Penn State Football

Why Penn State’s players say judging them off Saturday’s slow start is a mistake

Franklin’s thoughts after 45-13 win over Buffalo

Penn State football coach James Franklin gives an opening statement after the 45-13 win over Buffalo.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin gives an opening statement after the 45-13 win over Buffalo.

Defensive tackle Robert Windsor knows critics and fans might judge Penn State off its sluggish first half Saturday night — but, he said, that would be a mistake.

“If you’re going to judge us off our first half, just look at that 2016 season,” the fifth-year senior said. “We won the Big Ten; came back in most of our games in the second half. So that’s all I got to say about that.”

Windsor wasn’t alone in his sentiment Saturday. His No. 15 Nittany Lions blew out Buffalo, 45-13, but the home team and heavy favorite still trailed 10-7 at halftime — a surprise that raised some question marks for a team expected to compete for a Big Ten title.

Most players didn’t try to hide how they felt disappointed at halftime, or even how some underclassmen stared at their feet inside the locker room. “We knew it was a bad first half,” offensive guard Steven Gonzalez acknowledged. But they also emphasized that Saturday night’s first half doesn’t define them, or the 2019 campaign.

“It just shows us that we have room for improvement,” linebacker Cam Brown said. “And, at the same time, the sky’s the limit.”

Penn State finished the first half with just 82 total yards, as Buffalo kept the 31.5-point favorite at arm’s length by controlling the clock. On one memorable drive, the Bulls went 69 yards on 19 plays and ate up more than eight minutes of clock — before settling for a field goal.

At halftime, Penn State’s team captains and veterans reminded players the program has been in worse spots. In 2016, in the final 10 games of the season, the Nittany Lions rallied from four halftime deficits and overcame halftime ties against lowly Purdue and Indiana for another two wins.

Even the younger players, who hadn’t even committed yet in 2016, found some solace in that.

“It’s definitely motivation,” sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth said. “Obviously, they won the Big Ten championship that year. That’s what we’re trying to do this year.”

Saturday night’s second half flashed the potential of this team: Freiermuth caught a ball one-handed during a 28-yard score, Jahan Dotson reeled in a 56-yard TD pass, and Sean Clifford scampered for a 56-yard rush that was 5 yards longer than Trace McSorley’s career long. But the first half? That was entirely different.

It was filled with miscues, flags and inefficiency. The Nittany Lions averaged less than 2 yards per carry, the offensive line committed three penalties on one three-and-out, and the defense allowed a 10-play, 96-yard TD drive to end the half.

The theme in the locker room at halftime was no secret. Keep your head up. We’re better than this. We did this in 2016; we can do it again.

“Yeah, that 2016 team — they kind of did the same thing we did today,” said Dotson, who was a high school junior in 2016 when the Nittany Lions rallied to beat Wisconsin, 38-31, for the Big Ten title. “They kind of hung around in the first half and then came out firing on all cylinders in the second half, and I feel like we did that today.”

The fact Penn State already set a precedent for rallying doesn’t erase all of Saturday’s first-half mistakes. But it does show that any concern might be a bit premature.

Slow starts and surprising halves are an inseparable part of college football. No. 10 Auburn trailed Tulane 3-0 after the first quarter Saturday — but won 24-6. No. 13 Utah fell behind to Northern Illinois 7-0 Saturday after the first quarter — but won 35-17. Last season, Alabama and Citadel were even tied 10-10 at halftime — before the Tide cruised to a 50-17 win and earned a spot in the national title game.

So players such as Brown didn’t much care what reporters wrote or fans tweeted.

“Say whatever you want,” the linebacker said. “The critics are going to say one thing one day and say something different the next. I could care less about what they have to say; we’re going to play our football.”

Penn State bounced back and won big Saturday, and that’s something that could get lost with the early struggles against an inferior MAC opponent. But the Nittany Lions didn’t stay down for long and, if they bounced back in the second half, they’re not about to get lost with their struggles in the first.

Like 2016, this isn’t a perfect team — but it doesn’t need to be. Yet.

Brown, a true freshman in 2016, even believed Saturday’s embarrassing first half could pay dividends in the long run.

“The next game we might be down by 21,” he said. “It’s just going to show guys we got to fight. And that’s what happened the rest of the day (Saturday); we made changes and we fought through.”