STATE COLLEGE - What a difference 60 minutes can make.
Instead of Penn State having its first non-winning season since 2004 (not factoring wins vacated by the NCAA), the Nittany Lions ended 7-5 and stunned the Big Ten with a 31-24 win against No. 21 Wisconsin on Saturday. It sent the Nittany Lions - who are in the second season of a current 4-year postseason ban - into the offseason as winners, and Saturday's victory transformed the entire outlook of Bill O'Brien's second season as the head coach.
"Where we are now, basically 2 years into a new program, and I mean that saying on, things changed because of what happened with the sanctions," O'Brien told the media after beating the Badgers. "To be where we are right now, could we be better? Certainly, we could have been better. We could have coached better, we could have played better, but I think the program is in pretty good shape right now."
It was a season of peaks and valleys for the Lions, as they strung together consecutive wins only in the first two games of the season, but did not lose twice in a row all year. The season had its highs (beating Wisconsin on the road, a quadruple-overtime victory against Michigan, and the development of true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg) and its lows (getting blown out, 63-14, to Ohio State and losing by 20 points to an Indiana team that finished 5-7).
But given the circumstances with a roster that didn't quite compare to others' because of scholarship reductions, O'Brien seemed pleased with the way his squad competed.
"I think that in this program, this year, we had a small margin of error. And more times than not, we beat that margin of error," he said. "We made less errors, and we won seven games, lost five. When we made too many mistakes, we lost a lot of close games, got blown out once."
Here are position-by-position summaries of Penn State's season:
This season: Hackenberg, who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year on Tuesday, had tons of hype leading up to the season, as the five-star recruit who still came to Penn State despite the sanctions. And once he stepped on the field, he lived up to it.
The 18-year-old threw for 2,955 yards, good for third in the Big Ten, he also had a 58.9 completion percentage, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The five-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week led his most memorable drive when he had three completions and snuck in a 1-yard score in a 23-second drive to tie Michigan in the final minute of regulation on Oct. 12.
Next season: Quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher left the program earlier in the week and backup Tyler Ferguson has decided to transfer, Hackenberg will be back, and the expectations will be greater. If his 339-yard, four-touchdown performance in the Lions' win against Wisconsin last weekend is any indication, the budding star will rise to the occasion.
Season grade: A-
This season: Regardless of who started, Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak both got their chances in 2013. Zwinak was the starter at the beginning and end of the campaign and led the team with 989 yards, while Belton totaled 803 yards in 11 games (four starts). Both players had fumble issues, much to O'Brien's chagrin, but the duo managed 17 touchdowns - 12 by Zwinak. Freshman Akeel Lynch also got 60 carries and ran for 358 yards.
Next season: All three tailbacks will return next season. Expect them to be practicing holding on to the ball in the offseason.
Season grade: B
This season: There was Allen Robinson, and a lot of him. The 6-3 Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year finished with a conference-best 1,432 yards and 97 yards. However, no other Penn State wide receiver caught more than 30 passes. Brandon Felder had 28 grabs for 312 yards, but hauled in only two passes in the final five contests. Redshirt freshman Geno Lewis had a touchdown in the season's first game and two in the last, but was not a consistent threat.
Next season: Robinson has the option to leave for the NFL, and a lot about Penn State's offense hinges on his decision. Felder, a senior, also will be gone, so if Robinson does declare for the draft, Lewis will be Hackenberg's No. 1 target at wideout in 2014.
Season grade: B
This season: O'Brien revolutionized the way Penn State used tight ends in 2012, but they did not match the performance in 2013. Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman combined for seven touchdowns; however, none of them caught more than 25 passes. Carter dealt with some injury issues, and was unable to be much of a factor in the offense, while James and Breneman saw most of their production come in the second half of the season. The group was also dealt a blow when Matt Lehman suffered a season-ending injury to his left knee in the first game of the season.
Next season: James, Carter and Breneman will be back in 2014 and will be more comfortable with Hackenberg. Lehman is still awaiting word on a potential medical redshirt, which would grant him another season of eligibility.
Season grade: C+
This season: The line seemed to get better as the season progressed. The unit surrendered 18 sacks in the first seven games, but Hackenberg was brought down only three times in the final five contests. The line also blocked for a rushing attack that averaged 174 yards per game. Guard John Urschel is an all-Big Ten first-team selection for his work in the trenches, and also was named an Academic All-American for the second time yesterday.
Next season: Urschel, along with fellow starters center Ty Howle, and tackle Adam Gress will all be gone, while tackle Garry Gilliam - who was granted a sixth collegiate season - is debating coming back. Tackle Donovan Smith and guard Miles Dieffenbach will return as starters and the unit will have a new player snapping the ball to Hackenberg.
Season grade: B
This season: Penn State's front four might not have got to the opposing quarterback as much as they would have liked, but the team still ranked fourth in the Big Ten with 28 sacks. Defensive end C.J. Olaniyan led the way with five, but the unit was anchored by DaQuan Jones. An all-Big Ten first-team selection by the coaches, Jones had a team-best 11.5 tackles for loss and helped the Lions hold opponents to 3.9 yards per rush. Northeast High product Deion Barnes failed to replicate his standout 2012 season and was limited to only one solo sack (two total) and four tackles for loss in 2013.
Next season: Jones is set to graduate, but the Lions will return Barnes, Olaniyan, defensive end Anthony
Zettel and tackle Austin Johnson to a unit that could be one of the defense's strengths.
Season grade: B-
This season: Linebacker was one position where Penn State had little depth, and it turned out to be the most injury-prone. Mike Hull, Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman all were dinged up for part of 2013. The Lions converted safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong to help at linebacker, and freshman Brandon Bell made an impact in the season's last two games. The unit battled through the ailments, with Glenn Carson leading the way in the middle with a team-high 90 tackles.
Next season: Carson, a 3-year starter, will be missed, and Obeng-Agyapong also will graduate. But Bell showed he can be an effective player, and Hull will have more on his plate next season.
Season grade: C+
This season: Penn State had some young defensive backs playing key downs this season, and it showed early in the season. Junior Adrian Amos was shifted from safety to cornerback to try to fix some of the problems later in the season, and it helped, but Penn State still allowed 237.3 passing yards per game, fifth worst in the Big Ten.
Next season: The Lions will return everyone to the secondary except safety Malcolm Willis. Cornerback Jordan Lucas had a breakout season in 2013, and will be in the conversation of the Big Ten's best defensive backs after the calendar flips to 2014.
Season grade: C
This season: Special teams were the
Lions Achilles' heel, as the team struggled with kickoff coverage, and specialists had their own problems, especially later in the season. Alex Butterworth
averaged 39.2 yards per punt, and the team was 10th in the conference in that category. Meanwhile, kicker Sam Ficken was 15-for-23 on the season, but missed three of his final four kicks.
Next season: Ficken will be back, and kickoff coverage will be one of the points O'Brien keys on in the offseason. Butterworth is a senior, and freshman Chris Gulla is the only other punter on the roster.
Season grade: D