The Players Hint At Dissent: What First Downs Have To Say About It

Some of the players on the team have been quoted discussing internal strife over play calling.  It was a topic after the Iowa game, in which it seemed like the coaches weren't playing to win.  Well now it sounds like the players are echoing some of the sentiment expressed on the interweb over the past couple of week.

"Obviously we've got a lot of guys on the team who have played a lot of football, we know what we're talking about when we see a defense thrown at us," Butler said. "Sometimes we got a little carried away with 'We should be running this play or that play.' Whatever play they call, let's execute it, and let's not get carried away with what plays we aren't running."

He's not the only one speaking up:

"We were running the ball a lot, and then these last two games, we've kind of gotten away from it a little bit," Shipley said. "We started to question that a little bit. We're all guilty of it."

[...]

"It's been a slight problem," Clark said. "We have to get away from it. Regardless of what the call is, it's not like it's new. ... If Jay [Paterno] calls it, if Galen [Hall] calls it, go out and make it happen. That's that."

 

To continue the quotefest, what Shipley probably meant to say was expressed in the comments of the offensive grading this week by jimbo2psu:

There’s nothing more satisfying to an offensive lineman than knowing you can dominate your man every play, and there’s nothing more frustrating than knowing that and then hearing a reverse called in, or a WR screen, or a deep bomb from a struggling QB fall incomplete and leave you in a hole.

So maybe the problem isn't that the offense is getting more conservative, but that they aren't utilizing their strengths on first down.  The players know Royster is averaging 6-7 ypc and yet they are in second and ten way too often.  That frustration leads to an ill-executed passing play and then all of the sudden it is third and long and everyone is upset about the first two play calls.  It's a good theory anyway.

I went and looked back at the play-by-play against Iowa and Indiana to try and find some trends.

Charts. Yes, charts. I separated every play ran on a first down into either a run or pass. From there, I tracked the results of the "set". I don't really know what else to call these: a "set" is a set of downs that ends with either another first down, a punt, a turnover or a score.  A "success" is defined as either a first down or a touchdown.

1st Down Play Count Success %
Rush 21 16 76%
Pass 10 8 80%

So there you are.  I don't know if this is the best way to judge an offense but it suits our discussion.  Bullets.

  • The actual rush/pass mix was 46/24, or 66% run.  On first downs, as charted above, that percentage is 68%.
  • Only 40% of the ten passes on first down were completions.
  • No scoring "set" started with a pass. 
  • Of the three "sets" that ended with a punt, two began with passes.

The bag is mixed here so I don't know what to conclude.  The run was used significantly more often but wasn't any more effective at moving the chains than the pass. It is interesting that the pass was not the first play called in any of the scoring "sets", but perhaps we are on to something here. The run is safe, you can't be sacked or throw an interception, and I can't help but wonder if the three field goals from that game were all a result of the coaches clamming up once the team got itself into scoring range.

Here is the Indiana chart, I quit once the score hit 27-7 for obvious reasons:

1st Down Play Count Success %
Rush 11 7 64%
Pass 13 9 69%

Pretty much the same story.

As I'm wrapping this up I am starting to second guess my classification of field goals as failures; if you include them it makes it look like the rush is much more effective, but then again maybe that is the point. The fact that Penn State so often settled for three when seven would have been better is, to me, the story of the Iowa game. Maybe the problem isn't that the offense isn't capable, but that it becomes a different offense once they are inside Kelly's range. He is a sure thing (15 for 15) inside the 40, the coaches know th.  I don't know if it's a run vs. pass issue, but more a question of how predictable they become in scoring range.

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