On the second play from scrimmage of the second half on Saturday, Joe Moorhead called a play that we will see a great deal of this year. It’s a play that is designed to allow Trace McSorley the option of handing the ball off to Saquon Barkley for a run up the middle or to throw to one of three wide receivers.
The blocking assignments are straight forward, with each lineman run-blocking the man opposite him, and Gesicki assuming the role of a lead-blocking fullback in front of Barkley. Center Connor McGovern snaps the ball and gives right guard Brandon Mahon brief help on the nose tackle before moving to the second level to address the middle linebacker.
Looking at the safeties just prior to the snap of the ball, their alignment shows the intention to provide support to the cornerbacks. One safety is straddling the 40 yard line and the other is at the 39. The cornerback at the top of the screen opposite Juwan Johnson is playing close in an attempt to slow the big wideout down when he releases from the line of scrimmage. At the bottom of the screen, DeAndre Thompkins’ speed is dictating that the cornerback play off the line, discouraging a deeper route from Thompkins. With safety help over the top, it is clear that neither outside receiver is single-covered. Unless something drastically changes just before the snap of the ball or shortly after, the read in the deep secondary for McSorley is clear; don’t go there. Only underneath passes will be open.
Trace McSorley knows something that Akron doesn’t know just prior to the snap of the ball. On this play, his talented tight end Mike Gesicki is not going to be a target in the pass game, rather a lead blocker if it ends up being a run play. Saquon Barkley will draw a great deal of attention in the run game but he also will not be a receiver on this play; either he will take the hand-off or the ball will come out so quickly that he will not have a chance to catch a pass.
With the safeties deep the three players at linebacker depth are left to account for three eligible receivers; Gesicki, Barkley, and Hamilton. The outside linebacker confronts Gesicki in the hole and would have covered him had he went out for a pass. The middle linebacker in the formation stays home to protect against a Barkley run or reception. That leaves No.23 Nathan Bischof, a nickel cornerback lined up at outside linebacker, to either cover the run on the left side of the offensive formation or cover Hamilton one-on-one underneath the umbrella of zone coverage. When Bischof steps up, committing to the run, it leaves Hamilton open underneath for the easy pitch and catch.
Penn State right tackle Chasz Wright made a lot of great plays on Saturday but this was not one of them. It was almost as though Wright was the portal between present time and the future for the defensive end as he emerged on the other side of Wright seemingly before the ball was snapped; so quickly as though he was pulled by an unseen force. Had McSorley handed the ball to Barkley, there would have been a probable tackle for a loss. The nickel back, in the position of an outside linebacker on the 30 yard line in the picture below, stepped forward to contain a possible Barkley or McSorley run to the wide side of the field.
Wright’s being beaten on the outside so quickly had to have been a surprise for McSorley. Fortunately the two key reads, the deep safeties and the run-leveraged linebackers, had already told McSorley where to go with the ball. Juwan Johnson was left alone for what could have been an easy five-yard out for the first down when the cornerback opposite him jumped on the run option. That created a wide gap underneath the safety for Johnson to work. At the bottom of the screen Thompkins was given such a wide cushion by the safety and corner that his five-yard slant was open as well.
When the opposing team is so terrified of the prospect of stopping Barkley on 2nd and 2, or being victim of a ball thrown over the top, it opens up the pass game underneath. Had Wright executed his block and the nickel back opposite Hamilton dropped in coverage instead of stepping forward, a hand off to Barkley would have gained the first down easily. Knowing Barkley, it could have gone all the way to the end zone. That is likely why Akron chose the least damaging poison to endure; a quick pass.
On the previous play Penn State ran a two-option run play with all players run-blocking. With no receivers on the play, McSorley only has to make the decision of keeping the ball and running to the right or handing the ball to Barkley. It’s hard to know without asking the coaches, but at times the give or keep on this play can be dictated prior to the snap; other times it can be a post-snap read for McSorley. Reading the right guard Brandon Mahon, this appears to be a call for McSorley to keep the ball all the way. Mahon allows the tackle opposite him a free path to the backfield and instead blocks the middle linebacker, sealing off his pursuit had he read the McSorley keep properly.
Notice Gesicki working on the cornerback at the top of the screen. His initial release as though he may go out for a pass buys him time and a little space so that he doesn’t have to block for a full five seconds. Once he engages the defender five yards downfield Gesicki does a great job of staying with the block, even giving a little extra push at the very end, taking the defender completely out of the play. It’s nice to see a player that set records by air last year spending such effort in the run game. That little extra push at the end not only shows his willingness to complete his blocking assignment, but also perhaps a smidgen of a nasty attitude that is helpful in the run game.
Look at the attention that the defense is giving Barkley as McSorley pulls the ball out. All Akron eyes are on him, and rightfully so. Had the ball gone to Barkley for a run to the left, receivers DaeSean Hamilton and DeAndre Thompkins were set to double-team the cornerback with Juwan Johnson alone with the poor little defensive back at the bottom of the screen.