Penn State fans undoubtedly recall shuffling out of Beaver Stadium and hearing someone complain about the lack of adjustments Joe Paterno’s staff made in a costly loss near the end of the late coach’s career.
They remember sitting in a parking lot traffic jam and hearing a caller echoing that sentiment on a postgame radio show. And then reading the same opinion on the Internet or in the newspaper the following week.
Fans so often cited that problem with Paterno’s staff that it became cliche. The Nittany Lions could lose by 30 points, and people still would have the same gripe: “No adjustments!”— as if tweaking a thing here or there would have made the game a blowout in the other direction.
James Franklin’s staff is showing this season that those days of stale, inflexible game plans costing Penn State wins are over.
Penn State ranks 36th nationally in first-quarter defense, according to its Football Study Hall profile. That ranking is No. 28 in the second quarter and No. 30 in the third quarter. It rockets up to No. 4 in the final quarter.
And the difference is even more stark on the other side of the ball. Halftime adjustments appear to be working wonders.
Penn State’s offense ranks 51st in the first quarter and 49th in the second quarter. The offense surges to 12th in the third quarter and fourth in the final quarter.
That’s quite a spike, one reflected in how things have played out all season. There was the valiant comeback that fell short against Pittsburgh. And the come-from-behind victories against Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue and Indiana during the Nits’ current six-game winning streak.
It’s something the coordinators — Brent Pry on defense and Joe Moorhead on offense — don’t get a ton of credit for. More often, you’ll hear Penn State simply described as a “second-half team.” The Nittany Lions miraculously play better in the third and fourth quarters because players flip some switch.
Sure, that’s certainly part of it. But there are plenty of examples of Pry and Moorhead changing things up at halftime to put their players in the best position to succeed.
At Pittsburgh, that meant cranking up the pressure on the Panthers offense. The defense sold out to stop the run to blunt Pitt’s momentum even if it exposed seams down the field. The offense put the ball in Saquon Barkley’s hands more often, which led to his three second-half touchdowns.
Against Minnesota, Moorhead adjusted by throwing deep more. That took some of pressure off Barkley and the running game, an adjustment that showed up again against Indiana.
And against Purdue, Penn State got more aggressive, attacking turnover-prone Boilermakers quarterback David Blough. Linebackers got in his face and forced an interception on the third play from scrimmage in the second half. The momentum shift helped the Nits take control in what became a 62-24 victory.
Again, players playing better contributed to all of this. But these are tangible examples of how a willingness to change the game plan midstream helped Penn State a lot.
The other side of that coin is that it’s easy to get the sense at times that initial game plans aren’t as good as they need to be. That is certainly a fair critique. Barkley and top receiver Chris Godwin barely touched the ball in the first half of the Pitt game. If Moorhead had attacked that defense more directly for 60 minutes, it’s possible a second-half comeback might not have been needed or would have resulted in victory.
Fans, I think, would prefer to have coaches who can identify problems and adjust on the fly rather than coaches who have a good first-half game plan but won’t tweak when the other team makes a change or can’t build on the success later.
Penn State had the latter for a long time. While the Paterno years had their moments, there were more than a few games where it was obvious the Nits were getting left behind, not because they lacked the talent, but because the staff failed to adapt and put the talent in a position to succeed.
Pry and Moorhead have changed that. And the two first-year coordinators deserve more credit from a fan base that has been craving this kind of coaching for some time.