Penn State rolls over Eastern Michigan, 45-7
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - After its rushing game strained to find a rhythm a week ago, Penn State focused on getting the runners and the offensive linemen working as a unit instead of as a half-dozen separate entities.
The week of practice showed on Saturday. The Nittany Lions' three-man running back rotation averaged an impressive 8.9 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns, taking the heat off freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and contributing to a 45-7 thrashing of Eastern Michigan in Penn State's home opener at Beaver Stadium.
Basking in the late summer sun, a crowd of 92,363 saw Hackenberg and the Lions (2-0) struggle early and even trail briefly before settling down and dominating on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Penn State accounted for 574 yards of total offense, the most in the Bill O'Brien era. Running backs Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch each rushed for 108 yards, the first time the Nittany Lions had a pair of 100-yard rushers in the same game since 2010 against Northwestern, when Even Royster and Silas Redd reached triple figures.
It was a vast improvement from last weekend, when Penn State managed just 57 yards on the ground against Syracuse.
"As a group we wanted to come out and pick it up from last week," Belton said. "Last week wasn't pretty, but we got the job done. This week we wanted to come in and be physical as a team. The line played physical and the team played physical also. That's a reflection of our coaches."
Hackenberg grappled with the excitement of his Beaver Stadium debut and coughed up an early fumble that linebacker Hunter Matt returned 11 yards for the only touchdown for the Eagles (1-1). But Hackenberg then got into a groove, finishing 23 of 33 for 311 yards, a school record for most passing yards by a freshman.
"He was jacked up," O'Brien said. "I was reminded by one of the assistant coaches that this is his first home game at Beaver Stadium. You can take 5,000 recruiting trips here, but it ain't like playing here. He was amped up and I thought he settled down pretty well. It's easy to see that he's a hardworking kid. He's got talent."
Hackenberg, who threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Allen Robinson, said O'Brien told him "to calm down and focus on the next play, so that's sort of how I approached it, and offensively we did it the same way - next play.
"Just getting in a rhythm, I think that's a big thing," he said. "It was such a big crowd and there was a lot of emotion, just getting completions and building on it from there."
The Nittany Lions' defense shut out its opponent, limiting Eastern Michigan to 44 total yards in the second half and 183 for the game. Eventually, Penn State feasted on the Eagles' fatigued defense.
"We wanted to pick up our energy," said defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, who had another monster game with nine tackles, two stops for loss, and a sack. "We wanted to go out there and play fast. If you get tired, we've got substitutes for that. So you have to go out there and give everything you have on the field on every snap."
The Nittany Lions led by 17-7 at the half and poured it on with touchdowns on four consecutive possessions in the third and fourth periods. One of the scores was an electrifying 51-yard dash by Belton.
"I'm happy, but one game doesn't make a season," he said. "So when Monday comes, it's back to the grind, trying to get better every week."
Contact Joe Juliano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @JoeJulesInq.