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Penn State Reaches its Ceiling Behind Troubled Offensive Line

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After a month of the season and a few close calls, Penn State learned a little bit about its ceiling.

The Nittany Lions can’t survive an off game by quarterback Christian Hackenberg, and the offensive line continues to be the team’s Achilles' heel.

Starting with a disastrous first quarter, Penn State lost 29-6 at home to Northwestern. On paper, this may be a shocking result with one of the Big Ten’s two undefeated teams losing in a rout to a team that entered the game on a 2-9 skid.

In reality, though, this moment was coming. Penn State had been playing with fire all season, and the flaws brought about in part by injuries and scholarship limitations are finally starting to impact the record. 

Maybe this was a market correction.

Penn State lucked out in the opener when UCF didn’t start the better of its two quarterbacks that day as a field goal from Sam Ficken helped Penn State win 26-24 in Dublin. The Nittany Lions started slow against Akron but won convincingly by a 21-3 margin. And two weeks ago, Penn State got help from five Rutgers interceptions to score 13 unanswered points in the second half of a 13-10 win.

All the while, Penn State’s offensive line couldn’t open holes for the running backs, and Hackenberg was forced into mistakes.

Northwestern was the first team to take advantage when the floodgates opened.

“I actually think you look how we've played all year long and we've started some games slow and we've been able to come back and rally late in games,” Penn State coach James Franklin told the media. “You can only do that so many times. You can only do that so many times before it comes back to haunt you.”

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That moment happened Saturday.

Penn State punted on its first five possessions, four of which ending without a first down. That was better than the alternative, which included a blocked field goal, a Hackenberg fumble and the first pick six of Hackenberg’s career.

By the end of the second quarter, Penn State abandoned the run altogether. Hackenberg finished with 45 pass attempts. Tailbacks Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak carried 12 times.

The frustration was palpable.

Hackenberg and Belton put the moment behind them in the postgame interviews and on Twitter, but but the struggles of the offense won’t solve themselves as easily.

Penn State is averaging 3.1 yards per carry this season. Throw out a 226-yard outburst against UMass, and the Nittany Lions are averaging 2.1 yards per rush.

There are no easy solutions here. Penn State entered the season with a top-flight quarterback and established that its defensive front seven will be among the best in the country.

The offensive line, though, returned only one starter. The unit, especially after the spring injury to Miles Dieffenbach, was panned during the preseason.

That Penn State made it to Week 5 without a loss is probably something of a miracle and a sign the Nittany Lions are getting the most they possibly can out of a shorthanded group.

Saturday, though, showed how far resilience alone can go.