Nittany Lions answered call for faster start
UNIVERSITY PARK — Of all the things that far exceeded expectations during Penn State’s stunning march to the 2016 Big Ten championship, the Nittany Lions’ ability to start games quickly wasn’t one of them.
In fact, their 11-3 record came despite repeated late alarms.
The Lions averaged 37.6 points per game last year, but just 13.8 in the first half and a mere 4.8 in the first quarter.
Five times Penn State was blanked in the first quarter so better starts became an offseason point of emphasis.
Though it’s tough to make sweeping judgments based on one game against a totally outmanned opponent, Penn State got out of the gate quickly en route to a 52-0 domination over Akron on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
James Franklin has been harping on faster starts throughout the offseason, and he reiterated it in the locker room before the Lions’ took the field.
“It was a huge point of emphasis,” defensive end Ryan Buchholz said.
The Lions were equally effective on both sides of the ball, racking up 569 yards on offense, forcing 11 punts on defense and busting a pair of long punt returns.
“Coach always emphasizes coming out of the gate right from the jump,” cornerback Amani Oruwariye, who had a gorgeous first-quarter interception, said. ” You can’t just wait until the second half, like a lot of times we did last year.”
Franklin often uses power-point presentations in squad meetings, and his now-upperclassmen led team got the message.
“It’s been something we’ve been emphasizing,” tight end Mike Gesicki, who caught six passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns, said. “We’re a mature, talented football team. We’re not going to sit around and wait for the second half.”
In addition to verbal focus, Franklin adjusted the team’s practice routine that increased the competition from the opening horn.
“We’ll have ones and ones (first team offense vs. defense), and especially when you get that work right at the beginning, it helps with your mentality,” Gesicki said.
Clearly, the Lions played with an edge as the offense went deep often, called timeouts in the first half so they could score a late touchdown to go up 35-0, and the defense didn’t let up despite the outcome having been long decided.
“Today we were a first-half team,” Franklin said. “Now we have to work on the second half.”
Some would say Franklin was trying to work on it in the second half Saturday as the Lions’ standout duo of Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, with PSU already up 38-0, played the entire third quarter and built a 45-0 lead.
Franklin even had Barkley return the second-half kickoff with a five-touchdown lead.
“We’ve seen example after example of when fans, of people, think the game is out of hand, or over, and it’s not,” Franklin said. “So you better put yourself in position to feel like the game is in control to go to the second team.”
That’s fine until a key player is injured, and while the aggressive nature may have been questionable Saturday, there’s little doubt Franklin has assembled an impressive team to start year four of what feels like it has the makings of another Big Ten championship run.
“We had a few lapses in the second half,” Gesicki said. “It’s exciting for us that we can go back to the film and have a lot of room for improvement.”
Many of the players watched fellow Big Ten heavyweights Ohio State and Wisconsin start slowly the last couple of nights before winning convincingly.
“Obviously, college football is back, and it’s great,” Gesicki said. “We’ve been focusing on our games. Ultimately you can watch all these games, but if you don’t perform on Saturday, everybody’s going to stop watching your games.”
Offensive tackle Brendan Mahon thinks the Lions are more dialed in now because he’s not sure how focused some teams were against them last year.
“We learned you can’t sleep on anyone,” he said. “That was the big thing today. We got slept on a lot last year. We learned that you have to come in every Saturday and be ready to play no matter who you’re playing — Akron or a Big Ten team.”
Speaking of ready to play, Penn State wasn’t for Pitt last year in Week 2.
Don’t be surprised if that’s been addressed via power point, too.
Rudel can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @neilrudel.