Penn State a fabulous finisher, statistics show

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Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) has 56 completions of 20 yards or more.

The more that Penn State coach James Franklin and his players have talked this season about getting off to faster starts in games, the better the Nittany Lions have played after halftime.

The Lions, who take on Wisconsin on Saturday night for the Big Ten championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, have put up some impressive numbers in the second half, particularly during the eight-game winning streak that enabled them to nudge past Ohio State to represent the Big Ten East in Indy.

Opponents have built up a 168-159 edge in the first half, but the Nittany Lions have rolled up a 280-105 advantage in the final 30 minutes and overtime, a 175-point gap that is second in the nation only to top-ranked Alabama, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Another impressive stat comes courtesy of the Penn State defense, which has allowed 52 yards per game fewer in the second half than it has in the first half, allowing the Lions to outgain the opposition on average by 234-147.

It's almost as though Franklin was apologizing for the slow starts early in the season. But eventually he sounded glad to have that chip representing better play in the second half in his pocket.

"I don't want to say we're a second-half team because we're trying to change that, and we've done a better job of that recently," Franklin said after his team's 62-24 win over Purdue that featured 45 points and 315 total yards in the second half. "But it helped us coming in and telling the guys, 'No worries, stick to the plan. We're a second-half team and we're going to come out and make some adjustments.' "

The second-half proficiency has been especially effective in the last three games. Penn State has outscored Indiana, Rutgers, and Michigan State by 96-17 and averaged 308.3 yards in total offense in the three second halves.

Quarterback Trace McSorley has 56 completions of 20 yards or more. Nineteen of them have come in the last three games, 14 in the second half.

A theory for the slow start and fast finishes is that being a young team, Penn State's players don't necessarily pick up changes in the opponent's offensive and defensive schemes right away, and a halftime break is needed for the coaches to go over adjustments.

"Part of it is getting adjusted to the speed of the game," offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said last month. "Part of it is seeing what the defense is doing and what ways they're trying to stop you . . . figuring out a different way to defend you.

"To me, it's play-calling, execution, recognition of defenses, and adjustments. It's a good sign for us that we've been able to go in at halftime, make good adjustments, and come out strong in the second half."

Cornerback John Reid, the former St. Joseph's Prep star, called the first-half-second-half difference "weird because we've even talked about it in the locker room."

"I think it's just the mentality that we have on the team, and the training that we have in the offseason, that allows us to come out and play fast in the second half," Reid said. "I will say it's a credit to the players and the coaches that we can come out and play a better second half. We obviously need to come out faster in the first half. That's something we've improved on."

Four times during their winning streak, against Maryland, Purdue, Iowa, and Indiana, the Nittany Lions have scored on their first possession of the game.

With young players playing a key role on various position units, it will be important for the Lions to not to get into an early hole against Wisconsin and its ball-control offense, even though they have shown the ability to come back, rallying from second-half deficits of 14 points against Ohio State and 10 points against both Minnesota and Indiana.

Nittany notes

Senior long-snapper Tyler Yazujian, a Spring Ford High School graduate from Royersford, was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-American first team. Yazujian, a second-team selection last year, carries a 3.87 grade point average as a security and risk analysis major. . . . Dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields of Kennesaw, Ga., announced on Twitter that he had committed to Penn State for the freshman class of 2018. Fields, a four-star recruit, is the second 2018 prospect to commit to the Nittany Lions this week, joining tight end Zack Kuntz, also a four-star recruit, of Camp Hill, Pa.

jjuliano@phillynews.com

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