Scoring 28 points while rushing for 330 yards feels pretty good, doesn't it? Film Room hoped for explosive plays last Wednesday - and we got them on Saturday night. Penn State's offense produced eight explosive plays from scrimmage. Five of those eight came from true freshman Saquon Barkley. Six of them led to four touchdowns. Three of them came following Christian Hackenberg audibles at the line of scrimmage.
That's right, friends. James Franklin and John Donovan have (re)introduced audibles at the line of scrimmage in an attempt to jump start this offense. And, for this week at least, it helped produce 21 points. Said the Head Bald Coach following the game, "[Hackenberg] made some great checks at the line of scrimmage to get us into runs and certain looks against their blitz looks that we had worked all week long."
So we've got that going for us, which is nice. Hack's audible to a smoke route to Chris Godwin went for 30 yards and set up PSU's first touchdown. But there's probably one play in particular that James from State College was thinking of when he was discussing Hack's audibles - Akeel Lynch's 75-yard TD run just before halftime.
Kill The Lights
Penn State had just scored on a beautiful (and 'explosive') Saquon Barkley run to go up 14-0, capping a 90-yard drive on the previous possession (more on that below). Rutgers punted after just four offensive snaps, and our Lions began at our own 25-yard line, 1st-and-10, with 74 seconds remaining before halftime.
As Hack stood in the shotgun, he recognized blitz. He took a few steps forward, barked at his o-line and receivers, and tossed in a few Peyton Manning like gesticulations for good measure. Rutgers' defense killed its blitz call, and switched to a base defense. But not everyone wearing red got the call. Or, so it seemed.
Rutgers slants its front to their left - except for Kemoko Turay who ran upfield and out of the play. OLB Steve Longa chose to play man coverage, running up the seam with DaeSean Hamilton in the slot, while the rest of the RU secondary played zone.
With Longa choosing pass coverage, Turay running upfield and wide, and the rest of the Rutgers defense slanting to their left, the Knights had no one defending the "B" gap (and, actually, no one to defend the strongside "C" gap, either). Here's a crude drawing of what it looks like on a chalkboard. Presumably, Longa (not drawn) would have filled the "B" gap, between the guard (Derek Dowrey) and tackle (Paris Palmer).
But, Longa didn't. And here's the play in motion. You'll notice #3 in red and white about 30 yards downfield, halfway thru the gif.
Steve Longa is one of Rutgers' better defenders. He's a 3-year starter, and a senior. Did he simply not hear the check out of the blitz? Maybe Film Room's giving him too much credit, but we don't think that's the case. We think Longa, being a savvy veteran, recognized Hack's audible, remembered what happened the last time Hack audibled, and tried to prevent it from happening a second time.
The last time Hack audibled - before the Lynch run - was on the previous possession (the 90-yard TD drive). It didn't result in a 75-yard TD run, but it did result in a 48-yard pass completion (and run after catch) from DaeSean Hamilton. Check out the gif below. Hack sells the draw to the running back, pulls the ball back, and hits Hamilton (who waltzed past OLB Quentin Gause untouched) on the stick route from the near slot. And DaeSean is off to the races.
You'll recognize the same formation from Penn State, the same routes from the receivers (a stick from Hamilton in the near slot, and a smoke from the two outside receivers), the same zone blocking scheme from the O-line, and the same motion from the running back - a draw. We think Longa recognized it too, and tried to prevent the stick. In that regard, Longa succeeded. But, as you probably guessed already, Longa was damned if he did, damned if he didn't on this particular audible. It's the "packaged" play, the stick-draw-smoke we diagrammed in Week 4 of 2014, that included the game winner against Rutgers (a draw to Bill Belton). Thus, Rutgers' defense has been burned by this same packaged play for four of the five TDs Penn State's scored in two games against them.
[To recap: 1) Belton's game-winner in Piscataway; 2) 30-yard 'smoke' to Godwin led to a TD; 3) 48-yard 'stick' to Hamilton led to a TD; 4) 75-yard 'draw' to Lynch was a TD. Golf claps, everyone.]
Even better, the remaining TD Penn State scored against Rutgers in two games came courtesy of one-time Rutgers commit Saquon Barkley. (This is almost too good to be true - how depressing to be a Rutgers coach Sunday/Monday, amiright?)
Young Barkley's been compared to Curt Warner, Ki-Jana Carter, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk - and not to add to the outsized expectations, but...Film Room's gonna add to the outsized expectations with one more comparison: Blair Thomas.
Blair Thomas, for you texting, twittering, never-seen-a-PSU-national-championship youngsters, was a freshman on Penn State's 1986 National Championship team. He returned kickoffs, including one for a TD against Pitt that year. He caught passes out of the backfield, including a crucial deep seam route against Cincinnati that year. He split some of the carries with D.J. Dozier in a star-studded backfield, including destroying #2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa that year. He was smaller, nimble, shifty, and blindingly quick. He blew out his knee at PSU, returned for a 5th season, yet was still drafted #2 overall by the NY Jets (about 17 spots ahead of Emmitt Smith). Blair Thomas was pure awesome.
We're not trying to put the 18-year old in the College Football Hall of Fame just yet. But, Saquon Barkley is also awesome, and he's given us the film to prove it. Here are a few reasons why.
Young running backs frequently play like they're unaware of down-and-distance, trying to 'pop' everything for a big play, just like they did in high school, when they were miles ahead of 99 percent of the defenders. Not Barkley. Here's a critical 3rd-and-2 (below). It's blocked for zero yards by our O-line. Barkley, aware of the situation, lowers his head, and plows through two senior linebackers, Kaiwan Lewis and Quentin Gause, to move the sticks.
If the gif above didn't prove that Barkley keeps his legs churning after contact - this is a rare quality, actually - then here's another. Barkley's hit two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He's not stopped until he's gained 10.
"The difference between a good back and great back is what he does to the safety." Film Room's paraphrasing the late, great Joe Paterno with that quote. But, it was true 30 years ago, and it's still true today. In the gif below, Saquon makes the Rutgers safety miss in the hole, breaks a tackle, makes the same Rutgers safety miss again, and then runs away from that same Rutgers safety, Anthony Cioffi, who we're certain is glad he doesn't have to see Barkley again. Embarrassing the safety qualifies as beating the safety, and that makes Saquon "great", according to the old man.
Seriously. Just look at it. He's in a phone booth, and they still can't tackle him.
But wait, there's more. See a hole, hit the hole. This play is not blocked perfectly, but certainly good enough. Barkley sees a cutback open up (it's designed to go outside), and - boom goes the dynamite - he gone. The safety - again - is left looking helpless.
This is the same play call as the gif immediately above. Rutgers slants towards the run, and stomps the playside blocking. There's nothing over there for Barkley. This is not an issue for him. He sees a backside crease, hits it hard, breaks a tackle, and is off to the races. A play that's blocked for zero yards (to the playside) instead goes for 40. That's an O-lineman's best friend.
And it's an offensive coordinator's best friend, too. Every defensive coordinator will be watching this tape, and showing it to his players as a reason to play their gaps, not to over pursue, to drop a safety (that can tackle) into the box, etc. And that, somehow, someway, has to benefit the rest of the John Donovan offense in the weeks to come.
Hit The Lights
No team plays base defense on 95 percent (or more) of the snaps these days. In today's college game, with DCs blitzing and showing exotic fronts, you absolutely must be able to get out of a bad play, and into a decent one. Our lone audible to our stick-draw packaged play is a positive step forward in this regard, and can be credited with at least assisting on 21 of our 28 points scored Saturday. That is good and pleasing. Hooray, science.
And, with Barkley in the backfield, turning zero yard plays into nine yard plays; and with Brandon Polk/DeAndre Thompkins stretching the defense wide...who knows? Maybe we have witnessed the birth of an explosive, capable-of-scoring-points offense. The consistency is probably still a bridge too far at this point. But whatever. We'll take it.