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Nittany Lions at the Midway Point of 2012 Season

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Following four-straight victories, Penn State enters its only open date of the 2012 season with a great deal of momentum before returning to action at Iowa on Oct. 20.

With it being the midway point of head coach Bill O'Brien's first season at the helm of the Nittany Lions, will take a closer look at how the first six weeks transpired and what is ahead for the Nittany Lions during the remaining six games this season.


Reviewing the First Half
The difference between the Penn State team that took the field on Sept. 1 for the season-opener against Ohio and the one that stormed to 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter against Northwestern is like night and day.  Looking back at the first two weeks, the Lions had opportunities to make plays in both the Ohio and Virginia games, but fell short on the scoreboard.  The week two setback at Virginia is a game the Lions would like to have back after leaving a number of points off the scoreboard during the one-point setback.

Nonetheless, Penn State marched forward with confidence.  Looking at a 0-2 record, Coach O'Brien has noted on several occasions that one of the team's best practices of the season to date came on the Monday after the 17-16 setback at Virginia.  Penn State came back to work and buckled down before the Navy game, and the team has not looked back since.

The Lions played back-to-back strong games against Navy (34-7) and Temple (24-13) before opening Big Ten play at Illinois.  Penn State took control early at Memorial Stadium in Champaign and never let up in a dominant 35-7 victory to open Big Ten play.

As we wrote earlier this week, the fourth quarter of the Northwestern game was the 2012 team's finest hour to date.  The Lions trailed 28-17 heading into the fourth quarter before back-to-back 80-plus yard drives from the offense and two stands from the defense triggered a 22-point effort in the fourth quarter.

Coach O'Brien does not like to focus on statistics too much because the only stat that matters in his eyes is a tally in the win column.  However, there are several individuals with noteworthy efforts during the first six games of the season. 

Beginning with the leader of the offense, senior quarterback Matt McGloin has been tremendous in 2012.  Leading the Big Ten in passing yards (1,499), McGloin has thrown for 12 touchdowns and rushed for five more, giving him 17 on the season.  He has thrown just two interceptions in six games, and the Scranton native has done a superb job managing the offense.  Completing 61.5 percent of his passes, McGloin is averaging 248.8 yards per game, more than 10 yards more than his closest competitor in the conference.

In the receiving corps, it has been a breakout campaign for sophomore Allen Robinson.  The Michigan native may be a quiet competitor on the field, but his game speaks loud and clear on the stat sheet.  Robinson is on pace to finish with more than 80 receptions this season.  The Michigan native has made 41 catches in six games and scored seven touchdowns.  He leads the Big ten in receiving yards per game at 103.2, which is more than 15 yards more than his closest competitor.

The tight end duo of Kyle Carter and Matt Lehman rank second and third on the team in receptions.  Carter has made 23 catches and a touchdown this season, while Lehman has 12 receptions and two scores.  Wide receiver Alex Kenney has 12 catches and Brandon Moseby-Felder has 11.

Sophomore Zach Zwinak heads into the bye week red-hot following back-to-back 100-yard performances.  The downhill, hard-nosed runner finished off a career day against Northwestern with 121 yards.  Averaging 4.7 yards per carry, Zwinak leads the running back stable with three touchdowns on the ground.  Michael Zordich, Bill Belton, Curtis Dukes and Derek Day are all averaging more than 3.0 yards per carry through the first six games.

The success in the running game is a direct by-product of superb play from the Penn State offensive line.  Led by center Matt Stankiewitch, the unit has made significant progress since spring practice.  As a team the Nittany Lions are averaging 3.5 yards per carry during the first six games of the season.  Stankiewitch, John Urschel, Miles Dieffenbach, Donovan Smith, Mike Farrell, Adam Gress, Angelo Mangiro and the men in the trenches are big reason why the Nittany Lion offense has been able to play at a high level.

Defensively, Coach O'Brien knew that the front seven was going to be a special unit in 2012, and the unit played stellar football in the first half of the season.  Led by dominant play from defensive tackle Jordan Hill in the middle of the defensive line, Penn State's defense has been terrific during the past month of the season.  Hill, DaQuan Jones, Deion Barnes, Sean Stanley and Anthony Zettel have played a huge role in Penn State's 15 sacks during the first six games.  Barnes leads the team and ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 4.0 sacks this season.

Simply put, the linebacking unit of Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Glenn Carson and Mike Hull has been outstanding in the first six games.  Mauti is a man on a mission every time he steps onto the field.  A two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week and Walter Camp National Player of the Week, Mauti leads the team in tackling with 57 stops.  Hodges is second on the team in stops with 50.  Both Mauti and Hodges are mid-season All-American candidates.  Carson has made 38 stops, and Hull has been a crucial piece of the defense on third down and passing situations, not to mention special teams.

The Penn State secondary is arguably the unit that has made the most progress on the field since week one.  With each passing practice, cornerbacks Stephon Morris, Adrian Amos and Da'Quan Davis, and safeties Malcolm Willis, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, Jake Fagnano are doing a better job making plays on the ball, an area of emphasis since the start of training camp.  The secondary has made good strides, and it will be searching for its first interception as the Lions head into the second half of the season.

The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in red zone defense, allowing opposing teams to score just 68.8 percent of their trips inside the 20.  Additionally, the Lions have forced 12 turnovers in 2012, which has been a huge part of the defense's success.

Before we begin to look ahead at the remaining schedule, give a great deal of credit to the special teams aces on the Nittany Lion roster.  Ben Kline, Michael Yancich, Derek Day, Mike Hull, Michael Mauti, Michael Zordich, and a host of others are often unheralded, but are huge factors on the Nittany Lion special teams coverage and return units.

Looking Ahead to the Second Half
While the Nittany Lions are a confident team heading into the bye, there is a lot of football yet to be played.  Penn State worked on a number of different areas during the bye week practices, and the offense, defense and special teams units all need to continue making progress each week. 

The Lions have a difficult schedule ahead in the second half of the season beginning on Oct. 20 with a night game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa.  While the Hawkeyes have two losses, they are playing their best football of the season.  Additionally, Kinnick Stadium is always a challenging place to play.

One week later, the Lions welcome Ohio State to Beaver Stadium for the lone night game in Happy Valley this season.  With a 6-0 mark, the Buckeyes are the only undefeated team in the Big Ten.  Much like Iowa, Ohio State is playing better football with each passing week.

The rest of the schedule includes trips to Purdue (3-2) and Nebraska (4-2) before the Lions finish off the season with back-to-back home games against Indiana (2-3) and Wisconsin (4-2).

Penn State played well during the past four games, but there is a great deal of potential growth still on the field for the Nittany Lions.  There is undoubtedly a challenging road ahead, but with continued progress on both sides of the ball the Nittany Lions have the potential to play some of their best football in the second half of the season.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

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