It will go down in the record books as a 37-point romp, but this year's Blue-White Game, won by the starter-laden Blue squad, 37-0, was in many ways a defensive struggle. Christian Hackenberg barely played, Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton combined for one carry and both offenses moved the ball in fits and starts in Penn State's spring finale Saturday afternoon in Beaver Stadium.
"I think the defense is ahead, I don't think there's any doubt about that," coach James Franklin said following his on-field debut with the Nittany Lions. "It was either that, or we really wanted to work on our punting game.
"We've got a lot of work to do," he added. "I think our defense is slightly ahead. We've got better depth on the defensive side of the ball, especially up front, which is really where the game is played."
The Blue team was made up of starters and coached by the team's three coordinators: John Donovan (offense), Bob Shoop (defense) and Charles Huff (special teams). The White team was made up of backups and was led by the position coaches: Josh Gattis (receivers), Herb Hand (offensive line), Brent Pry (linebackers), Ricky Rahne (quarterbacks), Terry Smith (cornerbacks) and Sean Spencer (defensive line). The offensive line wore gray jerseys and played for both teams due to depth considerations.
In ways large and small, the game differed from previous editions. The quarterbacks didn't wear red jerseys, and they were pursued aggressively, although they were considered to be down when a defender laid a hand on them. Also, head coach James Franklin did not watch the game from the sideline as Bill O'Brien did in the two Blue-White games in which he coached, or from the radio booth as Joe Paterno did for many years, but instead from the field. On most plays, he stood about 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
"The whole reason to be on the field is to basically control the quarterback. I wanted the officials to call the game, blow the whistle, do those types of things, but I was going to protect the quarterback," he said. "I was going to stand back there and [stop the play] when it was going to be considered a sack."
In between the first and second quarters, he grabbed a microphone, commandeered the PA system and instigated a "We are…" cheer. And he photobombed a few recruits on the sideline.
The game also featured a few gimmick plays that may or may not resurface once the regular season begins. On the second play of the game, Hackenberg split out wide and Bill Belton took a direct snap. The play gained only 1 yard, but the Blue ran it again later in the first quarter and got a 19-yard gain from walk-on tailback Cole Chiappialle.
Later in the game, the Blue ran a reverse on which sophomore wideout Eugene Lewis - a former high school quarterback - pulled up and fired a pass downfield to a wide open Matt Zanellato. Zanellato dashed into the end zone for a 56-yard touchdown that gave the Blue a 30-0 lead.
Franklin said he plans to incorporate some of those plays into his game plans this fall, particularly the direct snaps. "That will be a part of our offense," he said. "How much? I'm not sure. It depends on how camp goes. We'll limit how much we run Hackenberg, obviously, but [the wildcat allows you] to play true 11-on-11 football. Every other offense you run, the defense has an advantage of plus-one on you. So I think it makes sense. We've had success with it in the past."
While Zanellato's touchdown was the game's most memorable play, the breakout star of the Blue-White Game was Chiappialle, The 5-foot-8, 211-pound sophomore from Beaver Falls, Pa., scored the game's first touchdown on a direct snap, crashing in on fourth-and-goal from the 1 to give the Blue at 10-0 lead. A few minutes later, he burst 23 yards for a touchdown on a drive that had been set up by a Ryan Keiser interception.
Chiappialle finished with 63 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries. A preferred walk-on, he had come to Penn State at the invitation of former quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher and was thrilled to finally get a chance to see some action.
"I'm excited," Chiappialle said. "I haven't really ran the ball for over a year now."
Franklin said he made an impression this spring. "He's got great vision, great balance and toughness. There's a role for him in this football program," he said.
Hackenberg completed 4 of 10 passes for 43 yards, while his backup, freshman Michael O'Connor, hit 11 of 16 for 81 yards. Franklin said he was pleased with O'Connor's progress this spring. "For a freshman, he's doing some really nice things. He's got a pretty good mind when it comes to the game. It comes naturally to him. There are a lot of areas from a fundamentals standpoint that we have to work on, but the thing you look at with young quarterbacks is, do they panic or not? He's not a guy who panics."
The biggest number to come out of the Blue-White Game may well have been the attendance figure. Buoyed by the glorious spring weather, the official estimate was 72,000, an improvement of nearly 50,000 over last year. Franklin said afterward that his head count was 82,000. Whichever number you accept, it was a significant achievement for a program that is looking to rekindle fan enthusiasm after several years of attendance declines.
"I don't think there's any doubt that [Penn State] is special," Franklin said. "And one of the big reasons that we're special is because of the support we get from the community. I was very, very impressed. I'd never been to a game here before, so running out of that into that stadium was an unbelievably emotional experience for me. I couldn't be more excited."