After a pit stop, which in football they call the end of a quarter, Penn State’s offense aggressively turned the key, pounded the gas and only hit the brakes when needed in the final 15 minutes of its most recent game against Northwestern.
The surge flipped a 28-17 deficit into a 39-28 victory over a ranked opponent and suggested the Nittany Lions are ready to turn football games into asphalt races.
Penn State coaches and players refer to the up-tempo play that sparked the comeback as the team’s “NASCAR” packages. The term originates from a sport in which speed, full gas tanks and fearless tactics yield startling results.
Bill O’Brien, the Nittany Lions’ head coach and offensive coordinator, serves as the crew chief. Fifth-year senior quarterback Matt McGloin acts as the driver, steering the offense without using a huddle.
Penn State (4-2) ran 35 offensive plays in the fourth quarter against Northwestern. The Nittany Lions finished with 99 offensive snaps, tying a school record established in 1966.
Going “NASCAR” is helping Penn State average 77.2 offensive snaps per game. Last year’s team averaged 68.5 offensive snaps.
Can the Nittany Lions reach 100 plays in one of their final six games? Their next chance arrives Saturday night at Iowa (4-2).
“We have to continue do what we do, which is play fast, get first downs, keep control of the ball and score touchdowns,” McGloin said. “That’s basically it. I don’t really worry about whether or not we run 80 or 100 plays. We are just out there playing a game, and if (100 plays) happens, that’s a great thing.”
Penn State’s first 14 fourth-quarter offensive snaps against Northwestern occurred with 20 or more seconds remaining on the play clock. The Nittany Lions hit the brakes before a third-and-four play from the Wildcat 6. They hit the brakes again on the following play, a fourth-and-four from the same spot, and trimmed the deficit on McGloin’s touchdown pass to Allen Robinson.
After a quick defensive stop, the Nittany Lions continued the frantic pace, snapping the ball with 20 or more seconds left on the play clock on 11 of their next 12 offensive plays. The packages flustered and exhausted the Wildcats.
McGloin said nine months in Craig Fitzgerald’s high-energy strength and conditioning programs allows Penn State to use the offense.
“It’s definitely a great part of our offense,” he said. “We enjoy it. We are constantly on the same page each and every play, and that’s why it works. We’re in really good shape as a football team thanks to Coach Fitzgerald and his staff getting us prepared each and every week. It’s the reason why we have some success with it.”
Running back Zach Zwinak, who receives steady work when Penn State uses the package, said decisions relating to the NASACR sets are often spontaneous.
“Usually I find out as we are going on the field.” said Zwinak, who rushed for 128 yards against Northwestern. “I think, ‘It’s OK. I have got to do my job and pay attention because Matt is going to be communicating the plays in, and I have to be able to take what he says and line up right and run the right play.’”
Multiple factors are considered before somebody hollers “NASCAR.” The list includes the time, score, rate and volume of defensive stops, and desire to slow an opponent. Northwestern, for example, ran 93 offensive plays and gained more than 700 yards the previous week against Indiana.
“We knew we couldn’t put our defense in that position,” running backs coach Charles London said, “so we tried to play their game a little bit.”
London said Penn State started installing its “NASCAR” in spring drills. The work continued in training camp and extended into regular-season practices. Mystery surrounds Saturday’s approach because Iowa’s offense is methodical and O’Brien has received two weeks between games to construct a plan. Penn State hasn’t played since upending Northwestern.
“Every game is different,” O’Brien said. “It’s whatever it takes to win the game. Maybe it’s 70 plays in a game, whatever it may be. But I think our offense has improved, and hopefully can continue to improve.”
Spoken like a skilled crew chief.