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Penn State addresses 3rd-down struggles

| Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson (8) gains yardage while being chased by three Eastern Michigan defenders during the first quarter at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 7, 2013, in State College.

Proving he masters the obvious as much as he does route-running and big-play ability, Allen Robinson commented on the Penn State offense's performance on third downs this season.

“We might not be at the percentage that we would like to have,” the Nittany Lions' prolific junior receiver said.

Probably not. Penn State's 7.7 percent conversation rate (2 for 26) ranks 123rd in the country. There are 123 FBS teams.

There's no question the Lions (2-0) will have to improve upon that if they are to match or exceed last season's eight victories.

As the level of competition increases — beginning 6 p.m. Saturday against Central Florida (2-0) — Penn State will need to execute at a rate of better than once of every 13 third-downs.

Coach Bill O'Brien vows it will.

“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,” O'Brien said. “It needs to. There's no question about it.

“It has to improve.”

But a closer examination of the first two games reveals the Lions haven't been as awful on third downs as the raw numbers might suggest.

Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a respectable 9 for 14 for 74 yards on third down. Just two of those completions resulted in first downs, but other throws were otherwise successful:

• One pass on a third-and-8 in the opener against Syracuse gained 23 yards, but a Robinson fumble negated the first down.

• Another third-down throw against the Orange resulted in a Lions' first down via a pass interference penalty.

• Two other Hackenberg third-down completions got Penn State to within 2 yards of the sticks, leading to successful fourth-down attempts. (Despite their horrid third-down numbers, the Lions are the best team in the country at converting fourth downs: 4 for 4).

That means that during 6 of 15 dropbacks on third downs, Hackenberg has successfully enabled the Lions to — eventually, at least — earn a first down. That's a significantly rosier picture – albeit, that modified 40 percent proficiency still would rank in the bottom half of the country.

The average yards to go when Penn State has run a passing play on third downs is 9.1. The number is an average 9.2 yards-to-go on all Lions' third downs.

“We've got to get off to a better start on first down,” O'Brien said. “Whether it's a penalty to put us back or a lost yardage play, we've got too many where so now you're in second and long and you're already off-schedule. It's not a good thing.”

Penn State's offense has done the best it could after putting itself in such a precarious position by performing poorly on so many first and second downs. Counting the pass interference penalty, the Lions have advanced 122 yards on 27 third-down plays, an average of 4.5 per snap. To put that figure into perspective, Penn State's opponents are averaging 3.2 yards on all downs.

Assistant head coach/wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said third-down situations are stressed in practice. But like most relievers in baseball will tell you, the ninth inning is different than pitching any other inning. Executing when the stakes are higher on third down sometimes isn't as easy as it is on a less-to-lose first or second down.

“You know it's a down you've really got to capitalize on,” guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “You've got to win the third-down battle — it's a very important aspect of the game. It really separates you from winning big or losing.”

Note: The winner of next season's Central Florida-Penn State game played Aug. 30 in Dublin, Ireland, will receive the Dan Rooney Trophy. Rooney is the Steelers' chairman and a former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland.

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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