Let's start this week's depression with a trivia question. When was the last time this Penn State offense put together a touchdown drive that did NOT include an "explosive" play? For our purposes, an "explosive" play is any run of 15+ yards, or any pass of 20+ yards. Rephrased, when is the last time that Penn State started with the ball on our side of the 50, and marched methodically down the field to score six points, without the assistance of a big play? Anyone remember the most recent example?
The answer is... ...November 30, 2013, at #15 Wisconsin, with BOB calling all media idiots post-game for making PSU underdogs that week (heart you, BOB). On Penn State's first possession of the third quarter in Buckyland, they took the ball at their own 33 yard line, and traveled 67 yards in 10 plays, capping the nearly 5-minute drive with a 7-yard TD strike to Jesse James. Four Zack Zwinak runs, six Christian Hackenberg passes. No runs greater than 15 yards. No passes greater than 20 yards. Just nickle-and-dimed their way down the field for a touchdown.
But yes, that was a long time ago. The 2013 squad, with "18-year old" Christian Hackenberg at the reins, produced 12 "methodical" scoring drives in 10 games that year (Film Room ignored the two scheduled patsies, Kent State and Eastern Michigan) - six for field goals, and six for TDs. Also of note, they cobbled together at least one of those "methodical" drives in 9 of their 10 games against non-crap teams (plus Purdue). Nebraska, visitors to Beaver Stadium in the penultimate week of 2013, was the only opponent not to surrender a methodical drive that season.
Kill The Lights
In the new regime's time, against all opponents (even UMass, Akron, Indiana, and Buffalo), Penn State's produced a grand total of six methodical drives, all of which ended in Sam Ficken field goals.
|UCF||Q4/FG||8 plays, 55 yards (game winner)
|Umass||Q1/FG||15 plays, 53 yards|
|jNW||Q2/FG||10 plays, 55 yards|
|Michigan||Q2/FG||11 plays, 60 yards|
|Ohio State||Q4/FG||19 plays, 77 yards (game tying)
|Maryland||Q1/FG||9 plays, 36 yards|
Worse, as you can tell by the table above, the last time Penn State's offense scored points on a "methodical" drive, if you can call it that, was November 1, 2014, in the first quarter against Maryland. Our Lions took the opening kickoff at our 34-yard line, and traveled another 36-yards over nine plays before Sam Ficken booted home a 47-yard field goal. And that's it. Since then, we've seen 112 offensive possessions in regulation, and zero "methodical" drives total - no, not even for a field goal (all 26 TDs and FGs below came after a turnover, a big return, and/or with the benefit of an explosive offensive play).
|End of Half/Game||7|
Don't look for that stat to change this week. Rutgers, like Temple in week one, will gamble on defense. They'll play aggressively - though not quite as aggressively - showing a bunch of man-under coverage, usually to send an extra pass rusher or two off the edge, or up the gut.
In the shot below from last year's game in Piscataway, John Donovan mercifully spread the field (mostly). Rutgers is manned up across the board, with two deep safeties (though only one is pictured).
Now that you've seen the coverage, below is a shot of the routes. DaeSean Hamilton, to the top of the screen, will run a slant. So does Geno Lewis (the X receiver at the bottom of the shot). Jesse James (the Y tight end) will run directly into his man defender, and curl up / post up. Matt Zanellatto, the Z slot, will run a bubble. Bill Belton, in the near slot, will run a "post," straight up the hash, then bent inside. Belton's being covered by a middle linebacker, mano-a-mano (though that MLB has deep help).
And here's your gif of the play. Christian Hackenberg takes the quick throw, rifling a bullet at Geno. It falls incomplete, and James' route creates more traffic than was necessary. But take a look at Belton. He smokes the MLB, who is toast in man coverage, in about 3 steps. Now - picture Brandon Polk or DeAndre Thompkins in place of Belton, with a pump fake from Hack to hold the safeties for a split second. Or, not. Polk probably outruns them anyhow. Dude is f-a-s-t. I think we'd be looking at six (assuming BTPR rushes 4 - which they will if we spread the field, since Rutgers is loathe to go "zero" coverage).
Here's another reason for encouragement - screen passes. Seriously, we ran some last year. And they worked against Rutgers, even without a blitz (BTPR rushes just 4 below).
Rutgers used a ton of 2-deep safeties against us last year - but the inside receivers saw a lot of man coverage. Here's an example of DaeSean running away from the nickle DB-type person, and pulling the ball in for a first down. If we can spread the field, and get our newfound fast dudes the ball with a little room to run, I think we can get some explosive pass plays on Saturday, even on short passes, thanks to "YAC" - yards after catch.
The other spot to find some yards against that 2-deep will be "the honey hole" - the area behind the pressed up corner (or other flat defender), and in front of the deep-half safety. The bonus is that we don't need three seconds from our o-line to get the ball out there. Here are two examples of Hack making these throws - one to the left, to Geno Lewis (where the CB drops as deep half/third defender); one to the right, to Hamilton.
Hit The Lights
Chunk plays, friends. We need them, because we're not consistent enough on offense to nickle-and-dime our way down the field. We've haven't been since 2013 (and that was down from 2012). But the plays are there to be made this Saturday. And the influx of speed should help us take advantage of our neighbors to the east.