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Penn State's Kryptonite: First Quarter Down, Northwestern to Go

by on October 05, 2017 8:00 PM

First things first.

Or, rather, first quarters first. And fast.

Penn State has scored more points in the first quarter of its five games in 2017 than it did in all of its 14 games in 2016. Combined.

73 to 68.

2017 by first quarters — 14, 14, 14, 3 and 28.

2016 by first quarters — 3, 7, 7, 0, 0, 7, 0, 7, 7, 7, 6, 6, 7 and 0.

(Even juice boxes couldn’t keep the Nittany Lions from sucking in the opening 15 minutes last season.)

In 2017, Penn State has scored on 60% of its first three possessions. In 2016, it convert much over 25% of the first three times it touched the ball.

That slow start thing is fixed, right?

Northwestern is the perfect acid test, as we'll find out the answer to that question on Saturday, when the Nittany Lions (5-0, and 14-1 over its past 15 games) play the Wildcats (2-2) at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. The game kicks off at 11:06 a.m. Central time (and 12:06 p.m. back East).



Ryan Field was built in 1926, renovated in 1996 and will be pretty darn quiet in 2017. A paltry 34,116 were in attendance when Penn State last played there in 2015 — although it sounded more like 4,116. It’s quiet. And windy, with a hard blow coming from the south, and it will likely to be raining when the second half hits on Saturday.

As it is, Penn State does not have a good history with early kicks hard by Lake Michigan. In 2015, it took PSU 27 minutes and 42 seconds to get on the scoreboard, with a 7-yard run by Saquon Barkley. Penn State came back to take a 21-20 fourth-quarter lead, but lost on a 35-yard field by Northwestern’s Jack Mitchell with 9 seconds remaining.

Last season, the slow starts were so bad that the Friday before Penn State’s game at Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium, James Franklin distributed juice boxes to all his players. “Bring your own juice,” they were told. The Lions did score on their first possession, but were tied with the Boilermakers 17-17 at the half. They went on to score 45 points in the second half to win 62-24.

Franklin won’t be using any such gimmicks with his team on Saturday. He’s thinking honesty is the best policy.

Often, to emulate the crowd noise and hostile environment usually found on the road, during practice Franklin will order loud music, blare marching band anthems and/or pollute the air with the white noise of a cheering crowd. If the music at Penn State’s practice this week were to legitimately reflect the sounds at Ryan Field, it would have sounded like this. Or this. Or this.

Instead, Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” was being piped onto the Penn State practice fields outside of Lasch Building on Wednesday, when the gates were opened to a pack of nearly 50 members of the press.


That’s one way the Penn State coach is intent on saving PSU in the very private Ryan.

Franklin’s other strategy? Let’s share our feelings.

“We started talking about it on Sunday. I just got done talking about it them as well,” said James The Psychology Major on Wednesday. “We’ve been a great first-quarter team this year. That needs to continue on Saturday. It’s a completely different situation, playing at 11 a.m. We’re basically going to wake up, have the pre-game meal and go play the game.”

Franklin is 0-2 at Ryan Field, having lost 23-13 with Vanderbilt in a night game in 2012 and by 23-21 with Penn State in that 2015 contest, which also kicked off at 11 a.m. That 2012 Northwestern squad was a good one, scoring 17 points in the final quarter to beat Vandy. They finished the season 10-3 and ranked No. 16 in the nation.

Overall, Franklin is 0-3 against the Wildcats and Pat Fitzgerald, when you factor in Penn State’s 29-6 loss to Northwestern at Beaver Stadium in 2014. In its last two games against the Wildcats, Penn State has failed to score a point in the first quarter.

Fitzgerald is, in some ways, Franklin’s kryptonite. His teams have outscored Franklin’s teams 75-32, and it’s just one of three teams that Franklin is 0-3 against and also against whom he has an 0-2 road record. The other two: South Carolina and Michigan. (As it stands, Franklin is 54-30 as a head coach, with 20% of his career losses coming against his next two opponents — Northwestern and Michigan.)


Franklin has some tricks up his sleeve for pre-game warm-ups on Saturday. And it ain’t juice boxes.

“We have some things planned for what we’re going to do when we get to the stadium,” he said this week. “In the past, we talked about bringing your own juice, where we don’t have music at practice and said we’re going to have to bring that on our own.

“We decided on Sunday, when we talked with the staff, that we’re not going to do that,” he added, slapping his hands twice for emphasis. “We have a routine. Our practice has been really good. So let’s make sure we are maximizing practice and we talk about what we’re going to have to do on Saturday — but not change our routine.”

Franklin’s other message for his team?

“No excuses. No excuses,” he repeated.

“We all know when we’re kicking the ball off. We need to be ready to play. So let’s not act like we didn’t know that was coming.”

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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