COLLINS COLUMN: Five surprises with Penn State
A little more than two months ago, the hopes of fans were sky high in Happy Valley.
They were excited for the possibilities the second season of Bill O'Brien's coaching tenure could bring. The Christian Hackenberg era gave them a talented, undisputed quarterback of the future. And damn those NCAA sanctions, last season's 8-4 campaign meant anything could - and, to some, should - happen.
With Thanksgiving approaching though, some of that hope has eroded into at the very best minor concern. The Nittany Lions will have to win two of their last three to avoid a .500 season, and they likely won't be favored in either of their final two games against Nebraska and at Wisconsin.
At this stage, anything better than a 6-6 record might have to be considered a surprise.
This has been a season of surprises, though. Positive ones, like that dramatic quadruple overtime win against Michigan. Negative ones, like those frustrating losses to perennial Big Ten doormats Indiana and Minnesota.
Here are five biggest surprises with Penn State in the 2013 season.
1.) Hackenberg's progress.
OK, so there are the delusional fans out there wondering why Hackenberg isn't a dominant force week-in and week-out.
But they don't get it.
Hackenberg has been really good so far this season, and it doesn't take a world-class quarterbacks coach to see that.
"I've got a lot of belief in this kid, and I think he's going to be better and better," O'Brien said. "There has been a lot of good and then there has been some things that we just need to take from this stage and get it all the way to the next level."
Sure, he still turns the ball over a bit too much, like on that fourth quarter fumble at the Minnesota 1 last Saturday. But if you didn't know he was a freshman, you wouldn't guess he was.
Certainly, Hackenberg isn't holding Penn State back and, in most cases, is the offense's driving force. He's setting the bar extremely high for future freshmen, and he has been better than expected in the sense that he isn't just trying to make the easy plays and let the running game do the rest.
2.) Lack of production from tight ends.
There are plenty of reasons for this: Hackenberg being a younger player not as comfortable with working the middle of the field as Matt McGloin was a season ago. Matt Lehman's injury in the first game taking away a capable downfield threat. Garry Gilliam's move from tight end to tackle means more blocking responsibilities for those left behind, too.
But after their breakout 2012, it was easy to assume the tight ends would only get more active in the offense this season.
Jesse James and Kyle Carter have combined for 32 catches and just two touchdowns this season. In 2012, those two had 51 catches and seven scores.
Last season, James averaged more than 18 yards per catch. This season, he's at just a bit better than 11.
The tight ends haven't been used as frequently, or as far up field, as they were a season ago.
3.) Collapse of the pass rush.
This is no knock on defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, who in many ways has been a better player than anyone reasonably could have predicted. But Penn State has not gotten the pass rush it legitimately could have expected in the preseason.
End Deion Barnes was the freshman of the year in the Big Ten last season, but through nine games in 2013, he has just one. Penn State needs him to be a dominant factor up front.
Others have at least come close to living up to their preseason hopes in the sack department, but in all, Penn State has just 17 sack this season, and just three have come in their last three games.
4.) Kick coverage units.
This is an area where, on paper, Penn State could have struggled badly. But it hasn't. Quite to the contrary, it has been fairly good.
The kick coverage units are loaded with walk-ons and freshmen, guys like Cole Chiappelle, Jesse Merise, Dad Poquie and Jordan Smith. And they've been quite good. Penn State hasn't allowed a kick return for a score all season, and it's not because they haven't faced a team with dynamic return men.
This is the one area where Penn State really could have been weak due to the sanctions. But give them credit: The youngsters have been strong.
"I've said from day one I think (running backs coach) Charles London is doing a very good job, and he has a lot to do with the improvement of those two units," O'Brien said. "We've got a lot of great kids playing hard on those units."
5.) The linebackers' struggles.
This is Linebacker U, and at Penn State, there's no doubt that having stars at linebacker makes the defense go.
Granted, nobody thought the linebackers would be superstars this season.
But they haven't had the chance to develop the way the staff would have liked due to a series of injuries that have decimated the group. Only middle linebacker Glenn Carson has stayed healthy. Mike Hull has battled knee problems. Nyeem Wartman has a nagging shoulder issue. Ben Kline is out for the season with a torn pectoral. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a converted safety, has shown flashes of being pretty good, but he isn't consistent. It has been difficult to be consistent, because they haven't been able to stay on the field long enough to get consistent.
DONNIE COLLINS covers Penn State football for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read his blog at http://blogs.thetimes-tribune.com/pennstate/, or follow him on Twitter @psubst