Penn State had about as bad of a first half as possible Saturday afternoon against Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions ran 22 first-half plays against the Badgers and gained only 43 yards, picking up a lone first down in the process.
In the second half, however, PSU came out looking like a different team. They scored 16 points, gained 316 yards of offense and did just enough to hang on and knock off the No. 12-ranked Badgers 16-10.
After the game, Penn State coach James Franklin explained that the difference between the first and second halves were where the Nittany Lions were choosing to attack Wisconsin’s defense.
“We knew we had to get the ball to the perimeter,” Franklin explained. “Whether that was with outside zone (runs) or even with the bubbles (screens), which essentially are a part of the run game. That helped us get going because it’s hard to live in thrid-and-long all day long. They were third-and-short all day long, we were third-and-long all day long.”
Penn State faced 13 third downs Saturday with an average of 7.9 yards to gain. They converted on just three of the 13.
The adjustment to attack the perimeter did not help PSU convert third downs, instead, it helped them avoid first downs altogether. In the first half, Penn State could not sustain drives and went three-and-out four times in a row to end the half. On the team’s two touchdowns drives in the second half, they never even faced a third down.
“They were able to stay on schedule, for the entire first half we were off schedule and in third-and-long way too much,” Franklin said. “The adjustments we made going to outside zone helped us. We also did some zone read stuff with the quarterback, which gave us some positive plays as well.”
The best thing the Nittany Lions did in the second half was getting the ball to speedy playmaker Jahan Dotson downfield. In the first half, Dotson caught three passes for 13 yards. In the second, he caught two passes for 91 yards and a touchdown.
“Getting the ball down the field to Jahan was big,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to get him touches earlier in the game. It was great to see KeAndre (Lambert-Smith) step up for us as well today and make some plays.
Lambert-Smith finished as PSU’s second-leading receiver with four receptions for 71 yards. Quarterback Sean Clifford completed 18-of-33 passes for 247 yards, most of which came after halftime.
“Early on, when you’re not running the ball and it’s third-and-long, it makes for a tough situation for any quarterback,” Franklin said. “Most importantly, he was gutsy and he kept battling and made plays when we needed to in the second half to get a win.”
Junior tailback Noah Cain ran eight times for 48 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown from two yards out. He also caught five passes for 27 yards.
“He just has a way to slip arm tackles, to get positive yards,” Franklin said of Cain. “Some of the plays at the end of the game where he slipped a tackle and got extra yards were huge for us. That’ll be something to build on.”
Franklin said the team’s success running the ball in the second half even helped the offensive line play better as a result.
“When you’re able to establish a little bit more of a running back and stay out of third-and-long situations, that’s going to help the offensive line,” Franklin said. “That was the change, we were able to run the ball and be a little bit more efficient on first and second down to help our offensive line out.”
The Badgers only recorded two sacks and two hits on Clifford all game.