2014 Review: Penn State had its share of highs and lows throughout the 2014 season that ended with a Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College to finish the year with a 7-6 mark. For a program that had endured so much throughout the past several seasons, it was a huge momentum builder for the Nittany Lions to lock in a bowl berth after the postseason ban sanction was lifted by the NCAA.
Many thought Penn State would be a serious contender in the Big Ten and its stellar defense certainly gave James Franklin’s crew an opportunity to win nearly every game this season. The offense, however, was a different story. Highly-touted quarterback Christian Hackenberg was the victim of a bad offensive line and was sent to the turf 44 times, the second most in all of college football.
The Heisman hopeful didn’t put up mind-blowing numbers, but still threw for nearly 3,000 yards for Penn State.
The Nittany Lions finished the conference 2-6, with four of those losses coming by a touchdown or less. Penn State’s offense was the major problem last year, as the defense ranked seventh in the nation in points allowed while surrendering just 18.6 points per game. Had the offense had a little more firepower, it could’ve been a much different season in Happy Valley.
High Point: The announcement that the postseason ban would be lifted by the NCAA was a huge boost for the program. Winning a bowl game in dramatic fashion was a way to get back on the college football map. Things weren’t necessarily pretty for the Nittany Lions, but having sanctions lifted and beginning to separate itself from the Jerry Sandusky scandal is a massive weight off the shoulders for a group of players who were punished for something out of their control.
It may not have been a season-changing event in the 2014 season, but it should allow Franklin to recruit a little bit easier and empower Penn State to become the relevant powerhouse it was before all the unfortunate events.
Low Point: There were several subpar performances that hindered the Nittany Lions in 2014, especially on the offensive side of the ball. No game was uglier than the late-season loss to Illinois, though.
A total of 30 points were scored and only 548 total yards of offense were gained for both teams in the struggle. But it was a late field goal with eight seconds to play that lifted the Fighting Illini to a 16-14 win over the Nittany Lions. Hackenberg threw the ball just 16 times, completing half of his passes for just 93 yards. The offense converted just six of its 15 third down opportunities and fumbled the ball once in the contest.
Best Player: It’s hard to argue that senior linebacker Mike Hull was the heart and soul of the Nittany Lions last season. Simply put, Hull was the best player on one of the best defensive units in the country.
He piled up 140 total tackles in his final season, nearly double the total of the next highest tackler on the team. He finished the year with 10 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception. He was also one of the team’s top leaders, something that will be hard to replace heading into 2015.
The senior stepped up in some of the season’s biggest moments, too. In a primetime game against Ohio State inside Beaver Stadium, Hull put together his best performance of the year, trying to will the Nittnay Lions to an upset win on their home turf. In the game, he recorded 19 tackles, 2.5 of which were for a loss. He also snagged his only interception of the season in the contest.
Despite the heroic efforts, it wasn’t enough as Penn State dropped the double-overtime thriller to the Buckeyes, 31-24. It was one of the more entertaining games of the year and by far Hull’s most impressive performance.
2015 Outlook: Things are looking brighter for Penn State moving forward. With no sanctions hanging over the program’s head, Franklin and his staff can strictly focus on football and becoming a true contender moving forward.
The offensive line was one of the nation’s worst a season ago, but with more experience returning and junior college transfer Paris Palmer coming in to the program, Penn State’s offense should have a little more power. Christian Hackenberg is still one of the conference’s top returning quarterbacks with an unbelievable amount of talent. If he has time to find DaeSean Hamilton and other wide receivers in 2015, the offense could look much smoother.
Akeel Lynch, the team’s top running back who came on strong at the end of the season should be another great weapon for Franklin’s offense to keep defenses guessing.
Defensively, the Lions will miss their leader in Hull but will have pretty good talent in Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson on the defensive line. Penn State’s defense usually ranks as one of the top units in the country, and that should be no different next season.
With Ohio State in the same division, it’ll be a tough road for the Nittany Lions to get to the top of the conference next season. But, if the offense finds a groove we could see Penn State back in the national spotlight.