The grass in the end zone at Beaver Stadium may smell the exact same as the grass near midfield to most. But to Adam Gress and his teammates, figuratively, it smells different.
“Whenever you get into the red zone, you have to smell blood. You have to smell the end zone,” Gress, an offensive tackle, said. “You have to be ready to go. We get really excited. You’re right there.”
Penn State has cashed in each opportunity it's had in the red zone so far this season, so whatever the players are smelling appears to be working. Entering Saturday, the Nittany Lions had scored eight touchdowns when in the red zone and kicked two field goals in 10 tries. They were a perfect 5-of-5 with four touchdowns and a field goal in a 34-0 win over Kent State. Bill O’Brien’s squad ranked 83rd in the nation in red zone efficiency at 79 percent last season.
“We want touchdowns when we get down there, but I’m pleased with the production in the red area,” O’Brien said. “…But I think we need to make improvements there and we will.”
Penn State was statistically perfect inside the 20 Saturday, but that room for improvement comes with playcalling first, O’Brien said. The Nittany Lions twice converted fourth downs in the red zone and repeatedly looked to Allen Robinson on a fade route in the end zone, but couldn’t convert any of the attempts.
Instead, it was running backs Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch who finished the job.
“We’re right there and we have to score,” Lynch said, “or we’ll get yelled at Monday morning.”
Zwinak, the biggest of the backs, has eight touchdowns already this season. Belton caught one Saturday, as well.
A big reason for the success, though, is the guidance and poise of freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He hasn’t turned the ball over at all in the red zone and seems confident when nearly at the goal line.
“He’s definitely a guy out there doing the right things,” Gress said. “He’s not your typical freshman. He’s confident in there. He knows how to get the job done in close.”
When Hackenberg and the offense can’t get the job done, there’s always the now-reliable foot of Sam Ficken to make sure Penn State comes away with something.
Ficken has missed just one field goal this season, a 57-yard try, and is 7-of-8 after nailing a 54-yarder and one from 25 against Kent State. After a tumultuous beginning to 2012, he’s turned a major corner.
“Sam has kicked the ball fantastic,” O’Brien said. “That [54-yard field goal] was the longest field goal since . That’s a heck of a kick.”
O’Brien always wants six points out of a red zone chance, but it’s not reasonable to expect that. Entering Saturday, Penn State was one of 23 teams in the country to get at least three points each time they had entered the red zone. O’Brien says there’s room for improvement, but 93 of a possible 105 points isn’t bad.
“Everyone’s on top of their game, and we let everything click,” Gress said. “Everything comes together and once we’re in the red zone, no one’s going to stop us. We’re going to get in there.”
Steven Petrella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 814-865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @steve_petrella.