Lynch can do plenty to alleviate pressure on Hackenberg, PSU offense
Go back and watch Peyton Manning in his Indianapolis Colts days. You can’t help but notice a trend with the way they started a series. With everybody expecting a pass to Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne, Manning often did the exact opposite on first down. He’d hand it off to Edgerrin James or Joseph Addai and watch them rip off six or seven yards to set up second and three.
The playbook opened up for Manning to take shots downfield or dink and dime his way to six. Defenses were off-balanced and as a result, nobody teed off on the hall of fame quarterback.
This is the model the Penn State offense needs to follow in 2015. For all the talk surrounding the improved pass protection, the Lions could take a whole lot of pressure off Christian Hackenberg with some early success on the ground. That job will belong to Akeel Lynch.
He’ll be the bellcow for a group that struggled to stay healthy last year. Bill Belton and Zack Zwinak were both hobbled throughout 2014, though Lynch started in just two games as a sophomore. This year, he is the experience. Three redshirt freshmen and true freshman Saquon Barkley don’t have a career carry among them. Franklin wants and needs Lynch to be the guy.
In order for the Lions to turn around a 2-6 conference tally, it cannot afford to be one dimensional. Nobody in the Big Ten averaged fewer rush yards per game than Penn State. As a result, nobody in the Big Ten averaged fewer yards of total offense per game than Penn State.
That wasn’t the fault of Lynch, who ripped off just under five yards a carry and emerged down the stretch as the feature back. But those yards aren’t as effective in second or third-and-long situations. The 3.38 sacks per game allowed on Hackenberg were the seventh most in the country. The Lions dug themselves a whole early in the series and wound up in too many pass-only situations.
There were times when the line wasn’t giving space for the pass or the run. But consider this comparison:
-4.8 yards per carry
-4.4 yards per carry
Player A is Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, who racked up more yards than any returning back not named Ezekiel Elliott. Player B is the combined output of Belton and Lynch. Why bring up those stats? Because while it seemed like the Penn State line couldn’t block much of anything last year, it did much better on the run than it did in pass protection.
That isn’t to say Franklin’s team is going to turn into a run-heavy team. As long as the Lions have a connection like Hackenberg and DaeSean Hamilton, that likely won’t change anytime soon.
Too often times, however, quarterbacks are put in situations to be heroes. I’m not saying that Franklin did that with Hackenberg, but with the inexperience up front last year, that’s what it turned into. Nobody — not even Manning himself — can be at his best while running for his life.
There’s no guarantee that the line, which returns four starters and adds highly sought-after juco recruit Paris Palmer, will turn into Michigan State overnight. It doesn’t have to.
There’s no guarantee that Lynch turns into Elliott overnight. He doesn’t have to.
But both have to take important steps for the Lions to get back to Big Ten relevance. Their effectiveness could be the only thing separating the Lions from the upper echelon of not only the conference, but the country.
The No. 2 defense in college football returns seven starters. The quarterback might be the best pro-style prospect in America. The No. 1 wideout could end up leading the Big Ten in receiving yards. The coach has already turned a perennial cellar dweller into a respectable SEC foe.
The pieces are in place in State College. They just have to find an effective way to use them.