- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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Every Sunday around this time, we'll recap five lessons from the week that was in Penn State football.
And away we go:
1. Bill O'Brien will ease his true freshman quarterback along: He doesn't want to put Christian Hackenberg in bad spots, when he's forced to put the team on his shoulders. O'Brien stuck to short, high-percentage passes to build the quarterback's confidence and avoid mistakes. Three times on third-and-long, PSU found itself deep within its own territory and ran the ball with Zach Zwinak. The bruising tailback didn't make a single first down. This playing style will obviously evolve but, early on, expect more dink-and-dunks and fewer 54-yard touchdown passes.
2. Allen Robinson is the most valuable player on this offense: Penn State's offense just wasn't the same when he was on the sideline in the first half for apparent disciplinary reasons. Hackenberg threw for 69 yards and no touchdowns in the first two quarters without Robinson. On the first two plays with Robinson? Seventy-six yards and a touchdown. There was not a starker contrast anywhere else in this season opener. Defenses focus on Robinson, allowing other receivers to get open -- and A-Rob still makes plays anyway. Hackenberg acknowledged after the game that he was looking for Robinson as soon as he made his way back into the game.
3. Teams will blitz PSU mercilessly: Outside of quarterback, every other offensive unit has made progress and has improved since last year. (Well, offensive line might be a push, but still ...) So, it makes sense that Syracuse targeted the quarterback and forced Penn State to throw in order to move the football. The Nittany Lions averaged just 1.5 yards per rush, and Zwinak was held to just 2.5 yards per carry. On third-and-short plays, the defense knew exactly what was coming. This will be an issue until Hackenberg and O'Brien are comfortable enough to air it out a bit to combat defenses that tend to stack the box.
4. O'Brien still has some tricks up his sleeve: A punt by Hackenberg? A fake field goal run by Ryan Keiser? Oh, you bet that O'Brien has some interesting plays planned for this season. He has said before that he's not a fan of the Wildcat, but there's no telling what else he'll pull off this season.
5. Special teams is much improved: Let's start with Sam Ficken, who looked like he might have been the nation's worst kicker after three games in 2012. He has made the biggest turnaround. After missing four field goals in Week 2 against Virginia in 2012, he made three field goals -- including a career-long of 46 yards -- against Syracuse. But it wasn't just Ficken who did well Saturday. Jesse Della Valle did a good job returning punts, averaging nearly 15 yards a return with a a nice 31-yard return. Bill Belton averaged 22 yards a kick return, which was in the middle of the pack for the Big Ten's opening week. The only question mark, really, was punter. But improving in three out of those four areas in just the opening week? That's definitely good news for Penn State.
6dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy