Way back - ages ago, in fact - Film Room felt inspired to slap together its initial BSD blog post after catching a 30-second GoPSUSports video clip of Bill O'Brien's new offense, in which Moxie and Stank, not yet heros, set the pass protection at fall camp. In that Film Room, we compared BOB's new offense to what the PSU players used the previous season. And the game we used to compare was...wait for it...Penn State at Temple, September 17th, 2011.
If you don't remember that game, congratulations. If you don't want to remember it, please skip ahead to the next paragraph. Otherwise, here's a brief reminder. Trailing 10-7 late in the 4th quarter, Mike Mauti intercepted a pass to give our horrendous offense excellent field position for one last shot at a game-winning drive. And with Rob Bolden back under center, our Lions pulled it off. They "drove" 44 yards over an excruciating 12-plays, and on 4th down and 1 yard to go, from the Temple 3-yard line, Brandon Beachum crept forward for 2 yards. First down (whew). Mike Zordich pushed the ball over the goal on the next snap. Penn State won, 14-10. Hooray. Maxwell Edison provided the clinically depressed recap (read it - you'll get a chuckle at how similar things are to today).
The point to this really long, really boring lede is this: we've gone back to the future.
Kill The Lights
Not all the way back, of course. Galen and Jay aren't executing a rock-paper-scissors routine behind a tinted press box to determine whether to run or pass. But the offensive schemes are similar - particularly the much maligned pass protection. As illustrated in that original Film Room many moons ago (and rehashed last year following the Maryland loss), both staffs use slide and zone protections far more than the man and "big-on-big" protections favored by BOB. And, when facing an opponent who makes liberal use of zone blitzes, stunts, and overloads, our quarterbacks will occasionally get tattooed by free-running defenders. Pair that pass protection scheme
with rigid, no-exceptions routes for the receivers, and you end up with a duplicate of what QB#1 Rob Bolden saw in the shots below.
(overload the right, 7 defenders on the ball, zone blitz)
(we slide our pass pro left, because that's what was called in the huddle)
(no receiver is "hot", Bolden gets lit by a free-running defender. And...punt).
Looks, feels, and smells familiar, doesn't it? In other words, embrace the pain. Schematically speaking, it's here to stay, until further notice. Finkel is Einhorn. Einhorn is Finkel.
Blog reader William DiFilippo wrote in this week with a question. "Could we get a film room on what other things Penn State could have done based on 1) how the OL struggled and 2) what temple was giving them?" Certainly, William. Film Room always accommodates questions, especially when very deep, very dark depression grips our soul with its cold, boney hands and refuses to let go.
One strategy for attacking a "multiply aggressive" defense is to run hurry up. That is, if you don't huddle your offense, and you get to the line quickly, and snap the ball again, you afford the defense very little time to call new blitzes, and no time to disguise them pre-snap. [No, I don't know why we abandoned the "hurry" aspect of hurry-up after the first two drives, but it could have something to do with Donovan's play calls being 12 words long, while Gus Malzahn uses a number.]
Another strategy is to spread the field with 4- and 5-wide receivers. On Saturday, Penn State frequently used two tight ends, and aligned them "in the box". Of course, the more offensive players you put between the tackles, the more defensive players you'll see between the tackles. With more defenders in the box, it becomes easier for the defense to to overload a side, disguise a blitz, and/or rush an LB but drop a DE into the flat, from whence the DE shall pick off a pass and return it to your 1-yard line. Conversely, if your offensive threats are spread out, horizontally across the field, you're mandating that the defense do the same. Fewer defenders in the box equals less options for the defense via the blitz, and that makes pass protection more predictable. Predictable is good.
Post game, "James from State College" declared that Temple played a bunch of press-man coverage on the outside. He was correct in that assessment. One way to take advantage of press man coverage, even with struggles up front, is the fabled "back shoulder fade". The receiver runs up the field on a "go" or "9" or "fly" or "long-bomb". And the quarterback purposely throws the ball short, behind the receiver, who stops suddenly, turns, and catches the ball. Practiced well, it's a very difficult route to defend. But the beautiful part of it is this - you don't have to practice it a ton. It's not like your 18-yard comeback route - one we frequently throw to the opposite hash - where the receiver must run his route precisely (and the line must hold its blocks for 3 seconds), or we're risking an interception. Nope - the back shoulder fade, or fade-stop, can be 'stopped' by the receiver at any depth. And it doesn't have to be a prearranged depth, coordinated in advance with the QB, because the receiver is watching the ball for his entire route. Wherever the ball's flight ends, that's where you, as the receiver, stop your route, turn, and catch the ball. Pretty cool, right? We kinda/sorta ran one of these in the 4th quarter, with WR Chris Godwin coming down with the ball for a gain of 33 yards. [No, I don't know why didn't try that earlier or more often.]
Ideally, we'd move away from our slide and zone protections, and man-up our pass pro. Block "big-on-big", with our five o-linemen blocking four defensive linemen and the middle linebacker. Then, our entire offense knows who has whom pre-snap, and just as importantly, who does not have whom. Makes things less confusing. We'd also give our QB and receivers the ability to site adjust routes based on blitz and coverage reads. Since we'd know which defenders are accounted for, and which are not, QB and receivers can change their route should an unblocked defender blitz. And - ta-da - we begin to make positive yards and look less disorganized. Unfortunately, that appears to be a bridge too far at this juncture, though the others mentioned above are still readily available without making wholesale playbook changes. Why? Because you only get so many practices in college. And, at least based on last season, John Donovan prefers to allocate his practice time on installing a deep and varied rushing offense, focused mainly on power.
There are a ton of other, simplier things John Donovan can do moving forward, and, Film Room expects we'll see a bunch of them. We'll try to point them out in this space each week, to give the balding Long Islander / Mets fan a brief respite from the hoards of pitch forks and torches at his office door.
The real challenge for John Donovan, last year and again this year, will be mental. All of his junior and senior players have seen "the other side" (i.e., BOB's playbook). And, since week 3 last season, their body language shouts that they believe the BOB grass is greener (and that the Donovan grass is actually a desert). That includes a parade of recently graduated Penn Staters with twitter accounts, as well. Can Donovan win them over? Because we're going to be staring at an offense firmly entrenched in the bottom quarter of college football - again - if he can't.