No easy answers for third-quarter problems

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The question hung in the air, as it often has after losses: What happened to Penn State in the third quarter? This season, Penn State has been outscored in third quarters, 80-55. In losses, the Nittany Lions have been outscored, 56-6, in the third.

And, despite the familiar feeling after Saturday's 32-23 loss to Nebraska, in which Penn State lost the quarter 14-0, no one had a good answer.

"Third downs," cornerback Stephon Morris said. "I guess the team just coming out with a little more fire. I don't know."

"It's the same mood, same intensity," offensive guard John Urschel said. "You try to go out there and finish games."

The data are confounding as well.



Next

  • Game: Penn State (6-4, 4-2 Big Ten) vs. Indiana (4-6, 2-4), Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
  • When: Noon Saturday.
  • TV: Big Ten Network.


There are no consistent statistical reasons for its third-quarter malaise in losses, other than the obvious observation that Penn State has been outscored significantly in third quarters.

Sometimes Penn State allows its opponents to convert too many third downs (Ohio). Sometimes it turns the ball over (Nebraska, Ohio State). Sometimes it gives up too many long passes (Virginia).

These third quarter problems started in the first game of the season. Ohio converted 6 of 6 third downs and scored 14 points. In the second game of the season, Virginia completed 3 of 4 third downs and passes of 26, 20 and 23 yards. After these games, Morris singled out the secondary as a major problem.

In Penn State's other two losses pass defense hasn't been such a negative in the third quarter. Nebraska and Ohio State instead ran 23 times for 159 yards in the third quarters of those games.

One theory proposed since the first game of the year has been Penn State's relative lack of depth because of players who left the program before the season. Morris denied that was a problem, saying strength coach Craig Fitzgerald's conditioning program has prevented them from getting fatigued.

Coach Bill O'Brien, as he usually does, has blamed the third quarter struggles on his coaching.

"We've got to do a better job of adjusting at halftime and coming out with a better plan for the third quarter," he said.

He could be right.

The closest thing to a common thread uniting Penn State's third-quarter struggles is the offense. It has gained 49, 78, 70 and 62 yards in the third quarters of losses.

Penn State's average offensive output per quarter is 102.5 yards, perhaps signaling an inability to adjust to other team's changes after halftime.

Adjustments, play calling, defensive breakdowns, no one is sure why Penn State has failed in the third quarter.

"Everybody talks about how we're such as successful first-quarter team," offensive tackle Mike Farrell said.

"To be honest, we get the right mindset, and we're thinking 60 minutes not the first 15 and not the third 15. We just need to do a little better job to maintain our focus."

How they'll do it remains to be seen. Finding the solution could be equally as tough as finding the problem.

"We just have to practice and get better at that," wide receiver Allen Robinson said. "I don't know how we're going to do it, but we have to get it better for these next two games."

O'Brien deflects NFL talk

O'Brien was asked twice on Tuesday about interest in possible NFL job openings and twice said he's focusing on Indiana and this week of practice. "I don't read -- we're 6-4, I'm flattered that you would ask me that question," he said. "I'm worried about Indiana and our Tuesday practice and looking forward to doing the best we can for this team as a coaching staff for this Indiana game."

Carter out for season

Redshirt freshman tight end Kyle Carter will miss the rest of the season with a wrist injury, O'Brien said Tuesday. Carter, who has 36 receptions for 453 yards and is second on the team in both categories, hurt the wrist while attempting to catch a pass Saturday against Nebraska. He had hurt his knee two weeks earlier against Ohio State.

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Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com and Twitter @mdent05.


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