Five points to ponder during Penn State's bye week
Penn State crawled gratefully, if not happily, into its bye week, so close to bringing with it a shoplifted victory that nevertheless would have been sweet.
Rallying for a one-point win at Northwestern to close a 10-week stretch of games (including three of the last four on the road) would have underscored the resiliency about which coach James Franklin so often muses. Instead, they fell 23-21 to the Wildcats, falling short at several key moments over the last 3 minutes.
With that in mind, here are some points to ponder during the week off.
1. Why they're crawling: The Lions are just hobbled at this point by injuries, which was evident at several times Saturday. Penn State's defense played its final fourth-quarter series without end Carl Nassib and safety Jordan Lucas. Others, such a linebacker Brandon Bell, weren't playing at full strength.
Penn State was reasonably fortunate regarding injuries last season; not so this year. Twenty primary contributors have missed at least one game with injuries, the specifics of which Penn State doesn't disclose.
They include linemen, linebackers, tight ends and safeties, all positions where depth was a preseason concern. Ten weeks in, most everybody needs a rest, including the quarterback, who hobbles to the pocket or off the field at least once a game. Speaking of the quarterback
2. How to explain Christian Hackenberg?: A week after completing his first seven passes, Penn State's quarterback began the Northwestern game 1-for-10. His first pass hit the umpire. Two more were batted down.
Hackenberg's lack of early control contributed to the Lions' weak offensive start. The Lions had scored first in all three prior road games (though it lost two), so this was a relative anomaly for 2015.
Hackenberg's game proved frustrating because of the two that came before it. In addition to missing throws, he made some shaky split-second decisions. At one point, Hackenberg waved off a deep pass and checked to a throw to Saquon Barkley. He was covered by two Northwestern defenders.
Ultimately, Hackenberg's game distilled to two third-and-long plays on the same fourth-quarter drive. On the first, the quarterback checked out of third-and-14 pass play, instead calling a draw to Barkley, who ran for 24 yards and a first down. Fine call.
Seven plays later, Hackenberg threw an ill-advised, cross-field pass to Chris Godwin, that Northwestern's Nick VanHoose intercepted. It was Hackenberg's first interception in seven games.
The play was mystifying for its negligible risk/reward properties (Godwin ran a 5-yard route) and for what Hackenberg had seen earlier. The quarterback noted that VanHoose had been "sitting on that throw" all day.
Hackenberg was a leadership role model afterward, praising Northwestern and calling it "a great football game." Still, his personal play mattered. Scouts from seven NFL teams attended the game, among them Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace.
Hackenberg said he wasn't concerned with them. Not so, vice versa. As a former NFL scout observed for NFL.com, Hackenberg "looked like more of a project than a prospect."
3. How much more will Penn State ask of Saquon Barkley?: Since returning from his ankle injury, the freshman running back has averaged 22.8 carries per game. Against Northwestern, no other back touched the ball.
Penn State has expanded Barkley's role in the passing game (he had a career-high six catches Saturday), ran him exclusively in the Wildcat and has made the toss-sweep its primary rushing play.
Barkley was a fourth-quarter dynamo, gaining 80 yards on 10 carries. One more yard might have sealed the victory. Still, that's a lot to load on a freshman's shoulders.
4. The run defense conundrum: Penn State ranked third nationally in rushing defense last season, allowing just one 100-yard rusher (Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott) through the season's first 10 games. On Saturday, Northwestern's Justin Jackson became the fifth player to reach 100 against Penn State this season.
Jackson's 186-yard game was the best for an opposing player against a Bob Shoop defense at Penn State. It was more impressive because Jackson played primarily with backup quarterback Zack Oliver, who did not carry the running threat of injured starter Clayton Thorson.
Penn State has fallen to 50th nationally in run defense, allowing 152 yards per game. The Lions are 1-3 this season when allowing a 100-yard rusher, winning a 31-30 decision against Maryland and quarterback Perry Hills, who went for 124.
5. And yet : The final home game against Michigan still looms as the season's emotional high point for Penn State: Senior Day, Whiteout, the last home game for those who played for Joe Paterno, potentially the last home game for Hackenberg and Austin Johnson.
Not to mention Jim Harbaugh's first visit to Beaver Stadium. See you Nov. 21.