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Passing Grades

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At the beginning of the 2014 season, James Franklin had just taken over for Bill O’Brien as the head coach Penn State football.

Though expectations were high, the team was ineligible for postseason play, as the program was still under NCAA sanctions.

But when the sanctions were lifted on September 8, what followed was a roller-coaster 7-6 season culminating in the team’s first bowl appearance since 2012 and first win since 2010. It was a season full of positives for Franklin’s Lions, but one mixed with disappointments as well.

The Lions kicked off their season with a win on a soccer pitch in Dublin, Ireland against Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic, as Sam Ficken booted a game-winning 36-yard field goal to walk off with a 26-24 victory.

His biggest kicks of the season, though, came in the last and biggest game of the year, the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on a baseball field at Yankee Stadium against Boston College. Ficken had a 45-yarder to tie the game an extra point to walk off with a 31-30 win in overtime.

The senior kicker finished the year 24-29 on field goals—four of the misses were blocked—had a long of 50 yards and led the team in scoring with 100 points.

“I love Sam,” Franklin said after the bowl victory. “He’s probably been our best offensive weapon all year long. ...Sam has been consistent as any player in our program from the day he arrived.”

Tight games were no stranger to the Lions, as the team was locked in eight games decided by a touchdown or less in 2014 and went 4-4 in those contests.

“The bottom line is we had two games where we could’ve put the game away and we didn’t on our last possession,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “...We’ve got to be able to win those situations. ...That’s as frustrating as anything.”

What plagued the Lions in each of its losses was struggles with the offensive line. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked 44 times over the course of the season.

Hackenberg also struggled himself, finishing the season with 15 interceptions to just 12 touchdowns.

“[Hackenberg is] a competitive son of a gun,” Donovan said. “...This season for a lot of guys, including myself, including him, is going to help him tremendously going forward.”

The struggling offensive line also limited the rushing game, as the assumed three-headed rushing attack of seniors Zack Zwinak, Bill Belton and redshirt-sophomore Akeel Lynch only managed just over 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014.

With experience, though, Donovan said the offensive line can only get better.

“Ideally a kid doesn’t play until he’s a redshirt sophomore,” Donovan said. “...Sometimes you don’t have that luxury and you’ve got to deal with what you’ve got.”

One major positive for the Lions was their defense, as the unit stood firm all season and kept the team in many games. The defense held opponents to 52 less points and 953 less total yards than the 2013 unit.Penn State James Franklin

Moving forward, the defense should remain stout, as it retains standouts such as cornerback Jordan Lucas, along with linebacker Nyeem Wartman and lineman Anthony Zettel.

Overall, a winning season and a bowl victory will provide a springboard for the Lions into a 2015 season that includes a No. 9 nationally ranked recruiting class.

“We’ve been fractured in the last three years,” Franklin said. “I think experiences and games [like the Pinstripe Bowl] have restored the hope and everybody has a part in that.”

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