UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s first-, second- and third-quarter trends for auto enthusiasts and transportation junkies:
• First quarter. Think Autobahn. No speed limit. Little resistance from outside forces.
• Second quarter. Think Midwest turnpikes and interstates. Speed limits of 70 miles per hour.
• Third quarter. Think Pennsylvania Turnpike. Plenty of bumps. Loads of traffic to dodge. Speed limits of 55 miles per hour. Gridlock occurs at critical moments.
Coach Bill O’Brien doesn’t drive to games. He sits in the front of buses driven by professionals. But he certainly understands the in-game dilemmas facing his team.
The Nittany Lions are fast starters, outscoring opponents 66-0 in the first quarter through eight games. Their second quarters are smooth.
Once they utilize a rest stop, the average speed drops. Opponents are outscoring Penn State 66-38 in the third quarter.
Their third-quarter issues surfaced in last weekend’s 35-23 loss to Ohio State. The Buckeyes won the quarter 21-3. The game was tied 7-7 at halftime.
Penn State will enter Saturday’s game at Purdue with a 5-3 overall record. In their three losses, the Nittany Lions left the locker room leading or locked in a tie game.
Ohio University won the third quarter 14-0 and defeated Penn State 24-14 in the season opener. Virginia won the third quarter 7-0 and edged Penn State 17-16 a week later.
Add it up, and Ohio State, Ohio University and Virginia combined to outscore Penn State 42-3 in the third quarter. Predictably, O’Brien, a rookie head coach developing a penchant for harsh self-criticism, pinned the problems on his own decisions.
“I think that leads back to myself and coaching,” he said. “We have to do a better job of adjusting at halftime and coming out with better play in the third quarter. Obviously in our five wins, we have done a better job of coming out after halftime. That’s a very fair criticism and we have to make sure starting this week that we do a better job at halftime.”
Against the Ohio teams, one third-quarter play flipped momentum. The Ohio University game shifted when a pass deflected off strong safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and into the hands of receiver Landon Smith for a 43-yard touchdown. Penn State led 14-3 when quarterback Tyler Tettleton attempted the pass. Ohio State started building its lead less than two minutes into the quarter as linebacker Ryan Shazier dropped into a zone coverage, intercepted a Matt McGloin pass and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown.
Ohio University and Ohio State had something else working in their favor: experienced coaching. Ohio University’s Frank Solich and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer both own more than 100 career victories and have coached in major bowl games, a major advantage when leading teams into large, rowdy venues such as Beaver Stadium. Making adjustments has allowed both men to establish longevity in a cutthroat business.
The Virginia game is harder to explain. No single play flipped momentum and Virginia’s Mike London is 14-19 in three years as a FBS head coach. The closest thing to a deflating moment came when Sam Ficken ended a 13-play, 72-yard drive by missing a 20-yard field goal with 4:44 left in the third quarter.
The Nittany Lions led the Cavaliers 7-0 after the first quarter and 7-3 at halftime.
“I think early in the game we are just real sharp and we prepare real well during the week for what they are going to throw at us,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “That’s probably why we have outscored opponents in the first quarter. It’s hard to sustain that just because after the first few series, teams start to get more comfortable settle into a rhythm and they make adjustments, so we have to keep making adjustments as well.”
Witty junior guard John Urschel has an explanation for the early domination.
“Our good play in the first quarter can definitely be attributed to Coach Bill O’Brien’s play calling and the way he starts the games,” Urschel said.
Treating the third quarter with the same vigor as it does the first is one of Penn State’s late-season goals.
“For the third quarter, we need to make sure we come out at halftime the same way we start the game and continue to play hard for four quarters,” Urschel said.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.