Back in week one of film room this year, I showed your a clip of former QB Nick Marshall terrorizing the Alabama defense with his legs, only to throw the ball to a wide open Sammie Coates and tie the game for Auburn. Nick Marshall was a very good college quarterback in Gus Malzahn's system, a similar system to ours, yet he was so bad throwing the ball that he did not even get a look as a quarterback from NFL scouts. How can someone who cannot make even easy throws consistently be a good quarterback in major college football? Simple. He just has to threaten the defense with his legs, whether designed or through improvisation, and things will start to open up.
In the first half of Saturday's game against Minnesota, Penn State's offense was, well, bad. It was predictable, one dimensional, and pretty easy to defend. Minnesota's gameplan was clear: focus on Barkley in the run game and cover PSU's receivers in a lot of man coverage with underneath help, and force Trace McSorley to make an accurate deep throw from the pocket. It worked. McSorley's accuracy on deep throws was underwhelming to say the least, and with Minnesota not respecting Trace in the read option game whatsoever, Barkley became easy to stop. Things needed to change in the second half, and while it was not perfect, it was much better. The offense had more dimensions than it has had all season. McSorley kept the ball on the read option a few times, and was not afraid to improvise on passing downs. This won Penn State the game, and it's something that must continue for Penn State's offense to be successful.
Let's take a look at one example of Trace keeping the ball in the read option game. Penn State comes out in their base 11 personnel, strong side to the boundary side of the field. The line group is the group that got the majority of the snaps Saturday, from left to right it's Mahon-Bates-Gaia-McGovern-Nelson. Minnesota comes out in nickel personnel and are matching up to the Penn State receivers in man-align.
Here we are right after snap, approaching the mesh point. Just this frame makes it hard to see what the read player on this play, #95, is doing. Is he crashing or is he containing? If you use the first picture as a reference, you can see he has gone significantly inside at the snap and is crashing. Take note of Mike Gesicki, who has not gone to block, rather he has stayed in the backfield. The play-side linebacker for Minnesota has also been sucked in about two yards towards the middle. It might not seem like much but it will make a huge difference in the success of this play
McSorley has made incorrect reads frequently this season on read options, but he gets this one right. The defense has collapsed on Barkley and even if he makes no one miss, McSorley should be able to get five yards by cutting this up the middle. The linebacker previously referenced that got sucked too far in is now completely out of the play due to Brendan Mahon getting to the second level on getting a hat on him. On the bottom of the screen you can still see Gesicki staying in the backfield. This play is actually a bubble triple option. After he reads the defensive end, Trace's next read is the unblocked safety. If he commits to Trace, Trace is supposed to flip out to Gesicki. If he stays out on Gesicki, McSorley should keep it. At this point, it's unsure what the safety will choose to do.
The safety does make a decision, but his hesitation due to worrying about the potential screen pass costs him the chance to make a play. McSorley makes the correct read and gains 11 yards for a first down. This is how the read option should function and you can see the bind it puts the defense in. If McSorley can consistently make the correct reads, this offense will become really dangerous.
(I couldn't find a clip of this play to gif that wasn't too big where I couldn't get it GIFed for free. I embedded the video with the play timestamped instead.)
Let's look ahead to a play where McSorley does some improvisation of his own, and if Penn State ends up having a fine season, it will be a play that will be thought of often.
Penn State needs a play down the field here. They come out in their base 11 personnel, with a balanced look. Minnesota could've went dime here, but they'll go nickel instead. They've matched up to the Penn State wideouts and are flashing a cover 2 look from the safeties.
Here is a look at McSorley at the top of his drop. Minnesota is rushing four and the Penn State offensive line is doing a nice job pass blocking here in a critical time. It looks like in this frame that Andrew Nelson might be beat but it's just a bad picture for him as he ends up doing a nice job. You can see at the bottom of the screen that Penn State has some crossers in Barkley and Godwin and they're being played in man to man coverage. This is cover two man defense and with them rushing four, there aren't enough players for Minnesota to leave a linebacker in to run a robber zone or a QB spy underneath. Not to take anything away from Penn State on this play, but this is a puzzling playcall from Minnesota. McSorley had stepped up in the pocket and made plays a few times that half and it doesn't make a ton of sense for them to have nothing to defend that on the most critical play of the game for their defense.
Trace decides to tuck it and run. As you can see he has nothing but green grass in front of him. It's a really nice job by the offensive line in pass protection.
The Minnesota defense truly broke down on this play. McSorley has over 15 yards of open field from the line of scrimmage and he ends up taking this all the way down to the 22, comfortable field goal range for Tyler Davis. Obviously this play was crucial to this game, but PSU's receivers have been struggling to get separation against man coverage. If Trace shows the ability to do this consistently it will dissuade teams from playing man coverage against us.
I don't know how much improvement we will see in Trace's reads for Maryland, but the bye week ahead makes for a great opportunity for McSorley to really improve his decision making in our read option game.
Also, this Friday from 1PM-2PM I will be hosting a Facebook live Q+A through the Black Shoe Diaries Facebook page. Come armed with questions about Penn State football, other Penn State sports, and College football in general as we move ahead into homecoming weekend.