STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) The second half of games belong to Penn State. Too bad for the Nittany Lions the opening 30 minutes count, too.
Sluggish starts have left Penn State (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) playing catch-up the last few weeks and in big road games. While the defense has pitched second-half shutouts each of the last three weeks, safety Nick Sukay isn’t about to gloss over the shortcomings, particularly in the first quarter.
“I would give us a ‘C’ average. We haven’t done anything spectacularly,” he said. “Obviously our first-quarter letdowns are not too good … but we show we have ability once we pick it up.”
That’s the good news for a defense that hasn’t allowed a second-half touchdown since the fourth quarter of the Sept. 11 loss at top-ranked Alabama.
But the first half has given Penn State fits.
They fell behind 17-0 at halftime to the Crimson Tide. Two weeks later, Temple’s Bernard Pierce ran for two first-quarter scores to give the Owls a 13-6 lead after one quarter.
Last week, Iowa’s offense overwhelmed Penn State with 17 straight points before getting shut out in the second half. A 33-yard interception return for a score by Shaun Prater in the fourth quarter provided the Hawkeyes’ only other score.
Overall, Penn State has been outscored 54-42 in the first half. After halftime, the Nittany Lions have outscored opponents 54-21, including 23-0 in the third quarter.
It’s perplexing even to coach Joe Paterno, who has frequently discussed the slow starts with his staff.
After the Alabama loss, Paterno took a tough-love approach in practice in trying to instill more urgency with his players. They responded with a 24-0 shutout of Kent State, but the sluggish start and red zone woes re-emerged the last two weeks.
“We’ve been just a little bit tentative, and I’m not sure why, to be very frank with you,” Paterno said this week. “We’ve tried to practice at a tempo so that when we started the ball game, everybody knew exactly what we were going to do, particularly after the Alabama game.”
The offense isn’t immune, either. The hope before Iowa was that the big-game experience in Tuscaloosa would be beneficial for a team with so many young players or new starters in the lineup.
But they managed just one yard of total offense in the first quarter against the Hawkeyes’ formidable defense, and punted on 5 of 6 first-half possessions. The last possession ended with a field goal as time expired after the drive stalled at the 2 following a penalty.
“I can’t really put the finger on what it is,” sophomore receiver Justin Brown said. “There’s no room for being sluggish, definitely in this type of league. But we definitely have to change that around and improve this week.”
Inexperience could be a factor, a theme that Paterno has pounced on all season. Quarterback Rob Bolden has looked impressive overall for a freshman barely five months removed from high school, though he lacks the veteran savvy of predecessor Daryll Clark.
The offensive line has three first-year starters, while freshman tight end Kevin Haplea will likely make his first career start Saturday against Illinois in place of the injured Garry Gilliam – another freshman.
Besides senior captain Brett Brackett, the team doesn’t appear to have a vocal leader among its core players – a role the charismatic Clark relished last season. Senior tailback Evan Royster, who is 128 yards from setting the school career rushing record of 3,398 held by Curt Warner since 1982, is more of a lead-by-example guy.
There’s a similar situation on defense. Beyond defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu, there is no playmaking linebacker to rally the team unlike recent seasons when Lee, Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny paced Linebacker U.
Linebacker Michael Mauti might come closest with a stoic demeanor and muscle-bound upper body similar to Posluszny. The sophomore is just rounding into form after redshirting last year because of a knee injury.
The position uncharacteristically has been a question mark early on for Penn State, with missed tackles part of the reason for slow starts.
“The best way I can say it is we have to come out of the gate swinging,” Mauti said. “We have to come out of the gate, start making plays early and getting ourselves established.”