Penn State Football: Lions Take Pride in Early Season Strides
One game away from the midpoint of its 2012 season, Penn State is a much different team than it was just four weeks ago.
Penn State, now 3-2, is riding a three-game winning streak and hosts 5-0 Northwestern in a Homecoming game on Saturday before taking a week off.
But many Nittany Lion players think they should be in the same boat as the 24th-ranked Wildcats – undefeated.
Penn State lost 24-14 to Ohio University in an emotional first game of the season and the Bill O’Brien Era, then fell 17-16 at Virginia on a last-second missed field goal attempt.
“We’re just a few plays away from being an undefeated team,” said tight end Matt Lehman, who caught a 21-yard touchdown in Penn State’s 35-7 win at Illinois on Saturday. “We’re confident in our ability to go out there and win against whatever team we are playing.”
Penn State would like a do-over on the Ohio game. Ohio, 5-0 under veteran coach Frank Solich, is an excellent team, but the atmosphere surrounding the contest in an electrified Beaver Stadium made it hard for the team to focus.
“There was a lot of emotion in that Ohio game,” said defensive tackle Jordan Hill. “That was different.”
The next week on the road at Virginia, Hill’s defense surrendered what turned out to be the game-winning points in a final-minutes drive by the Cavaliers. But four missed field goals by Sam Ficken are what really sealed Penn State’s fate.
“We feel like the first two games we made a lot of mistakes,” O’Brien said. “We knew we were a better team than that. The kids came and practiced really hard every day. They’d take the coaching. We knew that if we stopped turning the ball over, converted on third downs and stopped teams on third down, we would be a better football team and hopefully we’d keep improving.”
Since then, the Nittany Lions have been a different team. A team all about what’s on the field. Part is that their focus is now more laser-like, jarred by the 0-2 start. Part is that they are more familiar with the new coaching staff’s philosophies and their in-game implementation.
“We’re playing faster, at a different speed,” said cornerback Stephon Morris. “The first two games we weren’t that confident with the schemes. It took awhile, but we’ve learned to trust each other with what we’re doing with a new defensive coordinator (Ted Roof). It was going to take time. It wasn’t like we had any preseason games, like they have in the NFL.”
One of Penn State’s future NFL players, linebacker Gerald Hodges, also notices the difference. It’s tangible in that the Nittany Lions have yielded just 27 points in the past 12 quarters. And intangible given the players’ mindset.
“Guys are starting to attack, guys are starting to trust, guys are starting to play lights out because they’re starting to see other guys play lights out,” said Hodges, who had nine tackles against the Illini. “Everyone is starting to step up.”
The result is a defense that is ranked 14th in the nation for fewest points allowed per game, at 13.6.
On offense, quarterback Matt McGloin has made some of the biggest strides. He has completed 101 of 170 passes for 1,217 yards, with 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. In addition he’s run for four TDs. He ranks fourth in the Big Ten in total offense, with 243.4 yards per game.
His main target, sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson, has emerged as perhaps the conference’s best receiver. His 87.8 receiving yards per game ranks second in the Big Ten, as do his 6.4 receptions per game.
Maybe more importantly, the Nittany Lions’ offense may have found a go-to guy at running back. Over the past two weeks, a bruising Zach Zwinak (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) has rushed for 94 yards on 18 carries against Temple and for 100 yards on 19 carries against Illinois.
“In this game, he was the guy who was getting the ball downhill,” O’Brien said in Champaign, Ill. “He’s made some big plays. He’s a big, physical guy.”
Although it’s only after one Big Ten Conference game, the Nittany Lions are atop the Leaders Division standings with Ohio State, also 1-0 in conference play. The Lions have a match-up looming with the Buckeyes on Oct. 26, but they first must face Northwestern and then travel to Iowa.
“Now,” said Hill, “we are at the point where we can focus on who we’re playing – and that’s Northwestern.”