Penn State’s offense was terrible in the first half Saturday night. Then, like a light switch was suddenly flipped on, the Nittany Lions came out and looked like a completely different team beginning with their first drive of the second half.
How? And why?
And why does this seem to happen all the time during the James Franklin era?
Penn State managed only 75 yards and was plagued by poor playcalling in the first half. It was like running QB Sean Clifford was the top priority, and anyone could have told you that just wasn’t going to work too well against Ohio State.
The Lions then came out on fire in the second half, moving 75 yards in one drive alone for a TD. Clifford was 5-for-5 with all five completions for more than 10 yards on the drive, getting rid of the ball quickly and using the middle of the field effectively.
It was a thing of beauty. And exactly what we expected to see from a Kirk Ciarrocca offense. That was, after all, what Minnesota did in carving up PSU’s defense last season when Ciarrocca was the opposing offensive coordinator.
OK, so where was all that quick passing and getting several receivers involved in the first half?
Looking at this one way, you gotta give the PSU coaches credit for making good adjustments at halftime.
But … aren’t we all tired of hearing that at this point in the James Franklin era?
It’s such a backhanded compliment to rely so heavily on the “made good adjustments at halftime” crutch, because the downside is this: You weren’t good enough in the first half.
And Penn State’s offense simply was nowhere close to being good enough in the first half.
Ciarrocca’s playcalling was too conservative and predictable, and PSU did very little to make Ohio State worry.
It didn’t appear that Ciarrocca had much confidence in the wide receivers in the first half and was simply trying to do gimmicky stuff.
In the second half, PSU’s offense clicked better, with 250 yards and three TDs. But it was too little, too late at that point after the Lions were already down 21-6 and it was evident their defense couldn’t stop the Buckeyes.
It was the same thing last week. PSU drove the field for a TD to start the game at Indiana, then got shut out the rest of the first half and trailed 17-7. Sure, Noah Cain got injured, throwing off the game plan, but seven points in a half just won’t cut it in the modern era of college football.
Good teams come out firing on all cylinders right from the start. Ohio State did that, with a 62-yard gain on its first play and TDs on its first two drives.
Penn State under Franklin has never really fallen into that category.
Let’s look back.
We’ll fast forward through the John Donovan era because, well, nobody wants to be thinking about one jet sweep or bubble screen after another.
Remember how Penn State wasn’t ready to go against Pitt in 2016, falling behind 28-7? We didn’t know exactly what the Joe Moorhead offense would be at that point, but we found out as the game went along and the Lions rallied before losing, 42-39.
At Purdue in 2016, the game was tied 17-17 at the half. PSU had no business being tied against that team, then destroyed the Boilermakers in the second half for a 62-24 win.
In the Big Ten championship game, the Lions fell behind against Wisconsin, 28-7, before rallying to stun the Badgers with a 38-31 win.
Penn State had proven to be a mediocre or bad first-half team, then a great second-half team.
Some of that continued during the Ricky Rahne era as offensive coordinator the past two years. Rahne was never a great playcaller and was too conservative to start games, and while the Lions were better in second halves, they weren’t the same as in 2016.
Ciarrocca has done this a long time. He’s got a proven track record.
Which makes these slow starts in the first half so far this season unexpected, troubling and even bizarre.
Fine, you can say it’s early in the year and Ciarrocca needed some time to see what he’s working with. But hey, it’s too late, man. The Lions are already 0-2, and the biggest goals the team had this season are already gone.
You can’t just step straight into Big Ten play with kid gloves — especially on the road in week one and against Ohio State in week two — and expect for things to be OK.
We saw some good things in the second half from PSU’s offense. Clifford threw the ball well, Jahan Dotson emerged as the No. 1 wide receiver that he needs to be, and the Lions moved the ball effectively even without much of a running game.
All of that is reason to be optimistic about the offense going forward.
No doubt Ciarrocca now has a better grip on what his unit can do and will look to start faster in future games. It’s just too bad he and the entire coaching staff didn’t figure that out when they needed to in order to avoid this 0-2 start.