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Penn State Football: 4 Keys to Sinking Navy for Bill O’Brien’s First Victory

on September 12, 2012 6:00 AM

The last time Navy stepped foot in Beaver Stadium, Penn State was ranked No. 8 in the country and riding a 21-game home winning streak.

The year was 1974.

Joe Paterno was in his ninth year as the Nittany Lions coach and George Welsh, a one-time Penn State assistant under both Rip Engle and Paterno, was in his second season of steering the Midshipmen.

Penn State lost five fumbles that September day, missed four field goal attempts – some things never change, huh? – and failed to convert a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter in a driving rain.

The result was a stunning 7-6 loss to Navy.

When the Midshipmen return to Happy Valley Saturday for the first time in 38 years, the stakes will be considerably lower.

Navy is 0-1, having been blown out by Notre Dame, 50-10, in its opener 11 days ago in Dublin, Ireland.

Penn State, which appears to be on a downward spiral since the NCAA handed down its harsh sanctions in July, is 0-2  – but just as easily could be 2-0.

If coach Bill O’Brien is to finally get his first coaching victory on Military Appreciation Day against Navy, four things need to happen:

1. Stop Navy on the ground.

Penn State’s run defense, which ranks No. 35 in the country, allowing 103.5 yards per games, must contain Navy’s triple-option running game, which managed just 149 yards on 40 carries in its opener.

Quarterback Trey Miller gained just 16 yards on 20 carries against Notre Dame, but he completed 14 of 19 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown.

Nine different Midshipmen touched the ball against the Irish, but none had more than 39 yards rushing.

Yet, Navy’s triple-option offense typically is regarded as one of the best in college football.

“Navy is so good at what they do,” O’Brien said on Tuesday. “They're attacking your discipline, and they're attacking your toughness. Now, we've got a tough defense. In my opinion, we have a tough football team.

“What we've gotta do defensively is we’ve gotta play responsibility football. And these guys, what was good about the Virginia game, is you saw guys playing responsibility football against Virginia. They've gotta do that and up that another notch against the Naval Academy.

“It's a difficult team to play against.”

Then O’Brien added this kicker, drawing laughter:

“I didn't schedule Navy.”

2. Don’t drown on third downs.

Penn State must improve dramatically on third-down defense, especially in the second half.

Ohio and Virginia were just 4 of 15 on third-down conversions in the first half, but that number ballooned to 18 of 21 in the second half, when the two teams outscored the Nittany Lions, 35-9.

Penn State ranks 117th among 120 Division I teams in third-down defense and is allowing a staggering 85.7 percent conversion rate in the second half.

“I don't think it had anything to do with the scheme,” O’Brien said. “I think it's just us going up and making the play. I think we will. I think we've got some guys back there that will understand what happens in those plays and improve the next time it happens and make the play.”

3. Make routine field goals.

Sophomore Sam Ficken is the only major college kicker, scholarship or walk-on, with a 20 percent conversion rate on field goals (1 of 5), but East Carolina’s sophomore walk-on Warren Harvey is a close second at 25 percent (1 of 4).

Granted, Ficken doesn’t deserve the hateful tweets that were sent his way after missing the potential game-winning field goal and an extra point after the game Saturday, but he does need to figure out a way to make 20-yarders.

The sooner, the better.

Anthony Fera, who transferred to Texas this summer, connected on 14 of 17 field goals last season (82.4 percent) and was 11 of 11 inside the 40-yard line. Ficken is just 1 of 3.

Sam was our No. 2 kicker before Fera transferred and we just felt like he didn't quite have the leg that Fera had,” O’Brien said. “But he was No. 2 and he had a stronger leg than (backups Matt Marcincin and (Kevin) DiSanto. So, we stuck with Sam because we think he gives us a little more range as far as kicks go and kickoffs.

“If he could just be more consistent.”

4. Continue to lob to A-Rob.

Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin must keep throwing the ball to sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson in bunches, especially with the team’s top two tailbacks, Bill Belton and Derek Day, nursing injuries.

Robinson leads the Big Ten in receiving yards (93.0 yards per game) and receptions (19) and is on track to snag 114 passes in O’Brien’s pro-style offense.

O.J. McDuffie (1992) and Bobby Engram (’95) hold Penn State’s single-season mark with 63 catches.

Robinson had 10 receptions for 89 yards at Virginia, but he was disappointed with a couple of his drops, including a 35-yarder from backup quarterback Steven Bench in the end zone that would have given the Nittany Lions a 14-3 halftime lead. 

“I think I let the team down,” Robinson said. “When my number’s called, I’ve got to produce. I have to concentrate a little more. I definitely have to get better.”

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