NCF Nation: Trevor Williams

PSU defense disappoints in loss to UCF

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
11:15
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Deion Barnes stared blankly ahead once the coaches shook hands near midfield. There was no changing the blinking lights on the scoreboard. Barnes hurriedly unbuckled his chin strap and headed to the tunnel.

The defensive end's stare told the story of the Nittany Lions' day. Barnes seemed angry, frustrated and in disbelief. Most of the fans were, too.

The Nittany Lions' defense was supposed to be the strong point of this team. The rush defense was supposed to be nearly impenetrable. (It had allowed just 1.8 yards a carry.) The secondary was supposed to be much improved. But against George O'Leary's Knights, these Nittany Lions allowed 507 yards -- including nearly 6 yards a carry.

Bill O'Brien called it a team loss, but it was clear it was the defense that disappointed.

"We knew what we had to do to stop them," defensive coordinator John Butler said between swigs of orange sports drink. "And, to be honest with you, we couldn't stop what we needed to stop."

Safety Adrian Amos didn't remove his helmet while fans swayed to the alma mater. He wasn't the only one. Neither Amos nor Barnes, staples of the interview room, stopped to chat with reporters after their first loss of the season.

Instead, Butler took center stage and tried his best to answer questions -- minutes after O'Brien tried to deflect most by reiterating that he'll watch the tape. Butler did, too, but he tried his best to explain just how PSU managed to allow 15 plays that went for 10 yards or more.

The defensive coordinator knew people would blame PSU's thud practices, in which no one is tackled to the ground, for the missed tackles. And he didn't try to dismiss that explanation, either.

"I think it's fair," Butler said. "But that's just a decision we have to make because when you only have 62 scholarship players, you've got to do your best to get what you have to the field. You don't want to take it to 57 because you're tackling in practice, and maybe two of those five players you lose are your best players.

"So I think we drill it, and I think we have to keep drilling it. And part of it's leverage and their athletes."

The defense had its chances to stop UCF and give the offense a chance at the comeback. In the final quarter, with PSU trailing by just a touchdown and with the students' deafening chants, Jordan Lucas was flagged for a pass-interference penalty on third-and-9. ("Shoot, I thought we had a stop," Lucas said.) Later on that same drive, on third-and-2, William Stanback rumbled ahead for the first down.

And then, on UCF's final drive, PSU allowed a 13-yard pass on second-and-9 to seal the game.

"Yeah, I feel like we should've won this game," defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. "But, at the same time, we didn't. They were the better team today."

DE C.J. Olaniyan missed a critical stop in the backfield. CBs Trevor Williams and Lucas led the team with six tackles apiece. And PSU came up with no sacks and no quarterback hurries.

The problem with the defense was that there was more than just one problem. At one point, wideout-turned-cornerback Williams took the bench while safety Amos moved back to cornerback.

Blake Bortles completed nearly 75 percent of his passes, so PSU needed to do something. Still, it didn't work. Butler moved around personnel, tried different game plans, but nothing seemed to slow down UCF.

"We tried everything. That's the one thing I know I can say," Butler said. "We emptied the game plan. We tried to play man, we tried to play zone, we tried to play half-man, half-zone. They did a good job."

Christian Hackenberg and Allen Robinson showed they can hang tough in a shootout. The unit with the most question marks -- PSU's passing game -- played well.

O'Brien said he'll have more answers by Tuesday. So hopefully, for the Nittany Lions, they'll find some answers for their defense in time for the Big Ten season.


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Before making his college football debut, Penn State true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg made a request for teammate Garry Gilliam.

"If I get spaced out or anything, give me a smack," Hackenberg told his right tackle.

Gilliam noted that Hackenberg was grinning when he made the request, so he knew the kid was going to be OK. All things considered, he was a lot better than that.

Freshman Christian Hackenberg had some big mistakes but showed poise in Penn State's win.
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman Christian Hackenberg had some big mistakes but showed poise in Penn State's win.
Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Nittany Lions to a 23-17 win over Syracuse at MetLife Stadium. He made some crucial mistakes, including a pair of interceptions. But the guy who finished his high school baseball season earlier this summer faced down an ACC defense on an NFL field. He also played the entire first half without Penn State's top receiver, Allen Robinson, who was serving a suspension for undisclosed reasons, and much of the game without injured star tight end Kyle Carter.

That's a lot to ask of any first-time starting quarterback, much less an 18-year old. But Bill O'Brien is all in this season with Hackenberg, handing the keys to the Nittany Lions' season over to the talented rookie.

"We’re Penn State," O'Brien said. "We can’t dip our toe into the water. We’ve got to come out ready to go. We've got to take our shots."

So O'Brien didn't hold back when Penn State stared at third-and-11 on its own 30, nursing a 23-10 lead with under eight minutes to go. Rather than run, punt and turn it over to a defense that smothered Syracuse all day, O'Brien called for Hackenberg to throw the ball. Defensive end Robert Welsh slipped underneath the route and picked off the pass, returning it to the 1-yard line to set up a touchdown and put the Orange right back into the game.

O'Brien blamed himself for the call, but youth also played a part. O'Brien said he doubted that Hackenberg had ever seen that type of coverage from a defensive lineman in high school.

"They threw a lot of blitzes at us today, and I had a little bit of a tough time finding a couple of them and recognizing them," Hackenberg told ESPN.com after the game. "That will definitely be a big emphasis for me this week."

The encouraging part was that Hackenberg kept his cool despite his mistakes, which also included a first-half interception and a near pick-six later in the game. Teammates said they saw no difference in his demeanor throughout the game.

"He's just a confident kid," tight end Jesse James said. "He knows what he’s doing. He's always been the same [in the huddle]."

Hackenberg's father, Erick, who attended the game and talked to his son before kickoff said his son showed the same calm attitude he usually displays.

"It's something I've had to get used to over the years," Erick Hackenberg said. "My emotions change, but he's always so focused."

Hackenberg also showed at times why he was the No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit in last year's class, especially on his 54-yard touchdown pass to Eugene Lewis in the fourth quarter. O'Brien wanted only to talk about the job Lewis did on his route and how Zach Zwinak picked up the blitz on that play, saying Hackenberg had the easiest job of anyone. But Hackenberg also fired a laser downfield that his predecessor, Matt McGloin, might not have been able to match.

O'Brien walked a fine line in his postgame news conference, predictably dominated by Hackenberg questions. He loves the freshman's potential but doesn't want to heap too much praise on someone with still so much to learn.

"He's a young guy who's got a tremendous future," O'Brien said. "But we're not ready to waltz him into the College Football Hall of Fame."

O'Brien and the Nittany Lions will have to live with some freshman mistakes along with the natural playmaking ability of their quarterback. And as Saturday's game indicated, the team might be in for a bumpy ride all season.

Hardly anyone would call last year a smooth one for Penn State, but at least the program benefited from relative health. The Lions went into the opener with only about 65 scholarship players, and 16 true freshman, including walk-ons, made the trip. Before it was over, starting linebacker Mike Hull and tight ends Carter and Matt Lehman had to leave the game with injuries. That put even more pressure on the team's depth and ability to adapt, the latter of which it handled beautifully.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who started the game at safety, played linebacker for long stretches and came up with an interception and a forced fumble. Cornerback Trevor Williams, who switched from receiver in the middle of spring practice, secured the clinching interception. The 300-pound Gilliam, a converted tight end playing tackle, made a touchdown-saving tackle when he ran down Syracuse cornerback Brandon Reddish following a Robinson fumble.

"It's next guy up," defensive end Deion Barnes said. "We're all willing to do whatever it takes to win."

O'Brien downplayed the depth issues, but it clearly will remain a concern all season long. As will the youth under center. Counting Tyler Ferguson, who played one series, Penn State's quarterbacks committed three turnovers Saturday. Last year's starter, McGloin, had five interceptions all year long.

Expect some dizzying highs and some head-smacking lows with Hackenberg.

"It depends on how he handles it," Gilliam said. "But he's very mature, very poised."

By the looks of things, the kid is going to be OK.


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A pair of new starting quarterbacks in an opening game led to a predictably choppy afternoon at MetLife Stadium on Saturday. It was only a 6-3 game at halftime, but both teams made some big plays in the second half and created some fourth quarter excitement.

In the end, Penn State's defense was a little too good, and the Nittany Lions held on in the final minutes for a 23-17 win.

Here's a brief recap:

It was over when: Penn State's Trevor Williams intercepted Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen at his own 28 with 1:53 left. Syracuse had cut the lead to 23-17 with just under seven minutes remaining but couldn't manage any points on its final two possessions as the Nittany Lions defense held.

Game ball goes to: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. He wasn't perfect, but as an 18-year-old playing in an NFL stadium in his first game out of high school, he was pretty darn impressive. Hackenberg finished 22-of-31 for 273 yards and two touchdowns, though he also threw two interceptions and barely avoided another that could have been returned for a score. He also didn't have his best weapon for the first half, as star receiver Allen Robinson served a two-quarter suspension for undisclosed reasons. His perfect 54-yard strike to Eugene Lewis for a touchdown with 11:39 left gave Penn State a 23-10 lead and showed why he was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country a year ago. He fared better than new Syracuse starter and former Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen, who started off strong but completed just 17-of-38 passes for 193 yards and two picks of his own.

Stat of the game: Penn State was just 1-of-16 on third downs and had only 57 rushing yards on 38 attempts. Those aren't normally winning numbers. But the Nittany Lions' defense held Syracuse to just 259 total yards.

Unsung hero of the game: Garry Gilliam. Moved from tight end to offensive line this preseason, Gilliam came up with a massive play from a defensive standpoint. Syracuse's Brandon Reddish had stripped the ball from Penn State receiver Allen Robinson, scooped it up and ran the other way. Gilliam was all that stood between Reddish and a go-ahead touchdown, but Gilliam made the tackle at the Penn State 27. The Orange would go on to miss a field goal.

Best call: In the first half, Penn State was lined up for a 47-yard field goal on fourth-and-two. Though Syracuse probably should have been ready for some trickery, Bill O'Brien pulled it off anyway by calling for holder Ryan Keiser to run the ball. Keiser barreled up the right side for five yards. That eventually resulted in a much more manageable 36-yarder for Sam Ficken, who drilled it. Ficken later made a career-long 46-yarder as one of his three made field goals, so maybe the fake wasn't even necessary. Ficken's improvement is a huge difference for this team over this time a year ago.

What Penn State learned: It has a future star in Hackenberg, but the ride isn't always going to be a smooth one as he will be prone to freshman mistakes. His interception late in the fourth quarter allowed Syracuse to get back into the game. The running game must improve so as not to put too much pressure on the youngster. Having Allen Robinson around for a whole game should help, too.

What Syracuse learned: The Orange miss Ryan Nassib and Doug Marrone as much as feared. While Allen had some moments and showed off a nice arm, the offense as a whole lacked much punch or creativity. They'll likely need some of that next week against Northwestern.
Bill O'BrienRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIBill O'Brien is excited about his team as he heads into his second season at Penn State.
The last time we saw Penn State, the Lions were celebrating a surprisingly strong finish to the 2012 season and saying farewell to a special senior class. Penn State since has turned the page and will begin spring practice Monday with a mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Bill O'Brien is not the "new coach" in Happy Valley anymore, and players have acclimated to O'Brien and his staff. But the Lions are looking for a starting quarterback for the second consecutive spring. They also must replace several outstanding defenders and fill holes on both lines. But the depth crisis many of us envisioned for the Lions when the NCAA sanctions came down last summer simply isn't there in State College.

ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien late last week to discuss spring ball.

What are some of the main objectives you're looking for when you get on the field again?

Bill O'Brien: The No. 1 objective offensively is to make sure we come out of this spring practice with improvement from the quarterback position. We won't name a starter coming out of the spring, but at least at the end of 15 practices we'll have a good idea of how well these guys are grasping the system, Tyler Ferguson and Steven Bench. So that's a big deal for us offensively.

And defensively, some new guys will be in there, and seeing how those guys do, whether it's Nyeem Wartman at linebacker or Jordan Lucas at corner or some other guys who are going to be playing a little bit more next year, how much they improve. And then we'll work our special teams every single day, so hopefully we'll find some core special-teams players this spring.

What's your message to Steven and Tyler going into the spring? You're not naming the starter, but what do you want to see out of them?

BO'B: [Thursday] I was talking to them, and I said, 'Look, I just want you guys to put your head down and go to work. Don't worry about what everybody else on the outside of the program thinks about your performance, whether it's in scrimmages or the Blue-White Game or whatever it is. Just try to get better every single day.' These are two really, really good kids. They're smart, they work hard at it, they're grasping it pretty well to this point. We're pretty excited about getting started with them. I don't want them to think about anything other than trying to improve and be as good a leader as they can be.

Will you have to change the offense for one or the other? Do they fit in with what you did last year?

BO'B: We'll definitely be different. We'll be different in many ways. Matt [McGloin] had certain strengths we tried to play to, no question about it. Our system is expansive enough that you can have different parts in there to take advantage of the talents of the quarterbacks who are playing. So we'll be a different offense than we were last year.

Anything specific on what might change with these two quarterbacks or areas you can draw out more?

BO'B: I'd rather not get into all of that, but I can tell you these are two guys who are big, they're strong, they're fast, they look to be accurate passers. We're just looking forward to working with them.

(Read full post)

Larry Johnson has been Penn State's lead recruiter for years, helping the Nittany Lions reel in several blue-chippers, particularly from the Washington D.C./Maryland area. But Johnson's recruiting responsibilities increased this year as Penn State scrambled to hold onto its class. New head coach Bill O'Brien, named to his post Jan. 6, is still juggling two jobs and turned over the recruiting reins to Johnson. Penn State lost several of its top verbal commits to other schools, but held things together enough to sign a class of 19 on Wednesday.

Johnson, the team's defensive line coach and one of two assistants retained from the previous staff, discussed the recruiting process with ESPN.com on Thursday.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
Rob Christy/US PresswireAssistant Larry Johnson helped manage Penn State's recruiting during its coaching transition.
Here are his thoughts:

How was this recruiting cycle different from what you've been used to at Penn State?

Larry Johnson: I don't think it was a different cycle, but just the transition from the old staff to the new staff. The only thing different was Coach O'Brien made a decision on every new guy we wanted to offer, just to make sure it was the kind of player he wanted in his system offensively or what we thought defensively. He gave us some parameters and things he was looking for with specific positions. So we had to take those parameters and select players who we wanted to add to the class as we move forward. But the biggest transition was just getting the new staff on board, getting the new staff ready to move forward and really continuing what the old staff had done to that point, moving forward with recruits that we had created relationships with.

When Coach O'Brien came on board, how much of the process was offering new players and how much was trying to keep the committed recruits on board?

LJ: Really, the biggest thing he wanted to do was try to keep the guys who were committed. That was the most important thing, so we had every coach out to see every single recruit who was committed to us. And it was whatever it took, two coaches, three coaches, we did it, and did it by position and did it by areas just to get everybody involved. And then the second weekend in January, it was our biggest recruiting weekend. We had pretty much all those guys on campus, and then Coach O'Brien had a chance to be here and really sat down with each family, each kid for 45 [minutes] to an hour before he left, just to reassure them his commitment to Penn State University and answer questions. That was huge, in the sense of starting out. He was committed to doing it and it worked out well. That was our first priority, hold onto the 14, 15 guys we had and go after more and let them know we're committed. And as we moved along, there were some needs we still had, and we targeted a few kids we could go after and offer and move from there.

Do you think if Coach O'Brien was in place earlier, it would have prevented some recruits from looking elsewhere?

LJ: It's hard to tell. It's hard to really tell if that would have been the factor. The issue is what it was, and parents have a right to make those decisions and what's best for them. Their decision would have been made whether the coach was in place or not in place. The neat thing about it was the guys that stayed with us stayed with us through the whole process. Some kids didn't waver. The focus should really go back to the families and the kids that decided to wait and then stay and then come. It speaks volumes about those people. Some kids say, 'OK, coach, we'll see.' They listened and waited it out and waited for the new coach to be in place. Even though guys took [recruiting] trips during that process, they still came back to one thing. The families realized Penn State is Penn State. You get a great education, and it's a great place to be. Those are the families, and the people we got are very excited about it. Everybody has a choice, and we're just thrilled to death that these guys decided and the families decided to stay with us.

The guys who stayed, did any of that surprise you? Could it have been worse with guys leaving for other programs?

LJ: You never know what's going to happen once the fire starts rolling, one guy changes his mind. Each one of those kids got pressure from the media or their neighbors, 'Why are you still going to Penn State?' We all endured it. It could have been worse, but it wasn't, and I think the biggest key was when Coach O'Brien got named head coach, the first thing he did was call the players, call the parents, talk to them on the phone, and then he was here that first weekend that we had a big official visit. That was huge. They needed to see him, they needed to see his face and they needed to hear his vision of where this program is going. That was a big selling piece. And having all the coaches in place as fast as he did. Normally, it takes a long time to do that, but he had a vision in mind with the staff, and that was in place pretty fast also.

What were your top needs in this class, and how did you do in addressing them?

LJ: We got some really great wideouts. The wideout need we met very well. We needed a running back, and we thought we got a great one in Akeel Lynch. We got some secondary players we wanted, more guys, and we got a couple corners there. We would like to have gotten another corner, but we didn't. Defensive line, I thought we met our needs there. Offensive line is probably one of the only places we came up short in getting the numbers we need to have, but you don't want to take a guy late. You might want to roll it over into next year, and that was our mind-set. When we didn't get the few guys we really wanted to get, we didn't want to move anywhere else. We said, 'Let's wait and see next year, we'll get a couple great guys.' We wanted to get four [offensive linemen] and we got two.

What stands out to you about the wide receivers, guys like Eugene Lewis?

LJ: Coach [Stan] Hixon saw them on videotape and it doesn't take much to figure out what kind of kid [Lewis] is. He's great with the ball in his hands, great, athletic kid, great basketball player, great hands, great competitor. All the things you want in a big wideout, he has. So I think he's a great player. Then you have Trevor Williams, another guy who caught 99 balls last year. Jonathan Warner, he's got great hands, Malik Golden, another very athletic guy also. So I think it's a really outstanding class of wide receivers.

And the defensive linemen, what stands out about them? You'll obviously be working closely with those guys.

LJ: All four of those guys are very athletic, can do a multitude of things. Three of them played basketball, one wrestled, so they're multi-sport guys, great competitors, and they're big and can run. And they're great kids, great students, high-character families. So we're very fortunate to hold onto all those guys. And then we got Evan Schwan, the young D-end, we got him late but he was in our camp for two years, so we knew a little bit about him, but we weren't really sure we were going to take another defensive end. We just felt he was too good of a guy. To not play his junior year and have a great senior year, he's 6-6, you just can't pass up his athletic skills. We were very fortunate to get him late in the process.

How much have you talked the next class and your philosophy going forward with recruiting under Coach O'Brien?

LJ: I think the groundwork has already been laid. He gave us some parameters moving forward with the 2013 class and what we're looking for. That won't take place totally until he gets here next Tuesday, and then we'll really put the groundwork. But he did give us some parameters of where he wanted to go in the next class and the numbers we're looking at. There's some areas we're going to really hone in on. I know one thing is he wants to control the state of Pennsylvania, so we're going to make a lot of effort in-state to really hold these kids in it. And then we're going to attack the surrounding areas as hard as we can on the East Coast and in through Ohio. And then we may jump and recruit some areas we haven't been before, only because it ties to the coaching staff, Georgia, Alabama, Florida a little bit. But our base is going to be Pennsylvania, the D.C. area, the Maryland area, Western Pennsylvania, all the places that we've got a chance to really get some great players from.

So a little more Southeast focused with this staff?

LJ: I think so. We're going to dip down in there. You get one or two guys. The key there is travel, getting here. But we've got some guys on this staff, Coach [Ted] Roof and Coach Mac [McWhorter] have got some expertise in that area, some friendships down in the Alabama, Georgia area. So it makes sense to use their connections and try to get some kids out of there.

How much of your job has been reassuring recruits and their parents about the situation at Penn State and that the program is moving forward?

LJ: Signing this class now, I think we can all move forward. That starts the moving forward for Penn State football, having Coach O'Brien and his staff here, that's been a great starting point. I think now we can really move forward, we really can, and focus on putting together a great class, our kind of people, and ones who want to come to Penn State for all the right things and play at a high level. That's what we're selling right now. And I'd be remiss if I didn't say this: the previous staff, two months prior to this all happening, that's all we sold, Penn State. That's a compliment to those guys. Knowing the situation we were in as coaches, we never stopped selling Penn State. I really think that's why we're here today, because we didn't waver from that and really believe in the system here at Penn State. Now moving forward with this class, people are going to see a difference in what we'll do and how we approach this as we move forward. There are exciting times ahead, I really believe that.

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