Walking the beat: Penn State

The football season has flown by. We're already up to the last game of the regular season, with Penn State set to come in to Camp Randall on senior day.
It's been a turbulent season for the Nittany Lions on the football field, but they'll take their quiet off season, when compared to the last two years. I got a hold of Nate Bauer from Blue and White Illustrated on the network to give us the scoop on Penn State's season, so be sure to follow Nate on Twitter before the game. My question and answer session with Nate is included below.
Obviously the Nittany Lions had a pretty special season a year ago, considering the sanctions the NCAA handed down before the season started. How is this year's team different from last year's team? Is this a sign of the sanctions taking their toll?
Nate Bauer: Realistically, I think Penn State's season has been pretty close to what should have been expected out of this group before the season began and, when compounded by a few really key injuries, might even be better than could have been asked for.
Though there are plenty of pieces that opponents would trade for - Allen Robinson, Kyle Carter, Donovan Smith, Glenn Carson, Mike Hull, Adrian Amos all come to mind - there are too many holes on both sides of the ball that are being filled by either marginally-talented or completely inexperienced 18 and 19-year olds to put together any type of consistent effort from week to week.
Bill O'Brien preaches complementary football at seemingly every turn, but one of the byproducts of this mix of players is the complete rarity with which they're all clicking at the same time. When true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg was playing at his best, the Nittany Lions' defense was about as useful as a siphon. Now that Penn State's defense has started putting on better performances, Hackenberg and the offense are struggling. When you add in some to-be-expected special teams issues manned by walk-ons, the end result is a record deserving of its own inconsistencies.
Would the situation be different without the sanctions? Absolutely. More healthy players, reliable backups, more experience in key positions… all of the above. I don't think any of it would have been the difference in a game like Ohio State, but certainly against the likes of Indiana, Minnesota, Central Florida and even last week against Nebraska, Penn State would have, at the very least, had a better opportunity to win games that held an incredibly slim margin of error for the Nittany Lions to be able to earn wins.
In the games I've watched I've been impressed with Christian Hackenberg. What does he do well under center for a true freshman quarterback, and what do you think he needs to work on the most?
NB: Yeah, he's a kid that when you watch him right now, you're thinking less about what he is presently and more about what he'll be in a year or two with a few spring practices and winter workouts under his belt. It's kind of interesting, because he's already obviously got the tools, but he just makes the types of mistakes that are indicative of his relative inexperience. Mind you, this is a kid that arrived at Penn State in June, so he hasn't even been working with Penn State's coaches for more than the four months since preseason practice began in August.
I think for a true freshman, he's got tremendous poise and is a very cerebral quarterback to go with the obvious athletic gifts that he possesses passing the ball. The issue is that O'Brien isn't going to put him in many situations where he can fail, so the things that they're able to do offensively are kind of limited right now.
That said, more and more this season, Hackenberg has been checking out of plays, recognizing more defensive coverages and doing the little things that have O'Brien both publicly and privately jumping for joy at what he's working with in this guy. His combination of size, speed, arm strength and intelligence are good for a package that should have Penn State fans and coaches salivating for the future, regardless of some of the ups and downs he's experienced this season.
Defensively what do the Nittany Lions do well? Who are Penn State's difference makers, and what do they need to improve on to keep the Badgers in check?
NB: It's pretty simple with this Penn State team in that opponents that are pretty straightforward and don't spread them out, the Nittany Lions do fairly well defensively. When the opponent is particularly fast, can sling it around, and then adds a power and speed running game to the equation, this Penn State defense is just toast.
At linebacker, Mike Hull is the guy that everyone pegged as the playmaker this season, but he's been hurt since the 10th play of the season against Syracuse and is just now starting to reach the strides he was making during the preseason. Glenn Carson has been a steady presence in the middle and DaQuan Jones has been a force up front, with defensive ends Anthony Zettel and C.J. Olaniyan performing well on the outsides, too. In the secondary, Jordan Lucas has made some great plays and some boneheaded plays this year, but a lot of that is just a result of him really playing for the first time at corner.
The best thing that Penn State can do defensively this week is really, really encourage their offensive teammates to run the ball well this weekend in Madison. It might not sound like a ringing endorsement for this Penn State defense - and it isn't - but there are just some opponents that it doesn't matter what you do, and this Wisconsin offense seems to be one of them. Ohio State was the same, and the Nittany Lions' offense tanked, which was a huge factor in that bloodbath. That can't happen on Saturday or the end result will be exactly the same.
What's surprised you the most about Penn State's season so far?
NB: I'm in the minority here, but dealing with the sanctions, the depth issues, and the injuries that they've had, I think that the success of this team this season has been pretty remarkable. Not that they aren't capable or don't have the talent to compete week in and week out… they do. But, when you just look at everything they've had to deal with, to simple be in nearly every game, save for Ohio State, I think is a real testament to what this coaching staff has been able to achieve and instill in a group that is consistently playing with one hand tied behind its back.
Against a Big Ten that is marginal at best, in many cases that's enough to keep it close and even earn a few wins, but against the elite teams in the conference like Ohio State and Wisconsin, it's just a completely losing proposition before the game even gets started.
There's a reason O'Brien talks so often about how hard his kids work, how much he loves coaching them, and how they never quit and are fighters. Granted, they're the traits every coach loves to have, but talent and depth would be nice, too.
Finally, what's your prediction for the game?
NB: Wisconsin's offense is so obviously dangerous, but I really think it's the Badgers' defense that is going to give Penn State the most problems on Saturday. And, like I said, if Penn State can't move the ball and keep its defense off the field, things could get out of hand very, very quickly. Throw in an incredibly difficult situation in terms of motivation - no bowl game, a particularly disheartening loss to the Cornhuskers, and a road game against a seemingly-impossible opponent - and this one has all the signs of being a big problem for the Nittany Lions.
I think O'Brien and his staff will work extremely hard to make sure the Nittany Lions don't come out flat, maybe with a trick play or two, just to keep them completely engaged and inspired through the course of the game.
That said, I think the Badgers can go slow and steady on this one, pound out 300-plus yards on the ground, and walk away with a pretty casual 31-10 win.
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