WOGENRICH: Penn State proving to be second-half team

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
  • Penn State has outscored its foes 161-78 in the second half of games.
  • The Lions have been outscored 135-102 in the first half of games
  • PSU is coming off a 45-7 second-half explosion on Saturday at Purdue.

James Franklin made it sound like a bad thing.

Penn State had just outscored Purdue 45-7 in the second half — producing the second-highest scoring game of Franklin's tenure in just two quarters — and the coach felt compelled to explain.

"I don't want to say we're a second-half team, because we're trying to change that," Franklin said Saturday. "We're trying to do a better job of that recently, but today it helped us coming in to say, 'Hey, no worries, stick to the plan, we're a second-half team.'"

The follow-up question is: What's wrong with being a second-half team?

Penn State, which brings a four-game win streak into a prime-time home game against Iowa, has made its living in second halves this season. In four of their six wins, the Lions faced a one-possession game at halftime. They trailed twice.

On Saturday, they fell behind Purdue 17-14 and were tied at the half. Then came the blitz.

Penn State scored touchdowns on six of its nine second-half drives, recovered four turnovers and lapped the Boilermakers 62-24. That's a pretty good half of football.

So why does it matter when it was delivered?

Obviously, Penn State doesn't want to make big early deficits a habit. The team fell behind at halftime by two touchdowns against Pitt and four against Michigan. It lost both games.

Pitt rally a vital moment: However, the Lions rallied from a 21-point deficit to get within 10 yards of tying Pitt in the fourth quarter. That comeback was a vital moment for the players, convincing them that falling behind didn't mean falling apart. It made a difference.

"We were in deep against Pitt, but we came back," safety Marcus Allen showed, "and we showed that we can really work as a team and stick together."

In eight games this season, Penn State has been outscored 135-102 in first halves of games. It has responded by outscoring opponents 161-78 in second halves.

That includes a 17-0 second half in the season-opener against Kent State, a 25-14 rally vs. Pitt, a 20-10 response to produce overtime (and a victory) against Minnesota and a 17-9 second half to unseat Ohio State.

Franklin's theory of preparation allows his best night of sleep each week to be Fridays before games. Last week, several players said, the team had its best Tuesday-Wednesday practice sessions of the season. They were ready for the subdued atmosphere of Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium.

Penalties a problem vs. Purdue: Perhaps too ready. After committing just one penalty against Ohio State, the Lions had four in the first quarter alone. That included flags on three successive plays inside its own 10-yard line, aiding Purdue to a game-tying touchdown.

"We just had to start playing Penn State football like we know how," said running back Saquon Barkley, who rushed for a career-high 207 yards and two touchdowns.

That has begun with Penn State's coaching staff, which has been quite tuned to these comebacks. On Saturday, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead adjusted his formations, lining Barkley as a receiver on occasion, to get Purdue out of its run-stuffing defense. It certainly worked.

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Brent Pry installed more five- and six-defensive backs sets to redirect Purdue's early success passing. That worked, too: Purdue scored on its first three possessions, then once on its remaining 11.

Lions don't get rattled: When Penn State falls behind, or starts a game unevenly, it hasn't grown rattled. That's an underrated quality for a team with 77 freshmen or sophomores.

Further, Penn State's coaches have made halftime an extension of their week-long process. Players have responded to that.

"A big part of [halftime] are the kinds of conversations going on among players," quarterback Trace McSorley said. "We then go to the coaches, they give us the adjustments, and then we're on the same page. Then we come out firing on all cylinders."

Lulls are going to happen; for the Lions, they seem to come early. But six times this season, Penn State has returned from halftime to outscore its opponent in the second half.

That's important an indicator, suggesting a team learning to fight its flaws. It doesn't have to be a liability.

Cover 3: Final thoughts from Penn State's 62-24 win over Purdue.

1. Saquon Barkley has gained 508 yards in his last three games to take the Big Ten rushing lead (888). Could a huge finish, with maybe a 1,500-yard season, get Barkley invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony?

2. Further proof of linebacker Jason Cabinda's football savvy: He realized that, because of the club he wears to protect a recovering hand injury, he might not have made the interception Brandon Smith grabbed in the third quarter. Cabinda could not play the series because of a broken helmet; Smith took his place.

3. James Franklin consistently praises No. 2 quarterback Tommy Stevens, who looked strong-armed and physical (albeit against a weary Purdue defense) in the fourth quarter. What's more, Stevens was playing about an hour from his Indianapolis home.