The Nits’ porous offensive line led to 42 Hack sacks.
By Peter Gleason
It has been three years since Penn State has prepared for a bowl game, and as much as coach James Franklin and his team and fans are looking forward to Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College, he is taking the long view.
Penn State’s problems, as Franklin knows, aren’t close to being solved. The impact of the NCAA sanctions placed on the program as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal hit particularly hard this year and could be almost equally difficult to navigate next year.
It will take two more recruiting cycles to get back to a full 85 scholarships. And even when that happens, Franklin projects he’ll have one of the youngest teams in college football because the roster will be heavily weighted with freshmen and sophomores.
In other words, there are no shortcuts for Penn State to return to national relevance. All Franklin can do is keep recruiting (Penn State’s 2015 class is ranked No.9 by 247sports.com), creating a culture for players to follow, and try to win enough games to get to the postseason, as the Nittany Lions did this year at 6-6.
Still, just making a bowl wasn’t enough to stop a vocal minority of the Penn State fan base from nitpicking.
The Nittany Lions beat just two teams that ended up in bowl games (Central Florida and Rutgers), and their games were often ugly because of an offensive line that struggled to protect Hackenberg, who threw eight touchdown passes and 15 interceptions after a freshman season in which he looked like a legitimate NFL prospect.
“If you take the emotion away and think about what happened here, you’d say, ‘Yeah, they’ve got a tremendous challenge to fight through, but at the end of it what a great opportunity you’re going to have in two or three years,'” Franklin said.
“You have to have the vision of where we’re going. People who are used to a certain type of Penn State they got accustomed to over 80 years, they don’t see it that way. Everybody talks about (the challenges) before the season starts, but once it starts you’re supposed to win a national championship.”
Penn State isn’t supposed to win a national championship anytime soon, but the plan to get there has multiple layers. After the season, Franklin says he plans to do a comprehensive analytic study of not only Penn State this season compared to other teams Franklin has been associated with (Vanderbilt as head coach; Maryland and Kansas State as an offensive coordinator), but he’ll also look closely at how the four teams in the College Football Playoff were constructed.
Much of what plagued Penn State this season — including Hackenberg’s regression and the fact he was sacked 42 times — stems from the fact that former coach Bill O’Brien was unable to recruit the kind of offensive line depth needed to compete in the Big Ten.
Franklin said Penn State had “basically seven guys” in its rotation, with one upperclassman playing either tackle position. Any injury caused the entire line to shuffle, which meant young players who were struggling to adjust to starting had to learn multiple positions instead of being able to focus on one.
But unlike recruiting defensive backs or receivers, where freshmen can make immediate impacts, developing quality starters for the offensive line usually is a three-year process.
And until that happens, it’s hard to know what Penn State’s identity will even be on offense.
“I’ve always been in a position where I’ve showed up somewhere and we had to grind through fixing a problem first before we could get established. Then once we do, I’ve had to leave,” Franklin said. “We’re at a place now where we have a chance to solve our problems and build it long term.”