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Second Half Team: Breaking Down Penn State Football’s Recent Trend Of Slow Starts

Penn State football fans have had a frequent, yet fair, complaint about their football team over the past few weeks, which began as a common theme throughout the squad’s 2016 Big Ten Championship run: the offense can’t figure out how to start games.

That complaint rang true against Northwestern and Iowa, the Nittany Lions’ last two opponents. Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich’s group scored just seven points in the first quarter against the Hawkeyes and three against the Wildcats. Penn State finished the first half after scoring just 10 points against Northwestern, though it surged ahead in the second half for a 41-13 win.

Even against Delaware, an FCS opponent that paid to visit Beaver Stadium in week two, the Nittany Lions tallied 14 points in the first quarter. While the tally shouldn’t conjure cause for instant concern, the lack of fireworks made for an underwhelming opening stretch.

So, interested to know if Penn State’s offense was actually as lackluster as everyone viewed it to be, we decided to take a look at how the Nittany Lions fared when compared to the top teams in college football. We broke down the scoring of each team ranked in the AP Top 25 in the past two weeks, quarter by quarter.

Before we dive into the numbers, note that these aren’t meant to discount the eye test that says Penn State’s offensive seems to underperform in the first quarter. Moneyball-esque numbers are meant to help what you see on the field, not replace it. These statistics are just meant to add context.

Interestingly enough, Penn State’s first quarter starts, which have been its worst quarter by far, aren’t exactly terrible. Across five games, the Nittany Lions have put up 33 points in the first quarter, or 6.6 points per first quarter.

It’s true: thirty-three points is one of the lowest totals of the 27 teams that we looked at, but it’s still just one point from the median of 7.6 and two points under the average of 8.64. Apply these numbers across five games, and you get a difference of five points and 10 points. Would an extra five to 10 points be nice? Sure, but it isn’t season-breaking.

For context, No. 1 Georgia and No. 3 Ohio State both averaged fewer points than Penn State in the first quarter. The Bulldogs notched 5.16 points per first quarter, while the Buckeyes scored 5.6.

Some other teams with fewer points in the first quarter include No. 9 Texas (6.16), No. 12 North Carolina (6.2), and No. 17 Duke (4.8). That being said, 6.6 points per first quarter for Penn State is nowhere near No. 5 Oklahoma (16.33) and is less than what will likely be Penn State’s toughest opponent: No. 2 Michigan (8.66).

Penn State’s second quarter is a bit fascinating. James Franklin likes to preach about dominating the “middle eight” of a game, which is the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half. In an instance where his team receives a kickoff to start the second half, Franklin feels that he has the chance to turn a game around with back-to-back possessions by scoring at the end of the second quarter and the start of the third. Penn State’s second-quarter numbers reflect that turnaround.

The Nittany Lions average 10.4 points per second quarter, which is below both the median (11) and average (11.3) but is significantly closer to both numbers than the first quarter. It’s a definite jump from the first quarter by the measure of at least one score, somewhere between a field goal and a touchdown. The second quarter is still Penn State’s second-worst quarter, but it is certainly a consistent turning point for the offense.

Penn State’s second quarter is worse than Georgia (15.33), Michigan (12), and Ohio State (13), but it’s even with No. 4 Florida State and better than Texas (10).

For a quick glance at the first half as a whole, Penn State averages 17 points per first half. That’s three points below the average (20.06) and two points below the median (19.2). It’s a long way from Oklahoma (27.83), but not far off from Michigan’s clip (20.66) and Ohio State’s tally (18.6).

This article was meant to focus on Penn State’s first halves, but teams don’t stop playing after 30 minutes. If you just looked at the data for the Nittany Lions’ opening two quarters, you’d be shocked they’re ranked as high as they are at No. 6.

Besides, looking at Penn State’s third quarters is a thing of beauty. There is no team in college football better at playing in the third quarter. Remember Franklin’s mantra about the “middle eight?” It’s a pretty accurate idea of how the Nittany Lions turn games around. It all starts in the second quarter but accelerates in the third, where Penn State puts up 13.2 points per third quarter.

Nobody else that’s been ranked in the previous two weeks matches that total. Not Georgia (12.16), not Michigan (12), not Ohio State (13), and not even the highest-scoring offense of any ranked team, No. 10 USC (9.16). Penn State plays a better third quarter in the scoring category than anyone else.

For a quick glimpse at the fourth quarter, Penn State scores 10.4 points on average in the final 15 minutes of its games. That’s more than the average (8.41) and median (8.2). Take this with a grain of salt though — plenty of those points come from backups after the Nittany Lions’ starters have already done their jobs in the first 45 minutes.

There’s a wormhole we could all go down if we applied that same concept to everyone else’s second half. Plenty of top teams, including Penn State, roll their backups out on the field before the third quarter is over. But those are more advanced conversations with more advanced statistics, all for a different day.

Penn State may be below average in the first half, but it pulls everything together in the second half. Its 23.6 points per second half are better than both the top 25’s average (17.7) and the median (17.83). Just one team is better in the second half: No. 13 Ole Miss (23.83).

Alright, that was a lot of math. Let’s take a step back real quick and rehash what we learned.

First, Penn State’s first half does leave something to be desired, but it isn’t the end of the world. The difference of one field goal or one touchdown during the first half of each game turns these numbers on their heads. Second, the Nittany Lions’ second-half output was more than enough to recover from those first halves.

Don’t forget, Yurcich has gotten his team to generate more than 30 points in 12 straight contests, the longest active streak in the nation. There’s nothing to turn your nose up to at this offense.

If reading about numbers isn’t exactly your thing, we’ll do you a favor: here’s a link to the spreadsheet used to do all this math. We would include the numbers in this post, but frankly, it might break the entire site. It’s a lot of numbers, folks.

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About the Author

Joe Lister

Joe is a junior journalism major at Penn State and an associate editor at Onward State. He covers Penn State football and enjoys yelling on Twitter about Philadelphia/Penn State sports. He also listens to Mac Miller more than you. If you want to find him, Joe's usually watching soccer with his shirt off or at the gym with his shirt on. Please send all positive affirmations and/or hate mail toward him on Twitter (iamjoelister) or via email ([email protected]).

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