In the defeat to Georgia Tech, Notre Dame went into halftime down 16-0. It didn't get much better as the Yellow Jackets added a quick field goal and two late touchdowns to complete the rout. On Saturday night, the going was a little closer at intermission. Darrin Walls, returning to his home state, returned a pickoff of Anthony Morelli 73 yards for a score to give the Irish a 7-0 lead. Penn State eventually had the advantage going into the locker room. Derrick Williams' 78-yard punt return for a touchdown and Morelli's scoring toss to Jordan Norwood gave the Nittany Lions a 14-7 lead. The seven-point deficit, though, was not such a bad position for Notre Dame.
"After last week's performance, the important thing for us was to go into halftime with a feeling that we could win the game in the second half," Weis said. "The way we played, especially the way we ended, we thought the game got away from us, similar to how this game got away from us. When we got in a halftime, we felt like we were in that position, even though the offense was sputtering ever since the first drive. At least with Darrin's interception, we were sitting on a seven-point deficit feeling that, ‘Hey, we still have a chance here.'"
The problem was the offensive woes. Weis said last week the offense hung the defense out to dry. It wasn't such a problem of turnovers for Notre Dame, as it was against Georgia Tech. The Irish couldn't get a first down and consistently were three-and-out. The defense was out on the field for a long period and got worn down as the contest went on. Penn State held the time of possession advantage 34 minutes to 26 minutes. In the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions held the ball for 10:32, including a 10-play drive, all runs finished when Austin Scott scored from five yards out to make it 31-10.
"We played a lot of snaps out there," defensive end Trevor Laws said, who tied with Joe Brockington for the team lead in tackles with 10. "But we still gave up a lot of points. It wasn't a team effort. The offense did what they could. We should have played a lot better as a defense. We can't single anyone out.
"It was a little tiring in the second half. We were out there for awhile. But we're in shape and we had a good rotation going in the second half."
***Special teams will be priority No. 2 next week in practice, right behind the offense. The unit struggled mightily on Saturday night in return coverage. Williams weaved his way through Notre Dame players for a 78-yard punt return touchdown to tie the contest up at 7-all in the first quarter. On the opening kickoff of the second half, with the ballgame at 14-7 Nittany Lions, A.J. Wallace raced through the coverage for a 68-yard return down to the Notre Dame 30-yard line. Penn State kicked a field goal to increase the advantage to 17-7.
There were a few positives, though. Geoff Price, who struggled a bit last week, booted nine balls for an average of 44.8 yards per punt. Fifth-year senior Tom Zbikowski almost gave the Irish their second non-offensive touchdown of the night when he took a Jeremy Boone punt all the way down to the Penn State seven-yard line. The offense was unable to convert the great field position and Brandon Walker's 22-yard field goal cut the deficit to 17-10.
"Sergio Brown did a good job of holding off that first gunner," Zbikowski said, who also forced two fumbles on defense. "There were a lot of good blocks and it sprung me free. It felt good."
"I said all camp he's getting closer to being a top-line player again" Weis said of Zbikowski. "Tonight, he made that major step where he showed dropping the weight and making the recovery to being a top-line player again."
Zbikowski also became the school's all-time leader in tackles by a defensive back. The fifth-year senior now has 230 for his career and surpassed Jim Browner's mark of 228.
***The rushing numbers weren't pretty again. For the game, Notre Dame ended up with zero yards on 26 attempts. Freshman quarterback Jimmy Clausen was hit for -25 yards because of six sacks. Travis Thomas had six carries for 12 yards. Armando Allen rushed the ball eight times for 11 yards. The Irish rushing attack hasn't been a factor the first two weeks and Weis doesn't have any quick answers to solve the problem.
"We used multiple personnel groups," Weis said of his running backs. "Sometimes they loaded it up. Sometimes they didn't load it up. But I tell you what: I don't know the answer to the question. We've tried different veins in the first two games with different personnel and different personnel groupings. The bottom line is that it hasn't been there."
***The 14 penalties are the most under Weis.
***Nose tackle Pat Kuntz recorded a career-high eight tackles in the trenches.
***The Irish have now dropped eight of their last 11 road openers.