Beaver Stadium was more full than empty a good half-hour before the No. 2 Nittany Lions' prime-time kickoff against Michigan on Saturday. Penn State fans know by now that showing up even a minute late to kickoff means a pretty good chance of missing something important.
No team in the country has started games better than Penn State this season. The rocket-powered scoring attack has reached the end zone using fewer than 10 offensive snaps in five of their seven victories so far. The defense has yet to surrender a point in the first quarter -- the only unit in FBS football that can claim that distinction into late October. Coach James Franklin said their grand entrances have helped dictate what other teams do throughout a game. They’re a result of offseason adjustments that turned a weakness into a strength.
“That was an area that we needed to improve,” Franklin said. “When you have an explosive offensive like we do and you’re playing really good first-quarter defense and you can get a lead, it changes how people have to play. ... It’s working out pretty good for us.”
A year ago, Penn State leaned on that explosive offense to dig itself out of early trouble during its run to a Big Ten championship. Even in the title game, the Nittany Lions trailed 28-7 before mounting an impressive comeback. The habit made for good drama, but not the kind Franklin wanted to live through on a weekly basis.
The change started in the spring at the very beginning of practice, every practice. After stretching, the first period of every Penn State practice has been a high-intensity game-like situation pitting the first-stringers on offense against the starting defense. Players say that’s trained them to dive in headfirst on game day.
“We get right out there and it’s time to roll and time to make some plays,” said tight end Mike Gesicki, who scored on his second play of a game against Pitt in September to begin that win on the right note. “We take that from practice, and we’re taking that into Saturdays now to start every game.”
Against Michigan, it was Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley who got loose on the second play of the game. He slipped through the Wolverines’ vaunted defense and sprinted 69 yards for his first touchdown of the day. After a three-and-out on defense, Barkley returned to the end zone four plays later.
He didn’t even bother waiting for the rest of his offense a couple of games ago, running the opening kickoff back 98 yards to start a 28-0 first quarter against Indiana.
“It helps that we’ve got the best player in college football on our team,” senior receiver DaeSean Hamilton said when he was asked to explain the offense’s early success.
The play selection has helped, too. Penn State debuted a new look for Barkley’s first score against Michigan, asking him and quarterback Trace McSorley to switch roles and run the read-option after Barkley took a direct snap. It offered Michigan's defense some early confusion and helped get Penn State’s players into the right mindset.
The same can be said on defense. Linebacker Jason Cabinda said his group is dialing up its most aggressive play calls during the first series of games this season. The result has been multiple turnovers and quick punts that help the offense get rolling.
For example, the defense surrendered 6 yards on six plays against Iowa before the offense could break the ice with a field goal in the final minute of the first quarter. Through seven games, Penn State’s opponents have had an average of 10 yards of total offense on the stat sheet when they find themselves behind on the scoreboard for the first time.
And once teams find themselves in a hole, the game plan has to start changing. It’s a big part of the reason Penn State is one of two teams in the country, along with Alabama, that is allowing fewer than 10 points a game.
“You put them out of their element,” Cabinda said.
Now comes No. 6 Ohio State, the first team on the schedule that has the firepower to go punch-for-punch with Penn State on offense. The Buckeyes have enjoyed their own stretch of hot starts against weaker competition in the past month. They’ve scored on their first possession in all but one game since losing to Oklahoma in early September.
It will take more than a strong first punch to knock out either of these teams on Saturday. For those planning to be at the Horseshoe on Saturday afternoon, though, it would be smart to get there early.