In last year's season opener against Ohio, the Penn State defense's inability to stop the Bobcats on third down proved to be the team's downfall in a 24-14 loss against the MAC school. When all was said and done, Ohio would convert on 13-of-21 third down opportunities which allowed them to eat up clock, especially in the second half and come away with the win.
On Saturday, it was the other side of the ball's lack of prowess on third down which almost eventually cost them this year's season opener as the Nittany Lion offense was only able to muster a putrid one third-down conversion in 16 tries against the Syracuse defense (two, if you want to count Allen Robinson catching for a first down before fumbling in the third quarter). Judging from reactions across Twitter during the game and some columns and comments afterwards, Bill O'Brien's playcalling may have been partly to blame for the ineptitude of the offense on third down, but that's not where all the blame should lie.
Five times, Penn State faced a third and two or less. Their only conversion of the day occurred on a third-and-one in the first quarter on a connection between Christian Hackenberg and Matt Zanellato. The other four times had the following results:
- 3rd & 1: Zwinak for no gain.
- 3rd & 2: Zwinak for a loss of one.
- 3rd & 2: Zwinak for a loss of one
- 3rd & 1: Zwinak for a loss of one.
The battering ram from a year ago could not find a hole when it really counted as Syracuse was stacking eight or nine guys in the box for every third-and-short opportunity. So, what can be done to remedy it?
First off, the run blocking of the offensive line needs some work. As Nick stated on Saturday, pass-blocking was solid from the hosses up front, but run support left much to be desired. It seemed as though the right sid eof the line had the leaks which may not come as a surprise with first time lineman Garry Gilliam and Adam Gress working the position this week. The loss of a madman fullback is also an issue as Michael Zordich would help part the seas for Zwinak and Bill Belton last season.
Secondly, Bill O'Brien may have to take more chances letting Hackenberg air the ball out on third-and-short situations in order to take advantage of an aggressive defense. Obviously, BOB probably did not want to take too many chances with a true freshman quarterback making his first career start, but after the performance that he did show on Saturday, Hack's leash may need to loosened a bit provided he learns from the pick he threw right into the hands of defensive end Robert Welsh on a pivotal third down in the fourth quarter.
How do you think Penn State overcomes its third down deficiencies? Let us know in the comments.
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