’Brien didn’t say a word to him following the first two interceptions he threw this season, because the coach trusted that Hackenberg knew what he did wrong.

Robinson Meets His Match

Allen Robinson averaged 135 yards in this season’s first three games, but what stalled him in game four was beyond his control.

Rain poured down on Robinson, along with the 90,000 other people inside Beaver Stadium, and wind whipped within Happy Valley as it routinely does. The result was two quarterbacks completing just 39 percent of their passes.

We found out that Robinson is human in a downpour, catching just three passes for 43 yards.

Nittany Lions Cannot Convert

Penn State is converting on just 21 percent of their third downs this season, bad enough to rank 119th in the country. That’s a big problem leading up to conference play.

Part of that hinges on Hackenberg choosing to check down a lot on third down passing attempts, and part of that is due to an offensive line that cannot create holes in short-yardage situations.

However, the offense did find a way to convert nearly 39 percent of its third downs against Kent State on Saturday, which is just below the FBS average.

Running Back By Committee Working

Prior to the season there was little doubt in anyone’s mind what Bill O’Brien would do.

He has three good running backs with their owns unique strengths, and O’Brien is using them correctly.

Zach Zwinak is getting the bulk of Penn State’s carries and grinds down defensive linemen and linebackers. Bill Belton runs between the tackles, but has the acceleration to hit home runs if he gets into open field. Little-known Akeel Lynch gets the ball in low-pressure situations, and it’s paying off.

All three running backs have more than 250 yards in four games.

Opposing Quarterbacks Comfortable

DaQuan Jones and Deion Barnes were supposed to be feared throughout the country as quarterback-eating androids. Instead, only Jones has lived up to his billing, having sextupled his total of career sacks in just four games.

Barnes finally got his first sack against Kent State, but he was largely absent in Penn State’s second and third games this season, providing just three hurries in those games. Fortunately, defensive tackles Kyle Baublits and Austin Johnson seem to be getting better with each game as they compete for playing time next to Jones.

Still, Penn State’s defense has just eight sacks in four non-conference games.

Secondary Exposed

There wasn’t anything remarkable about Penn State’s secondary in the first two games of the season, mostly because Eastern Michigan and Syracuse tried (and failed) to run a dink-and-dunk offense.

Central Florida and Kent State uncovered the secondary’s weakness in the last two weeks as receivers continuously got deep behind cornerbacks and safeties and were wide open.

Kent State may not have been able to connect on their golden opportunities, but Central Florida’s offense showed that there is little-to-no discipline in Penn State’s defense when receivers go long.

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