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Turning Point: An Effort Play Saves A Touchdown

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Zechariah McPhearson ran down a potential score in a play that could have changed the trajectory of the game.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We try to pick out a play or series of plays each week that illustrates a point in the game when the tide turned in favor of the winning team. There is not always one single moment that defines a game, such was the case in the 51-6 massacre at Heinz Field on Saturday. Don’t worry, that’s ketchup all over the place, not blood.

Penn State put together a nice goal line stand toward the end of the first half, which squashed Pittsburgh’s final scoring threat of the game. That was the runner-up this week and could have gotten the nod.

The play chosen for the Turning Point was made by redshirt sophomore Zech McPhearson. His effort came during the longest run of the game, a 63-yarder by Qadree Ollison. Coach James Franklin singled-out McPhearson’s effort following the game. Let’s take a look.

Turning Point

Here is the first segment of the play, slowed down. Watch the right side of Penn State’s defense at the snap of the ball. Cam Brown (6) steps forward and assumes the role of the right defensive end, which means he has contain at that level, and has to try to force a run his way inside. The right safety, Nick Scott (4) steps up to take on the first blocker through the hole, similar to a linebacker. At that point Zech McPhearson (14) lined up at right corner on the eleven yard line hash mark, has outside contain. If Ollison runs his way, McPhearson must turn him inside or make the tackle, otherwise there is nothing but green grass behind him. Brown holds contain, Scott takes out the blocker, McPhearson protects the outside while turning the runner back in. So far so good.

On the other side of the play start with your eyes on the left hash mark for the six yard line. That is where Micah Parsons is standing at the snap of the ball, and where Ollison eventually runs past. For every not so good play, there is usually a good play on the other side. Stefano Milan (70), redshirt senior left tackle for the Panthers, made a great play. Milan initially helped the left guard handle Kevin Givens, then slides off to take on Parsons all by himself.

Instead of taking on Milan with good low posture, Parsons allowed himself to be steered out of the hole. Had Parsons crumpled into the ground where he was, and allowed Milan that victory, the play would have gone for five or so yards, with McPhearson and others coming to help. Instead, Parsons turned and Milan was more than happy to walk him as far away from the hole as possible. At the very end of the gif, you can see Milan glance to his left and spot McPhearson, and change the direction which he is pushing Parsons to try to use his body to take out McPhearson as well. It was a great play by Milan, flat out, and had he pushed Parsons into McPhearson, it would have been the highlight of his season if not career; help on a defensive tackle, take out a linebacker and then a safety to blow open a 96-yard touchdown run.

Parsons has to learn that if the offensive lineman is leading the dance, that lineman is leading him away from the play. It’s one of those things that coach Franklin has talked about that can be easily corrected.

Here is the full play at full speed. Remember that we have the benefit of knowing that Ollison wasn’t going to run outside to the left, and that McPhearson had to wait until he broke inside to chase him that way.

From the point that Ollison crossed the fifteen yard line, he and McPhearson were in a foot race. Just before the race began, McPhearson had to alter his pursuit angle slightly so that he would not run into Micah Parsons. From there, he put everything that he had into chasing down Ollison, in the process saving a touchdown.

The play kept Pittsburgh off the board, as the Panthers went on to miss a field goal. The game remained 7-6 in favor of the Lions, who would later add an additional score before halftime. While it is expected that all players hustle and give their maximum effort, McPhearson’s speed in recognizing the magnitude of the situation, taking a proper, long pursuit angle and then making it stick, was something that you can coach but does not always happen.

This is what coach Franklin had to say about the play following the game.

In a game that featured a great number of successful plays for the Nittany Lions, Zech McPhearson made a memorable play on the longest gain from scrimmage for the Panthers. Nice job, Zech!