Penn State’s defense needed one stop.
All afternoon, the defense did a good job bottling up Virginia’s attack. The Nittany Lions forced four turnovers and limited their opposition’s rushing yardage to a total of 32. And on what turned out to be Virginia’s last drive of the game, Penn State forced four third downs.
The Cavaliers did not see a fourth down on the drive.
Virginia converted on 7-of-9 third-downs in the second half including all four on the team’s final drive that led to the game-winning touchdown. Senior cornerback Stephon Morris called Penn State’s lack of stops in the second half a “huge problem.”
“We got to get off the field. Even a play on third and long, we get off the field, get the offense the ball,” Morris said. “A lot of it is field position as well, even if our offense doesn’t score, we can pin them down deep.”
Third down stops after halftime were also a problem for Penn State in the team’s season opener against Ohio. Penn State did not make Ohio punt in the second half of the game as the Bobcats converted on 11-of-12 third down attempts.
Coach Bill O’Brien said he doesn’t think opponents’ success on third down has to do with defensive schemes. He said it comes down to other teams making things happen, which he thinks his defense will start doing this week.
“I think it’s just us going up and making the play,” O’Brien said. “I think we will. I think we’ve got some guys back there that will understand what happens in those plays and improve the next time it happens and make the play.”
Morris, who has made nine tackles so far this season, agreed with his head coach, saying Virginia made the plays at the right time against the Lions.
“They were more hungry in the fourth quarter and they were able to make the big plays,” Morris said. “I want to say we became relaxed, we just have to get off the field, and we have to get off the field at that time.”
Morris said he thought Penn State’s inability to get stops this season is mostly on the secondary, which is something the unit is hoping to improve on against Navy this Saturday.
“The Navy game, if we can get ahead real early and have them pass the ball, we should be able to come down with a couple of big plays back there in the secondary,” Morris said.
On Virginia’s final drive, all four of the team’s first downs came through the air. The two most notable both being receptions by tight end Jake McGee.
The Cavaliers faced a third-and-16 early in the drive and quarterback Michael Rocco found McGee deep down the middle for a 44-yard completion. Eight plays later — this time on a third-and-goal from the 7-yard line — Rocco completed a pass to McGee in the front of the endzone.
“It’s always a little frustrating, not getting off the field, and you know you’re supposed to,” sophomore defensive back Adrian Amos said. “On Saturday, they were throwing to their tight ends, things like that. But we just have to focus on playing better in getting off the field situations.
In addition to having third-down struggles, Penn State’s defense has conceded touchdown drives to open the second half in each of its first two games. Ohio put together a 12-play, 82-yard drive to open the second half on Sept. 1, while Virginia took 11 plays to march 77 yards down the field and get a half-opening touchdown.
Once again, O’Brien said it comes down to third downs.
“They executed their third down play better than we executed our third down defense,” O’Brien said.
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