STATE COLLEGE (AP) — Penn State is off to a 2-0 start. The offense has looked crisp, the defense stingy and there are still some cushy home games left before Big Ten season arrives.
Indeed, it’s a good time for the Nittany Lions.
But there’s work ahead. Coach Bill O’Brien sees quite a few areas for improvement, and he can start with third-down conversions.
Batting a perfect 1.000 in wins and losses, Penn State is far from that with its 2-for-26 third-down conversion rate (.077). That ranks last among 123 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Only Memphis and Pittsburgh join Penn State in converting just two third downs this season. But the Tigers and Panthers have played just one game each.
Penn State plays again Saturday against Central Florida (2-0) at home, and will try to work on that percentage.
Despite a 6.4-yard average on offensive plays, a 4-for-4 conversion rate on fourth down, and 22 plays of 15 yards or more, Penn State’s coach and a handful of offensive players know the third-down number must improve ... or else.
“It will get better,” O’Brien said. “I can’t guarantee it. I’m not into guarantees, but I do believe we’re working on it and it will definitely, in my opinion, improve. It needs to. There’s no question about it.”
The Nittany Lions can start with better production on first down. Penn State has gained 152 yards on 32 series-opening plays. About half of that yardage resulted from two long receptions.
“We have to get off to a better start on first down,” O’Brien said. “Whether it’s a penalty to put us back, or a penalty that puts us in second and long, we’re already off schedule. It’s not a good thing,” O’Brien said. “Once we get to third down, we have to execute better.”
Being focused from the outset is wide receiver Allen Robinson’s theory.
“Executing the game plan and as a receiver coming down with some balls and making some blocks,” he said. “We have to eliminate turnovers and convert opportunities. We can’t keep giving the ball back to their offense.”
According to offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach, it’s all about effort.
“Every play you give it your all, but third down especially,” Dieffenbach said. “That’s a down you really have to capitalize on. You have to win the third-down battle of the game. It’s an important aspect of the game to help separate you from winning big or losing.
“We just have to be better. We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. We have to stop making mistakes.”
Running back Bill Belton, who rushed for 108 yards against Eastern Michigan, can help. He has experience carrying the ball for the tough yards, and shares a similar opinion with Dieffenbach.
“If we don’t make mental mistakes — like line-of-scrimmage penalties — we’ll be fine,” Belton said. “We just have to cut out mistakes as a group and we can definitely do better on third down.”
Better offensive execution on third down is how offensive tackle Donovan Smith explains it.
“Whether it’s me blocking better or receivers running better routes or quarterbacks making better throws,” he said, “the whole team has to execute better.”
Regardless of down and distance, O’Brien knows what his team cannot do.
“If we go in there (against Central Florida) and turn it over and commit penalties,” he said, “we’re going to have a long night.”