Grading Penn State football in James Franklin's first season
The Nittany Lions' defense was stellar this season, but offense and special teams left a lot to be desired.
STATE COLLEGE - Penn State's regular season is over, and it was certainly something.
Encouraging to start and disappointing at the end, James Franklin's inaugural season at the helm of the Nittany Lions was filled with story lines.
Franklin's career with the Lions started as exciting as it could have, beating Central Florida on a last second, game-winning field goal in Ireland. That game provided some momentum and, boosted by the NCAA lifting Penn State's bowl ban, the team was riding high with a 4-0 record.
But that undefeated record masked a lot of issues, which eventually came out to spoil the lofty hopes of the Penn State faithful.
A four-game losing streak, highlighted by poor displays against Michigan and Maryland, put a damper on Penn State's first season with bowl aspirations since 2011.
The defense - as it has all year - propelled Penn State past Indiana and Temple and gave the Lions bowl eligibility. After finishing 6-6, the Lions can avoid the program's first losing season since 2004 if they win in the postseason.
But before looking too far ahead, let's look back on how Penn State got to this point.
Entering the season, quarterback Christian Hackenberg received a heap of praise. And it was warranted; as an 18-year-old fresh out of high school, the Virginia native threw for 20 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards last season.
This year was different. After thriving under Bill O'Brien, Hackenberg regressed, throwing eight touchdowns with 15 interceptions.
Hackenberg can't escape all the blame. He made more than a handful of head-scratching, momentum-killing decisions throughout the year. But a quarterback is only as good as the players surrounding him, and, too many times, he found himself surrounded only by opposing defensive linemen.
To put it lightly, Penn State's pass protection was poor. After being sacked 21 times last season, Hackenberg was dropped 42 times during his sophomore season.
The offensive line, without its two most seasoned veterans - Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith - for chunks of the campaign, couldn't glue together and sustain a running game, either. The Lions finished the season ranked 119th out of 124 FBS teams in rushing yards per game.
Former 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak missed the latter half of the season with an injury incurred against Ohio State, so that didn't help matters. But when blocking materialized, senior Bill Belton and promising redshirt sophomore Akeel Lynch were productive, though, those moments were few and far between.
Overall, Penn State's attack didn't have much bite. Averaging only 19.8 points per game, the onus was on the Lions' defense to win games.
And it did what it could.
The offense left a lot to be desired, but nothing more could have been asked of the 2014 Penn State defense.
It started on the front four, where defensive tackle Anthony Zettel dominated, fellow interior presence Austin Johnson was underrated and ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan got after the quarterback.
Zettel received much of the attention, and with reason. The redshirt junior finished the regular season with 15 tackles for loss, eight sacks, eight passes defended, a forced fumble and, somehow, three interceptions.
The Lions boasted the No. 1 rush defense in the nation, allowing only 84.6 yards per game, and a major part of it was the play of Zettel and company.
Of course, Penn State's second level did its job, too.
Redshirt senior Mike Hull led the unit with 134 tackles; the next closest to him on the team in tackles is redshirt sophomore Nyeem Wartman with 64. While Hull was all over the place, the linebackers received significant contributions from underclassmen. Wartman and Brandon Bell, a sophomore, shored up the outside, stepping up in coverage and pursuit of running backs that sneaked by the front four.
Like the linebacking corps, Penn State's secondary had a swarm of inexperienced talent filling big shoes.
When senior safety and defensive co-captain Ryan Keiser went down with a season-ending injury halfway through the year, true freshman Marcus Allen took over his spot and finished third on the team in tackles.
True freshmen cornerbacks Christian Campbell and Grant Haley both chipped in with interceptions against Temple; Haley, one of the fastest players on the team, took his pick to the house.
Junior cornerback Jordan Lucas and senior safety Adrian Amos were consistent throughout the season, as well.
Bottom line, this defense was scary. And it's the reason Penn State will likely see the postseason.
Named one of 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award in early November, placekicker Sam Ficken was Penn State's most consistent offensive weapon.
Ficken, a senior with well-documented struggles a couple of years back, connected on 23 of 28 field goal attempts this year; four of his five misses were blocked.
The Indiana native was a bright spot for a unit that was largely mediocre.
Kick coverage wasn't great, punt returner Jesse Della Valle was safe but not electric, and kick returner Grant Haley broke off a few impressive runs, but averaged a modest 20.7 yards per return.
What hurt the Lions most was their punting.
After Daniel Pasquariello replaced Chris Gulla, the Australian freshman didn't immediately turn things around and finished the season with a less-than-stellar 37.7 yards per punt.
Pasquariello played well down the stretch, but better performances from him and Gulla could have changed the outcome of losses against Michigan and Maryland.