Zach Zwinak

At 3-0, still room to improve for Penn State Gritty Lions

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Penn State pulled one out of a magic hat Saturday night. When you have a quarterback as talented and composed as Christian Hackenberg, good things and good plays eventually happen even on a night like Saturday night. Penn State’s offensive line was once again a near-complete wreck. The running game for the Nittany Lions was virtually non-existent. Hackenberg once again had too many moments when he had to force plays that just were not there. Rutgers was in Hackenberg’s face all night, knocking him off-balanced at times and forcing him to move. In the end though, Hackenberg showed great poise and leadership in leading Penn State to a late rally and victory.

Because the NCAA has lifted the remaining two seasons of a postseason ban on the football program, Penn State is now eligible to participate in the bowl season, the College Football Playoff and Big Ten Championship Game, as long as they qualify for any of those three. As a result of last night’s victory, Penn State is now out in front of the Big Ten championship race, sitting in first place with a 1-0 conference record before any other Big Ten teams (besides Rutgers) play a conference game. It is a good situation, and the schedule is as favorable as it can possibly be with a bye week before heading to Michigan, followed by a bye week before hosting Ohio State. Penn State also gets Michigan State at home in the final week of the regular season. While Saturday night’s come-from-behind thrill in New Jersey is plenty reason to celebrate, it is clear there is much that needs to improve in State College for Penn State to truly become a legitimate Big Ten contender.

It starts up front with the offensive line. Hackenberg needs protection and the running game cannot get going until the offensive line starts to improve. Depth on the line is a problem and a result of the sanctions the past couple of years, so just how much can improve between now and the next game or month may be limited. That does not mean Penn State and the coaching staff will not try. Perhaps what should be more of a breather next Saturday at home against UMass will be a good week to show some progress.

Once the offensive line does improve, the running game should follow. Mixing things up between Zach Zwinak for power running situations, spreading things out with Bill Belton and adding in Akeel Lynch to the mix still has potential for a good running game to help take some pressure off Hackenberg. Hackenberg has not had the cleanest first three games of the year despite some terrific passing numbers, and the thought he can actually get better is pretty remarkable. Receivers holding on to more passes would help as well. Penn State has shown potential to have receivers ready to step up after Allen Robinson moved to the NFL, but there have been a number of dropped passes the first few weeks as well.

Can Penn State realistically contend for a Big Ten championship? Given the way the Big Ten has been playing thus far, sure, why not. But before Penn State fans start making plans for Indianapolis, there is still a long uphill battle for the Nittany Lions. But for right now, they are in control of the Big Ten East, and that should feel pretty good.

Halftime: Penn State QB is the difference in Croke Park Classic

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Quarterback play is what currently separates the Penn State Nittany Lions from the UCF Knights in the Croke Park Classic in Dublin, Ireland. The Nittany Lions lead the Knights 10-3 thanks to the play of sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Early in the contest, the Knights were winning at the line of scrimmage. The Nittany Lions running game was shut down, and Hackenberg was under duress when he dropped back to pass. The 11 yards on the ground Penn State did accumulate came courtesy of Hackenberg scrambling from the pocket.

Penn State adjusted by moving the pocket and allowed Hackenberg to take over in the passing game. The sophomore was able to complete multiple passes on third down to extend drives which eventually resulted in points. At the half, Hackenberg is 17-of-26 passing for 218 yards. Redshirt freshman wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton was the biggest beneficiary of Hackenberg’s play with 107 receiving yards through two quarters.

Hackenberg was allowed to get on track after a roughing the punter penalty granted the Nittany Lions a first down during their initial drive. Hackenberg connected with Hamilton for a 44-yard gain, which eventually resulted in a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Zach Zwinak. The score held up as the difference going into halftime.

Pete DiNovo, meanwhile, struggled during his first start as UCF’s quarterback. DiNovo was 3-of-7 passing for 18 yards. The quarterback’s inability to connect in the passing game allowed Penn State to load the box and shut down the Knights’ running game. The Knights only had 17 yards via the ground game.

Due to DiNovo’s ineffectiveness, UCF head coach George O’Leary replaced him just before halftime with sophomore Justin Holman, who served as Blake Bortles’ backup last season.

O’Leary now has a decision to make coming out of halftime. Will he allow Holman to continue at quarterback, or will the coach go back to DiNovo?

The answer will decide UCF’s fate during the second half of play.

Abdullah, Davis and Gordon headline Doak Walker Award watch list

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College football may be trending more to the passing game, but the Doak Walker Award reminds us all there are some top quality running backs playing key roles on their teams as well. This year’s Doak Walker Award watch list includes 53 of the nation’s top running backs. The list includes semifinalists from last year’s award, Mike Davis of South Carolina and Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin. Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, the nation’s leading returning rusher, is also considered a top candidate.

Boston College’s Andre Williams was the winner of the Doak Walker Award last season. The award has gone to a player from a power conference each year since 2002. BYU’s Luke Staley and Rice’s Trevor Cobb are the only players from non-power conferences to win the award (although Rice was a part of the old Southwest Conference at the time Cobb won the award). Texas leads the nation with three Doak Walker Award winners. Arkansas, Texas Tech and Wisconsin each have two.

This year’s semifinalists will be announced on November 18, and finalists will be announced on November 24. The Doak Walker Award will be presented on December 11 during the annual awards show on ESPN. The watch list will accept nominees until October, so more names could be added along the way. Here is the full watch list as it stands right now;

Ameer Abdullah (Sr.), Nebraska
Jay Ajayi (Jr.), Boise State
Javorius “Buck” Allen (Jr.), USC
Leon Allen (Jr.), Western Kentucky
Terry Baggett (Sr.), Army
Bill Belton (Sr.), Penn State
Malcolm Brown (Sr.), Texas
Tra Carson (Jr.), Texas A&M
B.J. Catalon (Jr.), TCU
David Cobb (Sr.), Minnesota
Tevin Coleman (Jr.), Indiana
Alex Collins (So.), Arkansas
James Conner (So.), Pittsburgh
Marcus Cox (So.), Appalachian State
Mike Davis (Jr.), South Carolina
Kenneth Dixon (Jr.), Louisiana Tech
Jahwan Edwards (Sr.), Ball State
Kenneth Farrow (Jr.), Houston
Josh Ferguson (Jr.), Illinois
D.J. Foster (Jr.), Arizona State
Melvin Gordon (Jr.), Wisconsin
Michael Gordon (Jr.), Arkansas State
Johnathan Gray (Jr.), Texas
Todd Gurley (Jr.), Georgia
Kenneth Harper (Sr.), Temple
Alonzo Harris (Sr.), Louisiana-Lafayette
Derrick Henry (So.), Alabama
Bronson Hill (Sr.), Eastern Michigan
Joe Hill (Sr.), Utah State
Duke Johnson (Jr.), Miami
Jeremy Langford (Sr.), Michigan State
Daniel Lasco (Jr.), California
Shock Linwood (So.), Baylor
Robert Lowe (Jr.), Texas State
Tre Madden (Jr.), USC
Terrence Magee (Sr.), LSU
Raymond Maples (Sr.), Army
Byron Marshall (Jr.), Oregon
Kevin Parks (Sr.), Virginia
Christian Powell (Jr.), Colorado
Donnel Pumphrey (So.), San Diego State
Josh Robinson (Jr.), Mississippi State
William Stanback (So.), UCF
Cameron Stingily (Sr.), Northern Illinois
Kelvin Taylor (So.), Florida
Thomas Tyner (So.), Oregon
Jamaal Williams (Jr.), BYU
Jonathan Williams (Jr.), Arkansas
Trey Williams (Jr.), Texas A&M
Aaron Wimberly (Sr.), Iowa State
T.J. Yeldon (Jr.), Alabama
Kelsey Young (Sr.), Stanford
Zach Zwinak (Sr.), Penn State


Catch up on your watch lists released so far:

Maxwell Award (best player)

Bednarik Award (best defensive player)

Hornung Award (most versatile player)

Davey O’Brien Award (best quarterback)

Biletnikoff Award (best receiver)

Mackey Award (best tight end)

Rimington Trophy (best center)

Outland Trophy (best interior lineman)

Lombardi Award (best down lineman)

Butkus Award (best linebacker)

Jim Thorpe Award (best defensive back)

Lou Groza Award (best kicker)

Ray Guy Award (best punter)

 

Hackenberg grows up in big way as Penn State tanks Wisconsin

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Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien is known for putting his quarterbacks to the test. This afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin freshman Christian Hackenberg aced his final exam for the season in a resounding way. Hackenberg passed for 339 yards and four touchdowns as Penn State (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) upset No. 15 Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) in a 31-24.

Penn State had to hang on to this one though, and they responded well. After seeing a 31-14 lead whittled away to a seven-point advantage late in the fourth quarter, Penn State was faced with a 3rd and 9 after the eighth false start penalty on the offensive line. Rather than try to pass, Penn State kept it on the ground with Wisconsin out of timeouts. A draw play to Zach Zwinak worked beautifully with a 61-yard run up the middle to keep the drive alive and to run some more clock off. Penn State managed to get the game clock down to 35 seconds before asking Sam Ficken to convert a 31-yard field goal, which he missed. That left Wisconsin with just 31 seconds to drive the length of the field. The defense held on with a late stand despite the Badgers moving down field quickly. Ryan Keiser picked off a deep pass to the end zone to clinch the victory.

Penn State’s Allen Robinson turned in another fine performance with 122 yards on nine receptions. Eugene Lewis scored two touchdowns and added 91 yards to compliment Robinson’s day. Wisconsin receiver Jared Abrbederis led the Badgers with 114 yards.

Penn State did a great job holding down Wisconsin’s running game. Melvin Gordon and James White were never able to bust any big runs against a Penn State defense that figured to be vulnerable against the run. Wisconsin tried to get Joel Stave to lead the charge in the passing game but that often backfired on the Badgers.

The loss for Wisconsin takes the Badgers out of the conversation for a BCS at-large invite. Much of the week had centered on a debate between Wisconsin and Michigan State as the potential second Big Ten team in the BCS, but that debate has been silenced. Wisconsin had played in three straight Rose Bowls and had a decent argument to be considered for an at-large bid this season if there was an opening. Wisconsin will still be playing in a January 1 bowl game in the Big Ten line-up and should be a tough opponent for whatever team they get paired up with.

Penn State’s season is over of course despite a second straight winning season under O’Brien. This marks the completion of the second of four seasons serving a postseason ban for the Nittany Lions. O’Brien is now 3-2 against top 25 teams in his short coaching career. Penn State had lost eight straight games against ranked opponents prior to the hiring of O’Brien.

Is Arizona State’s Grice college football’s top red zone running back?

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The sport of college has evolved to the point where offenses tend to favor the passing game more than the running game, but once a team penetrates the red zone there are some dependable options carrying the football. Perhaps none are better right now than Arizona State running back Marion Grice.

Arizona State has been inside the red zone 43 times this season. The Sun Devils still get pass-happy inside the 20-yard line but Grice has carried the football 31 times through seven games and has scored a touchdown a little more than a third of the time. That is a pretty good ratio, and among the best in the country.

Here is a list of the top ten running backs with red zone touchdowns, according to CFBStats.com (as of October 23, 2013). No running back in the country has more red zone touchdowns than Grice, but Boise State’s Jay Ajayi is right in the conversation.

Red Zone Rushing Touchdowns

  1. Marion Grice (Arizona State) – 11
  2. Jay Ajayi (Boise State) – 10
    Keenan Reynolds (Navy) – 10
  3. Antonio Andrews (Western Kentucky) – 9
    Tyler Gaffney (Stanford) – 9
    Dallas Crawford (Miami) – 9
    Fitzgerald Toussaint (Michigan) – 9
  4. Jahwan Edwards (Ball State) – 8
    Ben Malena (Texas A&M) – 8
    Zach Zwinak (Penn State) – 8

Ajayi and Western Kentucky’s Antonio Andrews have really been carrying the load for their teams inside the red zone. Of the players listed above, only Ajayi, Andrews and Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds have carried the football more than 31 times inside the red zone.