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HEISER: Paterno's words may give some solace to PSU coaches, players, fans

STEVE HEISER
YorkDispatch

Joe Paterno had a treasure chest full of football cliches he enjoyed pulling out when needed.

He had two, in particular, that he employed nearly every season.

The first maxim was: "A team is never as good as it looks when it wins and never as bad as it looks when it loses."

The second saying was: "A team should make its biggest improvement from the first game to the second game."

For James Franklin's sake, JoePa's words had better ring true.

Franklin can only pray that the Nittany Lions aren't as bad as they looked during Saturday's season-opening 27-10 beatdown against Temple, and he better hope that they'll show drastic improvement for the team's second game this weekend against Buffalo.

To be honest, the Lions have to improve. It would be almost impossible to get worse, especially on the offensive end, and everyone associated with that unit must share some of the guilt.

The PSU offensive line offered only token resistance against the Owls' defenders, who racked up 10 sacks. Temple unleashed one jailbreak rush after another en route to pummeling quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The offensive line might be more experienced than last year's substandard contingent, but it showed no signs of being any better.

Hackenberg, however, was far from blameless. His pocket presence was meager at best. In the second half especially, he'd look to his primary target, and if that receiver was covered, which was normally the case, he simply ducked his head and waited for the inevitable sack. He showed zero mobility and no awareness of the rush. His accuracy, which was a major problem a season ago, still appears to be a significant issue. The draft experts who have pegged Hackenberg as a potential No. 1 pick must be watching a different QB than the one who has played since the start of 2014 season.

Of course, it would have helped Hackenberg if his receivers had shown at least a little ability to gain some separation from the Owls' defensive backs. Far too often, however, there appeared to be no one open downfield.

Finally, Franklin, offensive coordinator John Donovan and offensive line coach Herb Hand have more than a little culpability. That group, since taking over last season, has yet to prove it knows how to handle a dropback QB such as Hackenberg, who thrived as a freshman in Bill O'Brien's pro-style offense but has seriously regressed since then. There's no doubt that Franklin and his offensive assistants can kick butt on the recruiting trail, but there's still grave doubts about their abilities when it comes to X's and O's.

Of course, maybe this is all an over reaction to one game. Maybe the Owls are a lot better than anyone thought.

The Lions also have recovered from other ugly openers to enjoy successful seasons. In O'Brien's first year in 2012, for example, Penn State lost a stunner to a Mid-American Conference foe (Ohio) in the opener at Beaver Stadium, 24-14, and followed that with a heartbreaking 17-16 road loss to a Virginia team that would finish 4-8. That PSU team rebounded to finish 8-4.

So it's still possible for PSU to have a solid season and go to a bowl game. The next five games are all at home, and are all very winnable contests. The chance for a 5-1 start remains, before the schedule turns much tougher.

The Lions must take that first step this Saturday in a game they are favored to win by more than 20 points.

Penn State's offense desperately needs to assert itself against a supposedly inferior opponent and gain some much-needed confidence.

In the process, Franklin, Hackenberg and Co. can prove that two of JoePa's favorite cliches had more than a little validity.

— Steve Heiser is sports editor for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.