When it comes to jump starting Penn State’s running game, James Franklin is willing to take a “whatever works” approach.
If that means lining up in a named-for-feline formation, so be it.
Franklin loves the “Wildcat” look — wherein the ball is snapped to a running back rather than quarterback Christian Hackenberg — and will continue to use it to boost a Nittany Lions’ ground attack that has been inconsistent behind four new starters. Penn State ranks 13th in the Big Ten with just 81 1/2 rushing yards per game thus far.
“I think it’s going to be a big part of the offense,” Frankin said following Penn State’s 21-3 win over Akron on Saturday. “I know people seem to hate the Wildcat, but I love it. We’re going to do whatever we have to do to get numbers.”
Penn State has used the formation in each of its first two games. Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak both got Wildcat looks against Central Florida and Akeel Lynch got in on the action against Akron. The Wildcat provided a few explosive plays and set up a few others on Saturday.
Take a look at Penn State’s first drive in the fourth quarter. Lynch took two straight direct snaps and dashed for 19 yards. Zwinak took over and turned a direct snap into an 18-yard rush. On Penn State’s next drive, Hackenberg hit tight end Jesse James deep with Akron defenders crowding the line of scrimmage, anticipating a run.
But it’s not just a set-up gimmick.
To Franklin, the Wildcat affords his offense a chance to apply physicality in bunches. The Wildcat scheme, in theory, provides a true 11-on-11 matchup as the play unfolds with 10 blockers on 10 defenders with a ballcarrier and eventual tackler. But a player like Belton can add another dimension.
A high school quarterback with consecutive seasons of 2,000-plus passing yards on his resume, Belton said he could have the option to throw out of the Wildcat. The senior running back illustrated the Wildcat’s other potential advantages — deception and trickery — with his response to a question about him preparing to operate it.
“If we see you over on the sideline warming up, throwing to whoever, we know you’re coming in and you’re going to throw it?”
“You won’t see that, though,” Belton said with a smile.
Penn State’s defense was about as good as it could have been against Akron without forcing a turnover. Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl rarely had time to throw and the Akron running game never got going.
The Zips finished with just 69 rushing yards on 25 carries and converted just five of 17 third downs. Meanwhile, Penn State pulled Akron players down behind the line of scrimmage seven times.
“Whenever the offense isn’t doing something, we’ve got to pick it up for them and that’s what we did,” defensive end Deion Barnes said. “We knew that we were going to be able to pull through for them.
“I just feel like we’re all out for one goal, just everybody swarm to the ball.”
Turnovers will eventually bite the team that continues to give the ball away.
But so far through two games, Penn State has largely escaped trouble despite six turnovers. Luckily for Penn State, its defense was able to again diffuse three opposing drives that started off of takeaways on Saturday. Much like it did against UCF, Penn State’s defense held the Zips to just three points off three turnovers. Akron intercepted two ill-advised Christian Hackenberg passes and recovered a fumble but managed just a field goal.
So far, Penn State has given up just six points on four interceptions and two fumbles this season.
Will that trend continue? Or will Penn State stop giving the ball away so much? Franklin is hoping for the latter.
“We’re going to have to eliminate the turnovers,” Franklin said.
Penn State finally put Akron away but it was not a pretty at times and it was a downright embarrassing weekend for the Big Ten as a whole. In fact, it was a nightmarish weekend.
Big Ten teams went 8-5 overall with only No. 18 Wisconsin handling its business convincingly with a 37-3 win over Western Illinois.
Meanwhile, the conference’s only two Top 10 teams, No. 7 Michigan State and No. 8 Ohio State suffered losses to No. 3 Oregon and unranked Virginia Tech, respectively. Michigan was hammered 31-0 by No. 16 Notre Dame to cap the first weekend the Wolverines, Buckeyes and Spartans all lost on the same day since 1988.
Additionally, Purdue and Northwestern lost to teams outside of the Power 5 conferences and Illinois and No. 19 Nebraska barely survived games against Western Kentucky and McNeese State, respectively. Ouch.
Day to remember
Mike Hull had a busy day for Penn State’s defense. The senior linebacker could be seen hopping back and forth, shouting orders at his defensive linemen and relaying instructions to the secondary.
“Mike talks a lot. He helps us all out,” Barnes said. “Mike’s communication, he’s basically the key to our defense.”
He was busy when the ball was snapped, too. Hull finished with a team-best 11 tackles and notched his first sack of the season. Hull has 22 tackles through two games.
Day to forget
Save for an 18-yard rumble, which was classic Zach Zwinak, the big Penn State running back couldn’t get much going behind a stagnant offensive line. While Belton and Lynch were able to contribute in other ways — Belton made four catches and scored on a 22-yard passing play and Lynch averaged 6.4 yards per carry as an effective Wildcat operator — Zwinak was handcuffed much of the afternoon without holes to run through.
Other than his one big run, Zwinak finished with just 12 yards on his nine other carries.
Key play you
With momentum on their side at the start of the third quarter, Akron had recovered a Penn State fumble and drove down to the Penn State 14-yard line on its first possession of the second half.
Facing a third-and-9, Akron’s Kyle Pohl swung a pass out to shifty, 5-foot-6, 147-pound Fransohn Bickley who had Ryan Keiser in front of him and open field to the end zone behind the Penn State safety. Bickley caught the ball and tried to make a move to the inside. Keiser dove at his legs and tripped him up with an arm tackle that saved what would’ve been a tying touchdown. The Zips settled for a field goal and didn’t get closer to scoring the rest of the game.
Hidden stat that matters
Penn State converted just four of 10 third downs and went 0-for-5 in the first half. The Nittany Lions’ inability to sustain drives early let Akron hang around into the second half.
Sluggish starts won’t fly against better teams.