Lions Look to be Quick Hitters

Sean Lee and the rest of the defense aim to set an early tone in the regular-season finale at Michigan State.

Depending on how one defines one's terms, Penn State has lately shown either an alarming propensity for slow starts or an impressive propensity for making adjustments on the fly.

Sean Lee, understandably, likes the latter terms a lot better.

“We've been trying to start fast and jump on teams,” said the senior linebacker. “But sometimes, from a defensive standpoint, a team's got you, and you have to make a few adjustments. Once you do [that], you get better as the game goes on. We obviously want to start strong, but we understand that sometimes you're not going to, and it's all about how you react from there.”

No matter how you look at it, it's a trend worth examining, especially with the Nittany Lions set to face the Big Ten's most productive offense Saturday at Michigan State.

In each of their past four games, the Lions have been forced to rally after surrendering early touchdowns. At Michigan, they trailed 7-0 before their offense set foot on the field, as the Wolverines became the first opponent this season to score a first-half touchdown against their defense, going 70 yards in 11 plays to open the game.

A week later, the Lions fell behind 10-3 at Northwestern, as quarterback Mike Kafka completed 14 of 18 passes before leaving the game with a hamstring injury. Next came Ohio State, which turned a 41-yard punt return into a 7-0 lead when Terrelle Pryor scrambled for a first-quarter touchdown. And last week against Indiana, the Hoosiers scored the game's first 10 points before Penn State's offense awoke late in the first half.

But while the Nittany Lions struggled initially in those games, they ended up winning three of the four, all by double-figures. Even in the 24-7 loss to the Buckeyes, they pulled even at 7-7 before fading in the second half.

But playing catch-up week after week isn't exactly a formula for success. And it's even less likely to yield results on the road, particularly in Spartan Stadium, where the Lions have lost four of their past six.

So what's the problem?

“I really don't know,” Joe Paterno said Tuesday. “Your guess is as good as mine. Obviously, I'm just glad we were able to learn from the slow starts and go on from there. But other than that, I don't have anything.”

Michigan State isn't known for its quick getaways. In fact, the Spartans have scored fewer points in the first quarter this year (6.8 per game) than in any other quarter. But they do lead the Big Ten in passing yards per game (274.1) and total yards per game (413.8) and are third in scoring offense, averaging 31 points. So the Lions are wary, and are eager to get off on the right foot in their regular-season finale.

“I think we have to be more detailed and focused when it comes to not making big mistakes,” Lee said. “That's what really put us in the hole last week [against Indiana]. I think that's where we can concentrate and get better.”

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