Morelli OnLion: Penn State breaks through

UNIVERSITY PARK — Sometimes the things a football team doesn’t do in a game contribute as much to a win as the things it actually does.

That was the case for Penn State in its first win of the season, 34-7, over Navy on Saturday.

The Nittany Lions certainly had many successes on both sides of the ball and some breakout performances against the Midshipmen. The offense sprinted out to a 20-point early lead from which Navy could not recover. Quarterback Matt McGloin threw four touchdown passes. Allen Robinson had a career day, hauling in five catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns. Michael Zordich and Curtis Dukes, playing in place of the injured Bill Belton and Derek Day, combined for 22 carries and a total of 97 yards rushing.

On defense, Penn State forced four turnovers and scored their first defensive touchdown of the season when linebacker Mike Hull scooped up a Navy fumble and raced 74 yards into the endzone. Navy did not get on the scoreboard until just over 10 minutes were left in the game, when the score was already 34-0.

They even got lucky when — a la Ohio — a high McGloin pass bounced off the fingertips of Trevor Williams high into the air and into the hands of Robinson in the back of the endzone for a touchdown.

Just as important as all of that, perhaps, were the things the Nittany Lions didn’t do. They did not fumble the ball. They did not throw an interception. They did not hurt themselves with penalties and wasted time-outs. They did not panic and lose discipline against what could only be called a frantic Navy offense.

And, most important to the 98,000 fans in attendance and Penn State fans everywhere, they did not miss another chance to earn coach Bill O’Brien his first win at Penn State and his first win ever as a head coach.

The zero turnovers are encouraging for the Lions. Since the mistake-filled opening day against Ohio, Penn State is plus-8 in turnovers, forcing four against Virginia and another four against Navy. The Midshipmen, especially, because of their option offense are a team that cannot be given good field position due to turnovers and mistakes. And allowing Navy to build momentum in a game is very dangerous.

That is something that wherever I’ve been, we’ve always emphasized that. We’ve got to take care of the football. Matt (McGloin) does a pretty good job. When the rush is coming in on him, he has two hands on the ball and it’s close to his body and he does a pretty nice job of keeping the ball away from the defenders.”

On the other side, Penn State recovered three Navy fumbles — one returned for a touchdown — and picked off a Navy pass inside the 10 and ended an early Navy threat. Penn State’s ability to stop Navy drives was a key to the game.

I think we practice that,” O’Brien said. “At the beginning of practice like most teams we work on stripping the ball, we work on strip sacks, interception drills, and how to recover the football. We talk about the rules and how it relates to turnovers and blocked kicks. It’s always emphasized and I think our kids have done a great job of being alert to those things. It’s really helped over the last couple of games.”

Allen Robinson has been a big bright spot for the Nittany Lions.

Another thing that helped on Saturday was how the PSU defense attacked the Navy option game. Navy did outgain Penn State in the game, 391-341, but the Nittany Lions’ tenacity against the Middie offense, combined with the takeaways, kept Navy off the scoreboard and allowed the Penn State offense (and Mike Hull) to put up 34 unanswered points.

Coach (Ted) Roof and I both have a lot of experience with option football,” O’Brien said. “We know Navy is a very, very tough, well coached football team. In our experience against option football, you have to try to change it up. You can’t stay in one front or one coverage the whole game and expect yourselves to stop them.

We felt that was a really good game plan. I thought Ted called a heck of a game and, more importantly, I thought the kids played great.”

Penn State put together on Saturday a combination of solid, mistake-free offense with a disciplined, opportunistic defense. The result was the first win in O’Brien’s career and a hefty douse of Gatorade over his head as the game ended.

In typical O’Brien fashion, however, the coach shared his happiness about the win for himself and his players, but his mind was already shifting toward this week’s opponent, Temple.

I felt very good for this football team,” he said. “I felt in many ways that it was a long time coming. I told them that it was one win and all of the hard work they put in this week and past weeks paid off. But it’s just one win, now we have to soak it in tonight. We have to get back to work on Monday and get ready for a very, very good Temple team.”

Penn State will come into that game with a chance to even its record and with a little more confidence in its ability to get that done.

This Week: Temple

Look for Penn State to build on the success of last week. Temple is better than Navy, but not by much. The Lions should win this one easily.

Gantdaily.com prediction: Penn State 27, Temple 13.

 

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