Penn State will head into Saturday’s contest against No. 24 Northwestern riding a three game winning streak, but there are some people who believe it should be a four or even five game winning streak.
This notion is not an unreasonable one. Consider a few numbers for the Nittany Lions so far this season:
- Scored first in every game this season.
- Scored on the first or second drive three times.
- Outscored opponents 49-0 in the first quarter.
- Outscored opponents 76-9 in the first half.
Those statistics would set up well as a winning recipe, but the second half in the first two games was a much different story as the Nittany Lions were outscored 35-9. The three consecutive wins have seen big improvements as Bill O’Brien’s squad has scored 38 second half points and only surrendered 24.
When thinking about this season so far, I think back to one of my experiences playing sports as a child and an age-old adage that everyone learns at some point throughout life. I was ten years old playing on a local basketball team, and my father was the coach. I was not a great player by any means, but if there were nine players on the team, I was usually in the top five. That meant I would play in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line. I assumed it meant I would start the game too, but I rarely did.
Midway through the season, I was confused and decided to ask him about it. His explanation was rather short. “It’s not who starts the game that matters. It’s who finishes,” he said. At the time, I didn’t appreciate it, but I also never forgot it. By no means is it a novel concept, but to an innocent kid, it served as the first abstract sports lesson that could apply to various other situations.
This phrase is without a doubt drilled into the heads of the Nittany Lions after the two frustrating losses. Leave points off the board against a talented MAC team, and all of a sudden, a pass that should have been intercepted results in a momentum swinging touchdown. Fail to deliver the dagger against Virginia on a few 3rd and long opportunities for the defense, and you end up losing to an opponent that was thoroughly dominated.
The Navy game was never in doubt, but against Temple and Illinois, the Nittany Lions closed opponents out when they tried to make things interesting. Against the Owls, they completed a 12 play drive that consumed 7 minutes of the clock to put the game out of reach.
Last Saturday, the Illini briefly woke up in the second half. They got on the board to make the score 21-7 and got a quick stop on defense. The Penn State teams of the first two games might have made things scarier, but not this time. Three and out. Matt McGloin touchdown run. Michael Mauti interception. Zack Zwinak touchdown run. Less than 12 minutes after the Illini touchdown, the score was 35-7. There were still fourteen more minutes of football to play, but the game was over.
Perhaps part of this is due to inferior opponents, but all of a sudden, the Nittany Lions are playing to win in the second half rather than playing not to lose. The running game is eating up the clock with first down after first down, and the defense is making stops on third down. It is a welcome sight for many that expected this type of killer instinct football from a new regime but was not accustomed to it during the final years of the previous one.
As disappointing as the first two results were for those around the program, the bitter taste will slowly fade away if the Nittany Lions go on a run in the Big Ten.
As they say, it’s not how you start but how you finish.