In four of the team's first five games, the defense has surrendered early scores to the opponent for a total of 37 first-quarter points. Although Penn State has been able to overcome opening-period deficits in two of its three wins, the team has been unable to right the ship on the road. Early game struggles vs. Alabama and Iowa have doomed the squad.
“I can't put a finger on it,” said sophomore linebacker Michael Mauti. “It's not like we're coming out of the gate shy or timid. We're fired up in the locker room before every game. If we want to come out strong we need to make plays early.”
In last Saturday's loss to Iowa, the Hawkeyes' offense started the game with a nine-play, 77-yard drive that took more than nine minutes. Although the possession only resulted in a field goal, the tone was set for the evening.
In order to prevent similar inauspicious starts, Mauti knows the defense must amp up its early game performance.
“We have to come out of the gates swinging,” said Mauti. “We need to make plays early and establish ourselves so we're comfortable a couple series into the game.”
The defense's slow start to games has mirrored the team's early-season struggles. The team's 3-2 record does not lend the confidence a winning record would.
When asked what will improve the defense and the team's play, Mauti said it was simple: Experience.
“A lot of guys are taking their first-year lumps and are going through a lot of things first-year guys go through,” said Mauti. “Each week we'll continue to learn and that comes with experience.
“Even at linebacker, we're replacing three guys who play in the NFL now. At the same time, we have the talent. We just need the experience. We've got the guys so we just need to make some plays.”
In order to get the team back on track, team captains Brett Brackett and Ollie Ogbu called a players-only meeting on Monday to discuss the future of the season and how the team must come together. The Lions face Illinois at Beaver Stadium this weekend.
“(The captains) said this thing can go one of two ways: We can fold it up right now or we can come together as a team and pull in the same direction,” said Mauti. “Especially with the Big Ten schedule coming up, it's a matter of us overcoming the losses and showing some pride and making the most of the season. I think we're very capable of doing that.”