IOWA CITY, Iowa – Everything about Penn State’s 38-14 victory over Iowa on Saturday happened fast.
The Nittany Lions led 14-0 after the first quarter. They ran at least 90 plays for the second straight game.
Even coach Bill O’Brien floored the gas, running in and out of the Kinnick Stadium tunnel like a 42-year-old man trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
There’s sound reasoning why Penn State played at a dizzying pace for four quarters.
A few home-cooked meals and a weekend away from the gridiron further energized a team embracing the form of ruthless football now being played at the school.
The Nittany Lions (5-2) routed the Hawkeyes following a bye week perfectly inserted into the midpoint of a 12-game schedule. O’Brien gave his players four days off. Many used the break to return home.
The itch to play again didn’t leave the team. Players and coaches described last Monday and Tuesday’s practices as crisp. Players supported those statements by immediately shifting into top gear, running 26 offensive plays in the first quarter.
The number is impressive because Penn State won the coin toss and deferred the ball to the second half. In keeping with the fast theme, the defense held Iowa to three-and-outs the Hawkeyes’ first two drives. Iowa didn’t ding the Nittany Lions’ swarming defense for a first down until midway through the quarter.
“Monday was one of our best practices and Tuesday was even better,” quarterback Matt McGloin said. “It doesn’t happen. Guys are usually a little lazy coming back or it takes them a few days to get into it. That’s the type of mindset that we have, the type of coach that we have, the type of position coaches that we have. We just want to get after it. We wanted to get going.”
Penn State unveiled its “NASCAR” offense on its second series. The Nittany Lions spent the majority of the first three quarters in the no-huddle, up-tempo attack and built a 38-0 lead.
Here’s the confounding part for defenses: Penn State isn’t sacrificing size to play fast. Tight ends Matt Lehman and Kyle Carter, who weigh 258 and 247 pounds, respectively, both started. Two other tight ends — 264-pound freshman Jesse James and 262-pound junior Garry Gilliam — also played regularly.
Tailback Bill Belton rushed for 103 yards, but 236-pound senior Michael Zordich and 232-pound sophomore Zach Zwinak received regular rushing work. Every member of the starting offensive line weighs more than 300 pounds.
The personnel groupings proved it doesn’t always take lithe athletes to play fast.
“We’re definitely conditioned for this,” senior center Matt Stankiewitch said. “Some guys are rotating in there. But we are ready to go. We are used to that fast pace. In practice, training camp, we practiced all that.”
Penn State’s pace has accelerated since opening Big Ten play. The Nittany Lions are running an average of 90.3 offensive plays against conference opponents. They have won three league games by a combined 112-49 score. Saturday’s 504 total yards marked the program’s highest total under O’Brien.
“I didn’t think we could come in here and huddle and break the huddle and run a normal pace,” said O’Brien, whose team has won five straight games since starting 0-2. “I felt like our guys are learning about the pace we want to play at better and better every week.”
Sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson viewed Saturday as another big step for the offense.
“We’ve had a couple of big weeks of offense,” he said. “It’s definitely something we are stringing together. I think with Matt leading us out there and Coach O’Brien having a lot of confidence in us to do a lot of different things it’s showing. I know we have been throwing out ‘NASCAR’ a little bit in games, but for Coach O’Brien to do it that much in this game shows the confidence he has in us and how we have come along in these past few weeks.”
Notes: O’Brien joined George Hoskins (1892) and Dick Harlow (1915) to become the third first-year Penn State coach to post a five-game winning streak. ...The Nittany Lions’ 97-yard touchdown drive that ended with Belton’s 5-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter marked their longest march of the season.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.