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Life On the Margins: Penn State’s still stuck on the doorstep

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Obsessing over the statistical oddities and minutiae of close and closer-than-they-looked games that could have gone the other way.

Penn State (5-1) is next-to-last in the Big Ten in scoring offense.
The Nittany Lion offense is bad. (How bad is it?) It's so bad, even when it's good, it's bad: Last Saturday, the Lions embarked on three separate drives covering at least 80 yards in the first three quarters against Iowa, all of them eating up more than five minutes on at least a dozen plays, resulting in a grand total of six points.

In fact, the offense isn't quite as impotent as it gets credit for when it comes to simply moving the ball — hence, three separate drives covering at least 80 yards against a defense as respectable as Iowa's. But it is uniquely turrible at finishing those drives. On its current four-game winning streak, Penn State has managed just five touchdowns in 16 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and is 1-for-9 in the red zone the last two weeks. For the season, the Lions have the worst red zone efficiency rate in the Big Ten and the dreadful lack of production on the scoreboard to prove it. Against teams that aren't Indiana State and Eastern Michigan, PSU is averaging 13.5 points per game and hasn't topped sixteen.

It hasn't mattered yet, because the only opponent that's put more than 10 on the board against the Nittany Lion defense is Alabama, which held the Penn State offense out of the red zone until well into the fourth quarter. With Purdue and Northwestern on deck, it may not matter for a few more weeks still. If the Big Ten Championship Game is a realistic goal, though, surviving the closing stretch against Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin is probably going to require a few more trips to the end zone.

Auburn (4-2) is allowing more points than it scores.
The Tigers' knack for surviving close games is well-documented — three of their four wins this year have come down to the final seconds, on the heels of last year's season-long Cardiac Cats revue — but combined with their more convincing losses at Clemson and Arkansas, it's also produced an interesting footnote: Auburn is the only team in either of this week's polls allowing more points (29.2) than it scores (27.8) on average, or yielding more yards than it gains.{YSP:MORE}

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Only twice in six games have the Tigers finished with more yards than their opponent, outgaining Florida Atlantic 315 to 308 in a 30-14 win on Sept. 24 and South Carolina 358 to 289 in a 16-13 win a week later. In their other two wins, they were outpaced by 84 yards by Utah State and 150 yards by Mississippi State, but delivered non-offensive touchdowns — via kick return and interception return, respectively, not to mention the miracle onside kick and — that closed the gap. In the absence of that kind of opportunism against Clemson and Arkansas, the gap reached double digits.

Middle Tennessee (1-4) has lost three games by a combined nine points.
The Blue Raiders' 36-33, double-overtime loss against previously winless Western Kentucky confirmed their place at the bottom of the Sun Belt standings, a cruel fate for a team that hasn't been that bad: In three of its four losses, MTSU has won the battle for total yards and yards per play, only to lose in the final two minutes — on a late touchdown pass by Purdue, a failed fourth down attempt in Troy territory and an overtime touchdown pass by WKU — after leading at some point in the second half.

At some point, either the conference's No. 1 offense is going to break through, or it's going to fold in on itself as the seasons begins to spin out of control.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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