Big second half helps Penn State overcome slow start
UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State has had a habit during James Franklin’s tenure of sleepwalking through first halves and then making major adjustments at halftime.
It’s a double-edged sword, which Franklin has addressed numerous times.
The coaches and players deserve a lot of credit for being able to figure things out at the break and playing much better in the second half.
But that also means the team didn’t play well in the first half, and that the coaches struggled adjusting on the fly.
It’s not ideal, not when the goal is to be a strong team for the entire 60 minutes.
The No. 15 Nittany Lions were not a strong team for the entirety of Saturday night’s game. In fact, visiting Buffalo, a 31-point underdog, was clearly the superior team in the first half, as it shocked everyone by holding a 10-7 lead at intermission.
Then Penn State woke up from its slumber and destroyed the Bulls.
The Lions (2-0) got a game-changing pick-6 from John Reid early in the third quarter to take the lead, the defense began to dominate and the floodgates opened on the way to a 45-13 win before 104,136 fans at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State outscored Buffalo 38-3 in the second half to win convincingly. Through two games, the Lions have outscored their overmatched opponents by a score of 124-20.
Pitt is next, and this week will be filled with rivalry talk.
But inside the PSU camp, the focus once again needs to be on getting off to a better start and being more consistent. Franklin hit on that repeatedly during his postgame news conference.
“We’ve got to be able to do that throughout the game, be able to make adjustments in between series,” Franklin said.
“We need to be more consistent by series, and we need to be more consistent by quarters.”
The Lions were fantastic in the second half. But …
Buffalo had 270 yards in the first half.
Penn State had 82.
The Bulls had 86 yards rushing in the first half.
Penn State had 23.
Even Buffalo’s freshman quarterback, in the first road start of his career, had 184 yards passing in the first half.
Penn State’s Sean Clifford had 59.
In some ways, the Lions were lucky to be trailing just 10-7 at the half.
“We’ve got to be more consistent on offense, and then on defense we’ve got to get off the field,” Franklin said.
Buffalo’s game first-half effort and lead became afterthoughts in a hurry early in the third quarter, starting with a huge play by Reid, a senior cornerback.
Reid picked off a third-down pass from Matt Myers and raced untouched down the right sideline for a touchdown and 14-10 lead.
“Obviously it was a huge play from a momentum perspective,” Franklin said. “He’s a guy that everybody respects, just on how he goes about his business all the time in every aspect of his life.
“I couldn’t be happier for John. … (He’s) just playing at such a high level right now from a physical perspective as well as a confidence perspective.”
The PSU defense held Buffalo to a quick three-and-out, and KJ Hamler returned a punt 22 yards to the Bulls’ 38. The visitors got flagged for a personal foul on the play, moving the Lions to the 23.
On the first play of the series, Clifford hit wide-open tight end Pat Freiermuth over the middle for a 23-yard TD and 21-10 lead.
Buffalo (1-1) had one last fight in it after that score. The Bulls put together a good drive that included a 28-yard pass play, followed by a 29-yard run by Kevin Marks down to the PSU 8.
That’s when things started to go south for the Bulls.
They had done a terrific job with their play calls all night to that point, taking advantage of good blocking up front and strong running by their backs. But they got conservative on their first two plays inside the 10, running Marks right into the line for only 1 yard, then trying the quarterback Myers on a keeper that lost a yard.
Buffalo’s golden opportunity to stay in the game fell flat when Myers’ third-down pass misfired, so it had to settle for a field goal.
A touchdown there would have made it 21-17. But the sequence had to feel like a loss for the Bulls, and shortly after that, their fate to lose became sealed.
Penn State answered the scoring drive with a quick score, with Clifford bouncing out left on a run and racing 58 yards down the sideline all the way to the 2. Noah Cain scored on the next play, making it 28-13 with 6:12 left in the third.
“Sean’s able to play makes plays with his mind, he’s able to make plays with his arm and tonight he was able to make plays with his feet, as well,” Franklin said.
Buffalo quickly went three-and-out on its next series, which ended on a disheartening play. Penn State’s Journey Brown collided with punter Evan Finegan, who went down with what to looked to be a serious leg injury and had to be carted off the field.
Brown tipped the punt, so it wasn’t even a penalty.
Penn State had taken complete control of the game and had sapped the will out of the visiting Bulls, who never mounted much of a threat the rest of the way.
Clifford finished 16-of-22 for 279 yards and four touchdowns.
The Lions’ running game didn’t do much on the night, but the passing game was full of explosive plays.
Dotson caught four passes for 109 yards and two TDs, Freiermuth caught eight balls for 99 yards and two scores, and Hamler caught three passes for 62 yards.
The game featured one eye-popping statistic. Buffalo’s time of possession was 42:32 — showing the Bulls’ ability to run the ball well — while PSU’s was just 17:28, yet the Lions won in a blowout.
“We just became more explosive in the second half,” Franklin said.