Nittany Lions offense wants to hit a high gear quicker

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Football games can't be sampled or experienced through a test run. They aren't like cold swimming pools or spicy salsa, open to testing before diving in or tasting.

As soon as the ball is kicked, any number of complications may arise. You must be ready for a defense's speed. You must remember all the notes and plans from studying the opponent all week. You must be ready for contact.

"You have to be in a physical state of mind," Penn State offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach said.

Whatever the exact factors, Penn State has struggled on offense at the beginning of its first two games of the season. The Nittany Lions have scored one touchdown in the first quarter while giving up one.

On Saturday, Penn State fell behind to Eastern Michigan, 7-0, in a first quarter in which it had three plays and a punt in each of its first two series. On the first play of the third series, quarterback Christian Hackenberg fumbled while going back for a pass and Eastern Michigan recovered the ball and scored a touchdown.

Afterward, players said the Eastern Michigan defense was giving them a different look than expected -- a 4-3 rather than a 3-4 -- but that wasn't the reason for their struggle. They said they just weren't executing the plays correctly, which led to the three-and-outs and a turnover.

"Whether it's blocking better or receivers running better routes or making better throws, stuff like that," offensive tackle Donovan Smith said. "It's us as a team just executing."

The offensive line in particular has started slowly. Syracuse snuffed out the rushing attack in the first game -- in the first quarter Penn State had four of seven rushing attempts go for zero or negative yards. Against Eastern Michigan, Hackenberg faced considerable pressure and it was a factor in his fumble.

"I think that some certain individuals up front have played really well," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "I don't want to get into the specifics, but I think that overall we need to play more consistent up front. I've talked to these guys about that. [Offensive line coach Mac McWhorter] feels the same way.

"And again, I think we've played decent. I don't think we've played poorly, but I know we can play better."

Dieffenbach said these early game problems don't stem from lack of preparation. He said the players have been ready for the opponents and summer and preseason conditioning have gotten them into proper shape.

Smith said he will continue to get himself in the right mental of state of mind but said it's not necessarily easy. To get him in the mood to play football, he relies on music and a text message from his uncle, who sends him words of encouragement in capital, bold letters punctuated by plenty of exclamation points.

"Other than that, I just look at it as they're the enemy and I have to go out there and do what I have to do," he said.

psusports

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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