They would strike for stretches: the final 31 minutes against Northwestern, the first half against Ohio State, most of the Michigan game. But every time the Lions appeared to dig in for the long haul, they'd slide back down.
The result was a maddeningly inconsistent season, which fittingly produced a 7-6 final ledger.
"We played Northwestern and Ohio State back-to-back," Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said, "and with a minute to go [in the first half] against Northwestern till halftime at Ohio State, we outscored those teams 49-3. The other 59 minutes we got outscored 56-0. That's in a two-week stretch. That shows you, literally, a young team without a lot of leadership, sometimes they react to negative things very poorly and it snowballs. And sometimes, when things start to get hot, you can play with anybody.
According to Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, above, Joe Paterno "didn't feel we were a very tough football team last year. There are some guys who want to prove how tough they are."
"That was really the microcosm of our year," Paterno continued. "We were either very, very good or very, very bad. The key for us is to put the 60 minutes together in the same field, same day, and do it week after week. We're heading that way. We're practicing really tough."
Practice has had a different tone this spring at Penn State. Players feel it. Coaches feel it.
They're motivated by how last season turned out. They're motivated by competition at virtually every position. They're motivated by an 84-year-old who still knows how to light a fire under his players.
"Joe really threw down the gauntlet," Jay Paterno said of his father. "He said he didn't feel we were a very tough football team last year. There are some guys who want to prove how tough they are."
Practices have been more than a bit chippy this spring. If Penn State gets through a workout without a scrap or two breaking out, it feels like something's wrong.
"There's a lot of testosterone out there," Lions defensive tackle Devon Still said. "There's been so many fights, I can't tell you when the first one started. I thought it was going to be kind of calm like it usually is during the spring, but for some reason, it's been a real dogfight.
"I don't know what's gotten into everybody."
Still normally stays out of the fray, but last Monday he got into it with center Matt Stankiewitch. The two 300-pounders mixed it up for a few moments before the rest of the defense jumped in.
"Stank didn't have a chance," Still said, smiling.
Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has seen his share of fights in practice over the years. Sometimes, it's personal and coaches have to step in. Other times, the tussles spark out of competitiveness and the coaches can stay away.
The Lions' staff isn't intervening much this spring.
"It's been healthy," Bradley said. "There's been a couple scuffles, but it hasn't continued, it hasn't gone from one series to the next series to the locker room."
Joe Paterno seems to enjoy what he's seeing.
"He loves that type of stuff," Still said.
Paterno will love it more if Penn State's spring spunk translates into victories this fall.
The Lions have no shortage of question marks -- offensive line, defensive line, tight end, kicker -- but they should improve at arguably the two most important leadership positions, quarterback and linebacker.
Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin, who split the starts at quarterback in 2010, have impressed the staff this spring. Although a starter likely won't be named until fall camp and Bolden remains undecided about his future with the program, Penn State will have greater trust and confidence in the man calling signals this season.
"I definitely see a difference," wide receiver Derek Moye said. "Some of the plays they're making, some of the reads they're making, a lot of things they weren't doing last year are second nature to them now."
Linebacker should be a strength as Penn State returns starters Nate Stupar and Michael Mauti, as well as promising younger players like Gerald Hodges, who has drawn praise from the staff this spring. The depth at linebacker could impact the plan, especially if Penn State's fortunes on the health front don't change.
After being hit hard with injuries in 2010, Penn State lost defensive end Pete Massaro to a torn ACL early in spring ball. Ends Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore also are dealing with lingering injuries.
"We are not married to a scheme or married to people," Bradley said. "If coach Paterno walks in and says, 'I want you to play a 3-4,' we'll play a 3-4 or a 3-5 or whatever we've got to do."
Whatever we've got to do. It has been the mantra for Penn State this spring, starting with the head coach.
Joe Paterno has been critical of himself, saying he "didn't want to push some of the younger kids too far" last season. He has had fewer reservations this spring, and his players have noticed a change.
"I've enjoyed this team, I still enjoy coaching," Paterno said. "I can run around a little bit out there and get involved in drills and different things. If it appears to the kids that I am working harder at it, good, I'm glad to hear that. I don’t know whether I’m working any harder at it.
"I hope that I'm doing a better job."
Penn State reaches a potentially critical juncture this fall.
After a Rose Bowl appearance in 2008, the Lions fell short of expectations the next season and took a step back in 2010. The coming season could determine whether Lions blend with the Big Ten's midsection or get back among the league's elite.
"This isn't a mediocre program; this isn't a 7-6 program," offensive tackle Chima Okoli said. "This is a program built on a lot of pride. We've got to shoot for the top."