Penn State’s version of the Wildcat offense is evolving. James Franklin’s opinion on the quarterbackless formation remains the same.
He loves it. He loves to tease reporters who have been critical of its implementation and usage, too.
But there’s no doubt the Wildcat was effective in its most recent incarnation against Massachusetts on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Even with quarterback Christian Hackenberg split out like a wide receiver.
“We get to keep the quarterback on the field so they don’t necessarily know it’s coming,” Franklin said. “You are predictable in that formation but now you’re able to get a hat for a hat because they usually leave a defensive back out there or a corner back and we have the ability to throw it if they don’t.”
Franklin has been adamant that the Wildcat can help jump-start a running game that is struggling. On Saturday, it simply augmented a ground game that was already potent. The Nittany Lions scored twice out of the formation and physically overpowered UMass defenders on both plays.
Running back Bill Belton, who was a high school quarterback and ran the Wildcat as a true freshman under Joe Paterno’s staff in 2011, took a direct snap and broke tackles around the edge to give Penn State a 20-0 lead in the second quarter.
Penn State showed a new look in the formation with Belton and Akeel Lynch lining up in the backfield together in the third quarter. Belton took the direct snap and handed off to Lynch who scored from 15 yards out.
Belton said he was handing off to Lynch all the way.
“That was his play,” Belton said. “He did what he did with it.”
And Penn State could continue to add more wrinkles to the formation. Belton, who posted back-to-back 2,000-yard passing seasons at Winslow Township High School in New Jersey, has yet to throw the ball out of the formation although he did float a pass to Hackenberg on a halfback option pass against Akron.
“I think it’s been helpful and we’ve had a lot of success using it over the last four years and we want to continue to use it here,” Franklin said.
The running game clicked all afternoon. Finally.
Thanks to aggressive, effective play from Penn State’s offensive line, the Nittany Lions were able to churn out a season-high 228 rushing yards on Saturday. Meanwhile, quarterback Christian Hackenberg was able to take it easy for most of the game.
Hackenberg attempted just 23 throws which tied his career low.
Meanwhile, Penn State running backs were able to chip away at UMass’s defense at times but for the most part, were able to take advantage of big holes and heavy push to the outside. Penn State backs turned in five runs of 10 yards or more and 18 runs of five yards or more.
“We’ve got to go out there and do it again,” Belton said. “Anybody can do it one time.”
Hackenberg was shaky to start the game.
He fired high, behind his receivers and one-hopped a few passes he normally nails. The sophomore quarterback didn’t look like himself as he struggled to put much zip on deep passes. He completed just four of his first 11 attempts in the first quarter. In the third, Hackenberg held onto the ball too long and took a big sack on a shoulder-to-shoulder hit from UMass linebacker Andre Stanley.
He got up and ripped off the longest run of his career, a 17-yarder, on the next play and took another unnecessary hit as cut to the inside of the field and lowered his shoulder against safety Khary Bailey-Smith.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Hackenberg said. “I should’ve just kept running and tried to get as many yards as I could.”
The Penn State defense continues to be nearly impenetrable. The only points the Nittany Lions surrendered came on a busted coverage by a defense full of reserves.
UMass finished with just three rushing yards. It marked the fewest yards Penn State has allowed since it held Notre Dame to zero in 2007. Penn State currently boasts the nation’s top-ranked rushing defense as the Nittany Lions are allowing just 49.5 yards per game.
“That’s definitely something we’re trying to get to, being number one in rush defense and overall defense, so that will be amazing,” defensive tackle Austin Johnson said. “We’ve just got to continue what we’re doing.”
Day to Remember
Lynch has had plenty of time to watch Belton and Zach Zwinak in the last few months.
Lynch, a sophomore who was used primarily in a reserve role last season, has tried to take parts of each of his teammates’ skillset and apply it to his own game. He’s tried to adopt Belton’s shiftiness and run with Zwinak’s pounding style. On Saturday, Lynch did just that.
Among Penn State’s Top 3 runners, Lynch finished with a team-best 81 yards on eight carries and ripped of the team’s longest run of the season with a 46-yard dash to the outside in the first quarter. His speed to the outside was on display again when he took a handoff from Belton and galloped 15 yards around the UMass defense for a third-quarter touchdown.
“The game’s slowing down for him,” Belton said. “He’s getting more reps and he’s just continuing to work each day and learning things from Coach (Charles) Huff and everything is showing for him.”
Day to Forget
Kyle Carter has started slowly this season and didn’t make much of an impact Saturday.
The tight end who was on pace to shatter single-season receiving records by a tight end two seasons ago was targeted just three times and hauled in one pass for six yards. The usually sure-handed Carter dropped the other two passes thrown his way.
With the emergence of DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis and Jesse James remaining reliable targets, Carter can’t afford to drop balls when they are thrown his way.
You Already Forgot
Penn State held a 6-0 lead and faced a third-and-four from the UMass 48-yard line. Hackenberg dropped back to pass but was flushed quickly from the pocket. Hackenberg sprinted to his left and spied Geno Lewis crossing through the UMass secondary. Hackenberg fired without setting his feet and Lewis hauled in the pass for a 16-yard gain.
It helped set up Penn State’s first touchdown and marked the sixth time Hackenberg has hit Lewis on third down to keep a drive alive. So far, Lewis has been targeted a team-high nine times and has 206 of his 462 receiving yards and a touchdown on third downs. Four of Lewis’s six third-down catches have come on third-and-long situations.
Hidden Stat that Matters
Sam Ficken, who struggled to kick the ball into the end zone on kickoffs in Ireland, did so eight times on nine kickoffs against UMass.
Ficken’s success made for an easy afternoon for his teammates on Penn State’s coverage teams. He also effectively eliminated most opportunities for UMass players to make plays on returns.