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Penn State Football: 45-14 Victory Over Indiana Not Without Its Issues

on September 30, 2017 9:25 PM

Penn State's 45-14 victory over Indiana on Saturday afternoon was in essence the best and the worst of what the Nittany Lions have to offer. It was showcased in a way that never truly threatened Penn State's unbeaten season but also in a way that showed why that streak might not last.

There was the first quarter. An explosion of plays started off by Saquon Barkley's 98-yard return and score on the opening kickoff. Three minutes later a recovered fumble would turn into a 14-0 lead. Five minutes after that Nick Scott would scoop up a Christian Campbell forced fumble on a punt return and go 13-yards to make it 21-0.

And with 41 seconds to play in the first quarter DaeSean Hamilton pulled down an eight-yard pass to blow the game even farther open. It was 15 minutes of knockout football that was the nation's No.4 team flexing its muscles. Before Indiana could blink it found itself hanging on the ropes.

But so much football remained.

With that time came the other version of Penn State.

Because for all of the flashy plays and explosive offense by Saquon Barkley the Nittany Lions are better than most only because they can pounce at any time. They aren't, on average, very explosive at a consistent level. They score a lot of points, which might be all that matters, but they aren't without their flaws. A borderline atrocious second quarter was salvaged by Penn State's defense led by Jason Cabinda's 14 tackles. Even that hardly masked the overarching issues of the middle 15 minutes. 

For instance, Penn State can't run the ball in a way that doesn't require at least a minimal amount of magic by Barkley. There is undoubtedly a reason why Andre Robinson and Miles Sanders have hardly seen the field in 2017. The yards Barkley gains between the tackles are earned by strength along. The yards he gains in space are often the result of his otherworldly talents.

This might be why Penn State fans find it so frustrating to watch. When it clicks the Nittany Lions are the best offense in America. But that has been --for the most part-- a rarity so far in 2017 against better competition. There are spurts and moments of greatness, but not an overwhelming offensive attack. That might be unrealistic, to its credit Indiana played well, but it's the expectation.

So what's the difference? What turns Penn State's offense from a 2001 homage into the blunt force object that was the hallmark of 2016-17?

In truth, a lot, but one thing has remained the same.

First down.

"I would say, it's like all kinds of drives in football," Trace McSorley said on Saturday. "Early down success, staying ahead of the sticks, not putting ourselves in second-and-long and third-and-long situations and converting first-downs. Usually for us we get that first down and get rolling, and everyone settles into the zone a little bit, into our offense and we're just running plays. If we can just have that early success on the early downs....and obviously those big plays really get us going. Get teams on their heels, get the tempo going. Even if it's 10-15 yard gains down the field really get us going."

The numbers back that up too. So far this season Penn State has put together 29 scoring drives, and on the very first down of those drives the Nittany Lions are averaging 17.1 yards. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions averaged 12.8 yards on its five scoring drives.

The drives when Penn State is coming up short? The Nittany Lions are averaging just 4.72 yards on that first, first down of the drive. Saturday? 2.9 yards over 10 drives.

And losing yards? Penn State has opened a drive by losing yardage on eight occasions, turning that into points just once, and against Akron.

Of course this isn't an exact science, and the variables for a successful offense come down to a lot of little details. But for this team, get the ball rolling and it might not stop until it hits the end zone. 

The challenge for Penn State now in the middle third of the season, finding ways to get the ball rolling soon rather than later. It's probably a bit unrealistic to expect the Nittany Lions to score every drive, but there is a growing sense that Penn State will go as far as Saquon Barkley will carry it. Then again, that's the point of having great players on great teams.

"The thing I find interesting is, now people say, 'ok, well you're having this much success because you have a great player in Saquon Barkley," James Franklin said earlier in the week. "Well, I could say the same thing for the top-five programs in the country for the last 20 years. They've had really good players too. I don't think there's any doubt that you have plays that would go for five yards that go for 12 yards, that you have plays that would go for no gain that go for four yards that go to the house, but I'd also make the argument, you know, we would be a good offense without Saquon Barkley. He makes us different, he gets us into the top-10 or one of the most explosive offenses in the country."

"That's the scheme, that's Saquon, but it's also the other personnel. Saquon will be the first one to tell you that the offensive line is a big part of that, that the wide receivers are a big part of that, the tight ends; the fact that we're not one-dimensional really helps. I'd also make the argument that nowhere across the country is the offense perfect, or the defense perfect; we all have issues we're trying to work through and trying get better. Do great players help, and they do they mask some issues? Yes, but for us as coaches, when we come in on Sundays and grade the film, that we don't gloss over issues because we won the game ... because Saquon made two guys miss and goes for 40 yards. You still have to correct the issues."

Penn State's ability to correct those issues will be the difference in the season. Because the Nittany Lions might still be a good offense without Barkley, but right now he's more of a band aid than anything else.

How long that's enough remains to be seen. Then again, any team that can grind out 45!points on a "bad" day might not be so bad.

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