Heading into Saturday night’s matchup with Iowa, Penn State was known as a second-half team.
Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin said after last week’s win over Purdue that he doesn’t want that to become a regularity, stressing the necessity to play four productive quarters.
And up until they faced the Hawkeyes, the Nittany Lions hadn’t done that, scoring 96 second-half points while managing only 51 first-half points over the previous four games.
Penn State showed improvement, though, recently; the Nittany Lions entered Saturday night having scored on two of their last three game-opening drives.
They did it again against Iowa, and actually maintained first-half success. After stalling a bit in the first quarter, Penn State dominated the second quarter, putting 17 points on the Hawkeyes and leading 24-7 at the break.
It was the byproduct of a mentality the Nittany Lions have tried to grasp over the past few weeks. They finally harnessed it against Iowa — and Indiana ought to look out.
“We know how it is to be a second-half team, how to be able to be down and come back and know the game’s not over,” Penn State running back Saquon Barkley said. “When we get the chance and we’re up early, we got to step on the pedal and finish them.”
Barkley’s 211 all-purpose yards and quarterback Trace McSorley’s big-play ability headlined Penn State’s 41-14 domination, but there were a handful of potentially glossed-over details.
Check ‘em out.
▪ It seemed like every other play, the Penn State defense knew what Iowa’s offense was going to run. Not just the direction either, but the actual play itself. The way the defensive line reacted, along with the linebackers shooting the right gaps, so many of the Hawkeyes’ plays were busted up before they could begin.
And as for that quarterback sneak? You know, the one that Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda jumped up at the line of scrimmage to meet Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard on 4th-and-1 at Penn State’s 34-yard line on the Hawkeyes’ first drive?
“Yeah, they knew what was coming,” Beathard admitted.
▪ Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Nittany Lions’ win? Their third-down success. Penn State was the worst team in the country in third-down efficiency — 128th out of 128 — going into Saturday night. The Nittany Lions finished the evening 7 of 14.
Also worth noting, McSorley targeted wide receiver Chris Godwin three times on third down, two of which went for receptions. One of those catches, a 13-yard snag, was on 3rd-and-5 from Penn State’s 25-yard line with a couple minutes to go in the first half.
Three plays later, with the Nittany Lions facing another 3rd-and-5, Barkley ripped off his 57-yard touchdown run.
It’s not perfect yet, but there was noticeable improvement.
▪ Yes, that was backup quarterback Tommy Stevens who secured a jet sweep handoff and trucked an Iowa defender to get into the end zone.
What you might not have noticed from the Beaver Stadium bleachers was the option he had on the play. When media members had access to practice on Wednesday, we saw this play — but instead of Stevens keeping it, he cut upfield and threw a lateral to a wide receiver on his left.
If you watch the video, wideout DeAndre Thompkins is standing there to Stevens’ left, but Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann had Thompkins covered. So Stevens kept it, and used his 6-foot-4 frame to bully his way into the end zone.
“I told you about Tommy Stevens and his future,” Franklin said postgame. “You’re able to see what he can do.”
This is clearly McSorley’s team, but whenever given the opportunity, Franklin has praised Stevens. Look for more gadget plays with the redshirt freshman quarterback.
▪ Penalties, again. After 11 of them plagued the Nittany Lions at Purdue, Penn State committed nine penalties for 86 against the Hawkeyes.
They’ve played well enough the last couple weeks to survive no problem, but going on the road to face a tricky Indiana squad, Franklin will want the penalties reduced quite a bit.
▪ First it was Andrew Nelson, and now his replacement, Brendan Mahon, is injured.
Nelson, Penn State’s right tackle to start the season, is likely done for the year after leaving the Maryland game, and on Saturday, Penn State fans saw Mahon, previously the starter at left tackle who moved to the right side following Nelson’s injury, carted off the sidelines.
It’s not known what the extent of Mahon’s injury is, which he picked up on Penn State’s opening drive. His replacement, Chasz Wright, held up well for the most part, but if the Nittany Lions can get Mahon back, that’d be ideal.