Five Penn State things to watch for in the second half

A look at five top story lines for the second half of Penn State’s season, which resumes after this weekend’s bye with a visit next Saturday to Ohio State:

Hackenberg’s development

The passing game is the best part of this team so far. Allen Robinson is again one of the top receivers in the Big Ten, with 43 catches for 705 yards and 5 touchdowns, but the most impressive feature of the offense has been freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s learning curve. Yes, he struggled at Indiana in what’s been his only true away game to date, but he’s also compiling a season on pace to rank statistically with some of the best quarterbacks in school history. He’s already thrown for 1672 yards, which cracks the Penn State top 25 single-season totals. He barely needs to average 150 yards passing per game over the final 6 games to crack the single-season top 5 list.

But can they stop the pass?

What the Nittany Lions gain through the air, they have also given away. Central Florida and Indiana each exploited the secondary in beating Penn State. UCF’s Blake Bortles might be the best quarterback this team will face this fall — he did outduel Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater Friday night — but Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld threw for 336 yards and 2 touchdowns and Michigan’s Devin Gardner threw 3 touchdowns. It’s unreasonable to expect every position group to play effectively under NCAA scholarship reductions, but the defensive backfield has struggled.

The guys up front

The offensive line is a blend of veteran personalities, a collection of which anyone would enjoy working with. However, they haven’t been terribly effective blocking for a run game that has failed to total 100 yards in a game 3 times this season. Part of that is Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton haven’t always found a rhythm alternating with Akeel Lynch. But it’s also because the line hasn’t created enough of a push at times, something they’ll need to do over the final six games. Penn State has also allowed 15 sacks, tied for second-most in the Big Ten.

Next man up

Depth will be a chronic concern until the program has all of its 85 scholarships restored. But until that happens by 2016, every healthy player is that much more valuable. And while more scholarships will mean fewer opportunities for walk-ons down in the coming years, anyone could still be counted on this fall. One player making the most of his chance is Central Mountain graduate Von Walker, who as a true freshman who seems to have earned O’Brien’s admiration as well as a spot on the starting return teams. So far this fall Walker has 5 kick returns for 85 yards and 2 punt returns for 17 yards.

The opponents

Ohio State may look vulnerable after the No. 4 Buckeyes’ struggled to put away Iowa, but they are still an unbeaten team. They will also be Hackenberg’s first test in front of a full hostile road crowd, something he didn’t experience with Syracuse or Indiana. A healthy Penn State should beat Illinois and Purdue at home, and perhaps Minnesota on the road. Nebraska in the home finale will be a challenge, and Wisconsin on the road may be too much to handle. I picked 9-3 at the start of the season, but I think they’ll lose at least two more. Most any fan should be happy with 8-4 again, a realistic goal.