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Five keys for second half of season

10/11/2012

Midway through the season, NittanyNation takes a look at the five areas on which Penn State will have to focus for continued success:

1. Shoring up the third-down defense

Ohio and Virginia's recipe for a comeback was relatively simple: Target the middle of the field, especially the safeties, and convert 85 percent of third downs in the second half. The Nittany Lions have improved greatly since then, mostly by getting pressure (see: Temple) and mixing up about a half-dozen zone-coverage schemes. But the Nittany Lions remain one of the worst third-down defenses in the country. They're ranked No. 78 in the nation by allowing first downs about 41 percent of the time, and they'll need to continually improve in this area to go 4-2 through the next six games.

2. Finding a deep threat to spread the field

Matt McGloin has done a tremendous job, but Penn State's conservative passing attack could lead to more safeties cheating up and disrupting this offense. Against Northwestern in the second quarter, after a few adjustments, McGloin was just 6-of-15. Sure, he finished strong. But for this passing attack to truly frustrate opposing secondaries, Penn State will have to air it out a little more. By design, McGloin rarely looks deeper than 20 yards. A deep threat would add another dimension to this offense and could improve this dynamic attack.

3. Return of a speedy Bill Belton

Zach Zwinak arguably could be the biggest surprise on this team, but Penn State needs a home-run threat -- and Zwinak's not that player. Big plays have not been a trademark of this offense, and that's why Penn State needs a speedy Belton to return to 100 percent. Belton will likely end up splitting carries with Zwinak, but it's important for Penn State to have a player who can sometimes sprint for a 20- or 30-yard gain. Zwinak rumbles for 4 to 6 yards at a time, but he's not going to outrun the secondary for a touchdown. He's good, but Belton also needs to have a role with this offense. He hasn't yet this season.

4. More consistent special teams

If Sam Ficken were more consistent or the field-goal unit blocked a little better, Penn State would be 5-1. Instead, Ficken is statistically the second-worst kicker in all of college football. He has made just 3 of 9 field goals so far; only Air Force's Parker Herrington (1-of-6) has fared worse, but he's also made all 23 of his PATs. The punting unit is only slightly better. Alex Butterworth usually punts balls fewer than 40 yards, and he shanks balls almost as often he punts them deep. Penn State has been able to overcome these shortcomings, but the Lions are preparing to face their toughest opponents of the season. If special teams does not improve, it could cost the team another win -- maybe two.

5. Remaining successful on fourth downs

No team has attempted more fourth downs, and no team has converted more, either. Penn State's success here has kept drives alive and has been a big confidence booster for this offense. Against Northwestern, Penn State converted 5 of 6 -- all of the five on scoring drives. If Penn State can maintain its 65 percent success rate, it will be difficult to beat.