Penn State coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead both spoke at length this week about their team’s desire to be better at converting third downs.
The Nittany Lions (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) played Saturday against Iowa and, on cue, they had their best game of the season on third downs. They entered the game 128th in the nation in third-down conversion percentage at 25.26 percent.
Penn State converted 5 of its first 7 third downs, and prolonging drives became a huge part of its 41-14 victory at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions had not converted more than five first downs in a game this season.
The Nittany Lions dominated with Saquon Barkley leading the way. He finished with 167 rushing yards and a 44-yard touchdown reception that sealed the game early in the fourth quarter. His biggest play came, fittingly, on a third down.
Facing third-and-5, Barkley took a handoff, went left and reeled off a 57-yard touchdown run to put Penn State ahead 14-0.
It’s becoming a pattern. The Penn State coaches identify an area of weakness, and the team gets better in that area.
Earlier in the season, Penn State struggled at the start of games. Franklin instituted a “chaos drill” at the start of practices. If all it did was help the players focus at the start of practices, it has translated to game days. The Nittany Lions ripped through Iowa’s defense on the opening drive with ease. It was the third time in four games they scored a touchdown on the first possession.
Through four games, Penn State turned over the ball 10 times. Ball security was an issue, both for QB Trace McSorley and the running backs. In the five games since, the Nittany Lions have turned over the ball twice.
McSorley has three interceptions in nine games, and none in the last five. He also hasn’t lost a fumble.
Pitt and Michigan burned Penn State with jet sweeps and counter plays to the outside. Iowa tried to run jet sweeps with Akrum Wadley in the first half Saturday, and found no success.
In games against Pitt, Michigan and Minnesota, Penn State totaled three sacks. The Nittany Lions had four sacks against Iowa, and have 15 in the last four games.
It sounds simple, but coaching isn’t that easy. Still, this is a sign of a very good team. Teams that can identify weaknesses and correct them have to be talented and focused.
It is also a sign of a very good coaching staff. Before the season started, plenty of uncertainty swirled around Franklin’s long-term future at Penn State. Losses to Pitt and Michigan did not help.
His decision to hire Moorhead looks like a fantastic one. Penn State’s offense has evolved into one of the best in the Big Ten — it posted 599 yards of total offense against Iowa.
Promoting Brent Pry to defensive coordinator is another masterstroke. Penn State’s defense was strong against Ohio State and dominated Iowa.
Plenty of people around the country watching the College Football Playoff rankings show Tuesday night thought, “Penn State at No. 12? Huh?”
Penn State will move into the top 10 this week after an impressive performance against Iowa and losses from three teams ahead of it.
This was not a top 10 team four games into the season. Thanks to strong coaching and the maturation of a young, focused group of players might be one now.