A Matter of Execution

The Nittany Lions believe crisper play is the key to invigorating their struggling offense. They hope it starts this week against Illinois.

The stat sheet tells a woeful tale, the principals a hopeful one.

Penn State is last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (19.2 points per game), as well as red-zone offense (having converted 12 of 18 such opportunities into points, though on only six of those occasions has PSU scored a touchdown).

The Nittany Lions are also next-to-last in the conference in rushing offense (138.2 yards per game), total offense (355.2) and passing efficiency (111.9 rating).

Looking at it from a broader perspective, PSU is 75th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing offense and total offense, 100th in scoring offense and 114th in red-zone offense. (The Lions are also tied for dead last among the FBS's 120 teams in red-zone defense, having seen opponents score on all nine of their chances, with seven of those TDs.)

None of this should come as a surprise, given the fact that the Lions are starting a freshman quarterback in Rob Bolden. Also because the offensive line was reshuffled before the year began, and the offense as a whole has been beset by injuries -- to wide receiver Curtis Drake (broken leg) and tight end Andrew Szczerba (back) in the preseason, and right tackle Lou Eliades (knee) and tight end Garry Gilliam (knee) the last two weeks; the latter two were season-enders.

And to hear everyone tell it, it's fixable. It's just a matter of improving execution, coach Joe Paterno said during his weekly conference call Tuesday.

(This always calls to mind a long-ago interview with the late John McKay, when he was coaching the fledgling Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the '70s. Asked after a loss what he thought about his team's execution, he said, “I'm in favor of it.”)

Be that as it may, the Lions (0-1 conference, 3-2 overall) believe they can work things out as they head into Saturday's Homecoming game against Illinois (0-1, 2-2), another team hamstrung by a sputtering offense.

Never mind that PSU is coming off its second 24-3 road loss of the season, this past Saturday night against Iowa. (The other was, of course, at Alabama.)

Never mind that Chima Okoli is still getting up to speed as Eliades' replacement at tackle. Okoli, a converted defensive lineman, made his first career start against the Hawkeyes.

And never mind that with Gilliam out and Szczerba still hurting the Lions are down to freshman Kevin Haplea at tight end, with junior Jonathan Stewart and sophomore Mark Wedderburn behind him.

It's just a matter of execution. That's what Paterno said, and far be it for anyone to disagree with him.

“Everyone needs to come and try and execute,“ fullback Joe Suhey said. “We just have to move forward, work hard in practice and keep getting better, week to week.”

Suhey believes the Lions are “really close” to becoming an efficient offensive team. Center Doug Klopacz does not disagree.

Asked specifically about all those ugly numbers on the stat sheet, he said, “We're obviously not where we want to be. If we break a run for another 25, 30 yards here and there, we'll be in the upper half of the conference. We are right there. … I think we're almost there. That's what we're going to keep working for. We want to be one of the best.”

Klopacz said the line can do better at “the little things.” That it's going to take some time to incorporate Okoli into the mix.

“We kind of had to turn a new page,” he said, “with Chima coming up (to the first string).”

Then Klopacz reached a stunning conclusion.

“I don't think anyone has outplayed us physically,” he said -- though it sure looked that way against the Hawkeyes and their outstanding defensive line, especially early.

But he correctly noted that after being outgained 148-1 in Saturday's first quarter, the Lions moved the ball -- the final yardage totals were 349 for Iowa, 301 for PSU. (It was much more one-sided against 'Bama; the Tide enjoyed a 409-283 edge.)

It's just that too often, the Lions cannot finish drives. Or as Klopacz put it, “We just didn't cash out the way we wanted to.”

There was that confusion on the sideline in the closing seconds of the first half against Iowa, after a pass from Bolden to Brett Brackett netted 49 yards to the 2. A timeout was never called, Bolden wound up spiking the ball with three seconds left and the Lions were subsequently assessed a delay-of-game penalty, forcing them to settle for Collin Wagner's field goal.

“That definitely hurts,” Klopacz said. “If you're all in sync and you're having a good drive, that's going to hurt. … It's part of the game. You've got to keep your composure “

Later, he added, “There might be a little miscommunication going on (on the sideline), but I think that happens with all teams.”

At the beginning of the second half, the Lions moved from their 29 to the Iowa 1, only to see fullback Michael Zordich stuffed on third down and Bolden stopped just short of the goal line when he tried to skirt right end on fourth down.

Klopacz admitted that the team's red-zone issues are “a little bit of a concern.”

“We had some good opportunities, and we didn't cash out the way we wanted to,” he said. “We've got to go back to the drawing board and correct what we did wrong.”

And execute. That's something everyone favors, no question about it.

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