UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State's defense threw its foes into quicksand during the first two months of the season, allowing a grand total of three first-quarter points in its first seven games.
In the last four contests, however, it is the Nittany Lions’ offense, which has scored a grand total of three first-quarter points during that span, that has struggled to find its footing.
No. 13 Penn State has trailed by seven or more points in all four of those games, and though it went on to win three of those games in convincing fashion, the slow starts have been more than a bit unsettling.
“I have a little concern, obviously, but do I have an explanation? No,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said Tuesday at his weekly news conference in Beaver Stadium. “Obviously, I’m just glad we were able to learn from the slow starts and go from there.”
Much is on the line Saturday when the Nittany Lions (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) visit Michigan State (6- 5, 4-3) at 3:30 p.m. in Spartan Stadium. If Penn State wins and finishes 10-2, the Nittany Lions will more than likely finish among the top 14 teams in the Bowl Championship Series standings, which would make them eligible for an at-large berth in a BCS bowl game, most likely the Orange Bowl.
The erratic Spartans, who have had five games decided by a touchdown or less this season, are equipped to take advantage of a team that has wandered through the first 15 minutes-plus in a haze since shutting out Minnesota 20-0 on Oct. 17.
Penn State trailed 7-0 at Michigan before going on to win 35-10; 10-3 at Northwestern (a 34-13 win), 7-0 at home to Ohio State in what would be a 24-7 loss and 10-0 last week before winning 31-20.
“We’ve been trying to start fast and jump on teams,” linebacker Sean Lee said.
“Sometimes from a defensive standpoint, you have to make a few adjustments.”
The defense did make some key adjustments in each of those three wins but also got some help getting back in the game; Michigan snapped a ball out of the back of its own end zone for a safety, Northwestern lost quarterback Mike Kafka to a second-quarter injury and Indiana’s Trey Burgess tipped a Ben Chappell screen pass directly into the waiting hands of Navorro Bowman, who took it back 73 yards for a touchdown.
The Nittany Lions enjoyed a strong start during their last visit to East Lansing, leading the Spartans 17-7 at the half and 24-7 midway through the third quarter. But, Michigan State scored four touchdowns in the final 23 minutes to hand Penn State one of its toughest setbacks in a four-loss season.
This year’s group of Spartans has scored 92 fourth-quarter points and came from behind to beat Purdue 40-37 last week in West Lafayette.
“We know what’s at stake,” Penn State wide receiver Derek Moye said. “If we don’t come out intense, we’re going to get smacked in the mouth and I think we know that.”
Wide receiver Chaz Powell (right shoulder) will most likely not play, said Paterno. Cornerback A.J. Wallace, who suffered a head injury, “may play,” said the coach. DeOn’tae Pannell, who filled in for an injured Johnnie Troutman (calf) at left guard last week, will remain the starter even though Troutman is expected to be available.
One way to do it
Penn State will not change punt returners after Drew Astorino and Graham Zug both lost fumbles last week. Paterno, a former return man at Brown University, has another idea.
“We’re not gonna let them punt,” the coach wisecracked.
The Nittany Lions made some personnel changes on special teams last week and will need a few more after Powell and Brandon Beachum (torn ACL) were lost to injuries, but Paterno said he will stick with Astorino and Zug as his returners.
Once again, special teams will be a point of emphasis in practice, especially considering the Spartans’ strength in that area.
“They have an excellent kicking return game and an excellent punter (Aaron Bates),” Paterno said. “We just can’t make any mistakes. The kicking game will be a big factor in how this game goes. If we don’t do a good job there, we’ll have troubles.”
Keeping up appearances
Paterno was in a joking mood Tuesday, which is the only possible way to explain how he linked fashion sense and Penn State’s recent use of freshman quarterback Kevin Newsome, who was dumped for a three-yard loss after his only snap in Saturday’s win.
“You hate to be out of style,” Paterno said. “The Wildcat’s stylish. I like to go down and look at new suits and everything like that ... I just want to be stylish, so we stick the Wildcat in there one play a game.”