Joe Paterno is no longer around to say it. But one of his most well-worn axioms still came up this week.
College teams, Paterno often said, make the biggest improvement between Week 1 and Week 2. And yes, fellow Brown alum Bill O’Brien buys it.
“I agree with that,” the Penn State coach said. “I think over time, that’s been proven out.
“I just was thinking about this a lot. In the NFL, you have four preseason games and you can do those however you want. You can play your starters the first half, three quarters, four quarters — however you want to do it. But by the end of four preseason games, you have a good idea about your team.
“In college you don’t have that. You have two or three scrimmages where you’re going against each other and you get a good feel. But where you get a (real) feel is in that first game.”
Penn State got its feel during a narrow win over Syracuse. And headed into today’s home opener against Eastern Michigan, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
Aside from the obvious need to cut down on the four turnovers they committed last week, the Nittany Lions will be looking to find a spark for the ground game against the Eagles while also improving on a disappointing 1-for-16 showing on third downs.
“We can go to the film room and say, ‘This is what we need to do better, this is what you need to do to get better, and if we make those improvements we got a chance to improve each week,’ ” O’Brien said. “And that’s why you see that game one to game two improvement.
“Hopefully you’ll see that this week.”
The rushing numbers figure to increase dramatically against an Eagles team that ranked dead last in the country against the run in 2012, finishing 120th out of 120 teams at 267.0 ypg allowed. In last week’s opener, they surrendered over 200 yards on the ground to an FCS team in Howard.
What remains to be seen is if opponents will continue to stack the box to try to force Christian Hackenberg to beat them through the air.
That was very clearly Syracuse’s plan, with tackle Garry Gilliam estimating the Orange blitzed nearly 80 percent of the time.
Given that, the Lions offensive line graded out reasonably well considering the team managed just 57 yards rushing for a 1.5-yard average. Those numbers were watered down, though, by losses on three sacks and a Tyler Ferguson fumble.
“The stats don’t tell the whole side of a running game,” center Ty Howle said. “A lot of times we’ve got five, six, seven guys in there to block and they’ve got more than us. It’s simple math.”
Eastern Michigan coach Ron English watched the game tape intently to prepare for today’s meeting, and he came away with the same conclusion.
“Well, I think that they struggled (to run the ball), but Syracuse’s whole deal was to put more guys up there than Penn State could block,” English said. “If you watch the whole game, they did that. They brought a lot of guys. They brought a lot of run pressure.
“That can be feast or famine. And they got hit a couple of times because of it.”
And how. Because of that aggressiveness, Hackenberg was able to spring Allen Robinson wide open with a pump fake for one touchdown and hit Eugene Lewis on play-action for another.
Both scores came on first-down passes. The Lions had more problems on third down, something O’Brien attributed to his playcalling.
“I felt like we’d see two high safeties (on third down) and maybe stick a run in there and get six yards,” O’Brien said. “That was more game-planning by me, and it didn’t work out too well.”
But while O’Brien acknowledged that there are issues to resolve — the team went over all of them in detail in the film room on Monday — he didn’t want to be too hard on his players, given the situation.
“We went into MetLife Stadium with a true freshman quarterback,” O’Brien said. “I think it was 104 degrees on the field throughout the game. We didn’t have our best wide receiver in the first half of the game because of what I decided to do there. And defensively, we put the defense in some tough situations. We did this with 65 scholarship players.
“We’ve got a tough, resilient football team. … To me, I just think we should be talking about that a lot.”