Penn State’s defense has played some lights-out second-half football the last two weeks, holding Maryland and Nebraska to a combined three points, 165 total yards, 46 plays, and less than 24 minutes time of possession, while its offense amassed an even 600 yards.

Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, they were already 21 points behind entering the second half of each of the two games, and ended up on the losing side to remain winless.

The 2020 Penn State football season has been one big puzzle with missing pieces throughout. One of the more mystifying aspects has been the play of the defense, which allowed an average of 14 points last season but is 12th currently in the Big Ten averaging 34.8 points to opponents.

The Lions are being outscored, 93-26, in the first half through four games. While it hasn’t all been on the defense, with 20 points scored off turnovers, the unit has given up touchdowns to Ohio State, Maryland, and Nebraska on their opponents’ first possessions of the game.

“We’ve got to find a way to play better in opening drives,” head coach James Franklin said. “We’ve got to protect the ball on offense, and we’ve got to play our brand that we’ve been playing on defense in the second halves, earlier in games. But I think more than anything, it’s tackling, and it’s being able to adjust to all the different looks that we’re getting early in games.”

Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said the tone set at practice and must carry over into games.

“We have to concentrate throughout the week,” he said, “coming out with an intention, with an energy, with a focus on what we have to do at the beginning of the practice so it translates to the beginning of games. I can’t put my finger on anything, but I know what we have to do to give us the best chance possible starting faster this week against Iowa.”

The Nittany Lions (0-4), the only winless team in the Big Ten, will host the Hawkeyes (2-2) Saturday at Beaver Stadium. The defense hopes it can carry over the momentum from last week when the unit held Nebraska to three second-half points, while the offense battled its way back, falling short on its last two drives at the Cornhuskers’ 11 and 13.

“It does give us momentum, but we’ve got to use it,” Mustipher said. “It means nothing if we show what we’re capable of in the second half if we don’t come out in the first half against Iowa playing like we did in that second half. We’ve just got to start faster, man. That’s the bottom line. We’ve got to play great winning football in those first halves of every game.”

Penn State's PJ Mustipher tackles Buffalo's Jaret Patterson in 2019.
Abby Drey / MCT
Penn State's PJ Mustipher tackles Buffalo's Jaret Patterson in 2019.

Another area where a greater contribution is needed from the defense is with turnovers. The Nittany Lions have one takeaway in their last three games. For the season, they are minus-6 in turnover margin, and only six teams in FBS have a worse figure.

For all the struggles over the last four weeks, Penn State players continue to insist that their confidence is still high and that a reversal of fortune is right around the corner.

“Our confidence level is still there,” linebacker Jesse Luketa said. “We’re currently not where we want to be, but all that is in the past. The only thing we can focus on is ensuring that we do what we need to do to attack these next five games and finish strong. We’re hungry. We’re resilient. We know what we need to do.”

Middle linebacker Ellis Brooks, the team’s top tackler, said confidence doesn’t only come from success but from preparation.

“It’s preparation in terms of your approach to practice throughout the week,” Brooks said. “At least for me, it’s leading by example, coming in and taking notes early. Early to meetings. Early to practice. Getting extra work in so that you can go out there and play confident on Saturdays.”

Of course, the defense can use some help from the team’s other phases. While the Lions are third in the Big Ten in total offense, they are 10th in scoring, and their red-zone efficiency – eight touchdowns in 19 trips – is poor. They also must be stronger on special teams against the excellent Iowa units.

The Penn State athletic department’s latest COVID-19 testing report Wednesday counted six positive cases among 1,558 athletes tested in the Nov. 6-13 period. The department does not break down tests by program.