While it wasn’t the quick start they were looking for, the end result was plenty good enough for Penn State on Saturday.
After a lethargic first quarter, the Nittany Lions rallied to score 45 unanswered points the rest of the way in cruising to a 45-7 win over Eastern Michigan to move to 2-0 on the season.
A week after struggling to run the ball against Syracuse, the Penn State offensive line opened up holes for Nittany Lion backs all day.
Penn State churned up 251 yards on the ground, with both Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton rushing for 108 yards apiece in the blowout. Zach Zwinak added 43 yards of his own, including a pair of touchdowns.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s first home start started slowly, but ended strong as he finished the game 22 of 33 passing for 311 yards and a touchdown. Only 16 times has a Penn State quarterback thrown for more yards than the 311 Hackenberg was able to put up in his second start.
After two games it’s easy to see that Hackenberg has found a security blanket in All-Big Ten receiver Allen Robinson.After hooking up for a 51-yard touchdown last week against Syracuse, the duo found the end zone yet again on Saturday with a 45-yard score in the fourth quarter.
Robinson racked up 129 yards on seven catches, making it back-to-back 100-yard receiving games to start the season.
But the aerial display was overshadowed by the impressive rushing onslaught from Zach Zwinak, Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton. All three saw significant time in the backfield, and made the most of the opportunity against a suspect Eagles rush defense. Penn State backs averaged 6.4 yards per attempt on Saturday, almost four more yards per carry than last week against Syracuse.
While the bruising senior Zwinak got the bulk of the load against the Orange, coach O’Brien wanted to get the quickness of both Belton and Lynch more involved in the offense in week two. The two responded by showing the type of explosiveness that both fans and the coaching staff know they can bring to the table Belton broke off a 51-yard touchdown run while Lynch added an 18-yard score of his own.
A week after sealing the win against Syracuse, the Penn State defense was back at it against the Eagles. The Nittany Lion defense stuffed the Eastern Michigan running game to the tune of just 61 yards on 35 carries for a paltry 1.7-yard average.
Even the Eagles’ passing game couldn’t muster more than five yards per play as quarterback Tyler Benz’ 17 pass completions resulted in just 115 yards.
The seven points the Eagles put up on the scoreboard were courtesy of its defense, which recovered a Hackenberg fumble in the end zone for a touchdown to open the scoring at 7-0 at the 4:01 mark of the first quarter.
But the lead was short-lived, as Penn State responded with 1:41 left in the first with a Zach Zwinak two-yard touchdown. Bill Belton followed suit with a five-yard score in the second quarter and a Sam Ficken field goal put the Nittany Lions ahead 17-7 at halftime.
Ficken has made a Penn State record 14-straight field goals in a streak that dates back to last season.
After Zach Zwinak’s second touchdown of the game provided the only scoring of the third quarter, the offensive fireworks went off for the Penn State offense in the fourth quarter.
Hackenberg started the fourth quarter by hitting Robinson on the 45-yarder after he snuck behind the Eagles defense. The freshman quarterback showed great poise in stepping up in the pocket and hitting the junior wideout in stride with a beautiful touch pass that pushed the lead to 31-7.
Then it was time for the ground game to salt away the victory.
Belton broke off his long touchdown run at the 9:47 mark of the fourth to stretch the lead to 38-7 before Lynch capped the scoring with just over four minutes left in the game.
Despite the plethora of positives from yet another win, coach O’Brien won’t be happy with another paltry showing from his offense on third down. After converting just one of 16 third down conversions a week ago, the Nittany Lions again struggled in converting just one of 10 third downs on Saturday.
Even though third down is considered the “money” down in football, O’Brien’s team has at least converted all four of its attempts on fourth down to start the season. But even with success on fourth down to start the season, O’Brien knows his team must be better on third down in order to be successful against tougher competition.
But after starting the season just two for 26 on third down conversions, the Lions only have one direction to go in term of converting third downs: up.
Breaking the trend will start next week when the Nittany Lions host the UCF Knights at 6 pm inside Beaver Stadium.
RB Bill Belton
Belton has spent some time in O’Brien’s doghouse over the past two seasons, but has the talent and speed to be a difference-maker in the offense. He showed just a glimpse of what he can do on that electrifying touchdown.
Entire offensive line
A maligned group one week ago after a subpar performance from a veteran group, the entire unit stepped up and created gaping running lane all day in addition to protecting their young quarterback (for the most part).
WR Allen Robinson
Might just have to copy and paste this part of the section all season, as A-Rob will be making several appearances. What else can you say, the guy is one of the best in the country and is good for at least one big play per game.