The scoreboard says it was an easy four-score win for Penn State football versus Northwestern on Saturday. However, the tape may tell a different story. The Nittany Lions were in a dogfight with one of the worst teams in the Big Ten for the entire first half, and needed a blitzkrieg of second-half scores to get out of Evanston with a comfortable win. Penn State’s offense clearly looked disjointed throughout the day, as the Nittany Lions struggled to find consistency in the running and passing games. After the victory, Penn State football coach James Franklin explained what he thinks led to the sleepy start, as well as what the win means for his team.
Penn State offense starts slow at Northwestern
Even though Penn State football ended Saturday 5-0, the path to get there wasn’t how many expected.
The Nittany Lions came into the game versus Northwestern as heavy favorites. But Penn State quite literally looked sleepy for the early 11 a.m. CDT kick, as Nick Singleton fumbled the opening kickoff to set up Northwestern with great field position. The Nittany Lions were the last team in America to not commit a turnover, but their first of the year gave the Wildcats an early 3-0 lead.
The rest of the first half would be fits and starts for the Penn State offense. The unit fumbled the ball two more times but recovered both. The Nittany Lions were a pitiful 2-8 on third down to start the game, and looked out of sync with both the run and the pass. All told, Penn State only scored 10 points on 158 yards through 30 minutes of play.
But after going into halftime tied at 10, Penn State dominated the rest of the way. The Nittany Lions outscored Northwestern 31-3 in the second half. The passing game led the way in the final two frames, with Drew Allar and Beau Pribula going a combined 11-18 for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
James Franklin explains what led to sleepy start
While acknowledging that things weren’t always the cleanest, Penn State football coach James Franklin expressed satisfaction with the hard-fought win after the game. Franklin opened his post-game remarks by crediting Northwestern for the solid game plan at the start of the contest.
“That win they had last week, they used that momentum and that confidence from that 21-point comeback and really had a nice plan for us, and played well early in the game,” Franklin said in his opening remarks. “…But overall, very pleased. Very pleased with the win. Come on the road in the Big Ten, get a win, again, after their last game,” he noted later.
Franklin then pointed to ball security issues as the main contributor to the offense’s sluggish first-half performance. “Obviously starting with a fumble on kickoff return, not how you want to start the game,” he stated. “But not only that, we put the ball on the ground three times, and it just messed with our offense’s flow.”
The offense did clean things up in the second half, not putting the ball on the ground again the rest of the game. When pressed further about factors that could have contributed to the sleepy start, Franklin reiterated that ball security was the primary concern.
“Not other than what I’ve already said,” Franklin stated when asked about other factors. “You know, 41-13, we won. I’m excited about that.”
Are road starts a cause for concern?
Penn State was coming off an emotional win last week and dealt with some early injuries in Saturday’s game. Still, two consecutive sleepy starts on the road will likely raise some alarm bells for Penn State football fans.
The Nittany Lions also struggled to pull away early two weeks ago at Illinois. Although the Penn State offense was able to rally in the second half and blow the game open in both instances, the lack of early production could be cause for concern against stiffer competition. And things don’t get much more difficult than Penn State’s next road test, as Ohio State looms on the calendar on October 21.
While Nittany Lions’ fans can’t walk away from this game filled with confidence about that late October matchup in Columbus, there’s almost a whole month between now and then. Penn State football gets a bye next week before returning to action against UMass on October 14.
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