Penn State’s offense still doesn’t have an identity, at least to the player running it on the field.
“I think we’re still searching and I think it’ll come real soon,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said.
Possibly as soon as Saturday, when Penn State (4-1, 1-1) plays Michigan (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten) in the first football game to start under the lights at Michigan Stadium. Penn State players had a weekend to relax and a few extra days to get a jump on preparing to play the Wolverines and avoid falling behind another game in the Big Ten East standings.
Scoring touchdowns would surely help.
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In their last game, the Nittany Lions were held without a touchdown for the first time since 2004 and the Penn State offense hasn’t scored for five quarters. Throw in the idle weekend and it’s been nearly three weeks since Akeel Lynch scored Penn State’s last touchdown against UMass on Sept. 20.
“I think it goes back to the process of being able to get things done and getting the offense moving in the right direction and be able to get the ball in our playmakers’ hands,” Hackenberg said.
Moving is the key word.
The Nittany Lions haven’t driven into the red zone in their last seven possessions and struggles to run the ball — they’re averaging 101 yards per game on the ground — have stunted possession times. The lack of rushing success has allowed opposing defenses to throw consistent pressure at Hackenberg and overwhelm a young offensive line. It’s worked, notably in games against Rutgers and Northwestern, when Penn State made just six trips into scoring range out of 31 possessions.
But Penn State’s ability to convert a handful of big plays kept four of those drives alive while two more were sparked by an interception and the team’s best punt return of the season. Hackenberg hit Bill Belton (18 yards), DaeSean Hamilton (47 yards) and Geno Lewis (23 yards) for big plays that sustained three individual drives that yielded all 13 of Penn State’s points against Rutgers.
Hackenberg found Hamilton for a 51-yard gain to steer Penn State into one of just two red zone chances against Northwestern.
That was Penn State’s last “explosive” play.
Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan has huddled together with offensive line coach Herb Hand and quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne and called 238 passing plays to 130 runs. The Nittany Lions have delivered 20 “explosive” passing plays of 20 yards or more to just four running plays of at least 20 yards.
It was a surefire method — at least one Penn State could depend on — earlier in the season, too. In Ireland, Penn State’s offense made five trips into the red zone on 11 possessions. Penn State got an explosive play on every one of those drives to set up red zone possessions and scored on another — a 79-yard bomb from Hackenberg to Lewis. Penn State also got scores on a 44-yard pass to Jesse James and a 22-yard lob to Belton the next weekend to beat Akron.
But as the running game continued to struggle, opportunities for the big play also dried up. Hackenberg attempted just 13 of his 45 throws downfield, threw nine passes behind the line of scrimmage and nine more five yards downfield.
“What you have to be careful of is now you become too conservative in how you’re calling the game, and that can make you a little bit predictable, as well,” Franklin said. “Because to create explosive plays, there’s usually some risk associated with that in terms of play-action or drop back or holding on to the ball a little bit longer. Well, now you have a chance for negative yardage plays to put you in third-and-long and it makes it difficult to sustain drives and things like that.”
It’s why fixing the running game has become the most talked-about aspect of Penn State’s play and the focus of nearly every offensive player in the last two weeks.
Hand, who is also the team’s running game coordinator, is quick to remind everyone that improvement also comes from experience and Penn State’s offensive linemen have many more games in front of them than they do behind them.
Freshmen Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson are starting their sixth game at left guard and right tackle, respectively. Angelo Mangiro is starting just his sixth game at center after playing as a reserve at guard last season. Guards Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey are both in their first season on offense. As far as Hand is concerned, there’s no need to grade on a curve.
“At this point in the season, there are no more rookies,” Hand said. “Everybody — guys have played in games. So there’s no more rookies, there’s no more of that. Nobody cares about that stuff anyway to be honest with you. I’ve told the guys that from the get-go. Nobody cares that we had to replace four guys.”
Hand would prefer to replace Penn State’s inconsistent play with consistent fundamentals. Offensive linemen did a lengthy self-scouting session in the film room. They looked at all five of their previous games and honed in on flaws and on specific techniques that have worked.
“It’s important to us. We want to get it going too,” Mangiro said. “It’s something that we worked very hard on during the bye week to get improved and we’ve just got to go out and do what we’re taught this weekend.”
It’s not just offensive linemen who spent a lot of time analyzing how their own improvements could better suit the offense.
Hackenberg said he spent an extra session watching his own snaps, trying to find out where he could’ve read the defense better before the play. He has the ability to adjust protections before the snap and will try to do so earlier to give his offensive line time to adjust to the change. While Hackenberg has been sacked 14 times this season, he’s held the ball too long trying to make an explosive play down the field to account for a few of them.
Hamilton and Lewis have been on the receiving end of 15 of them. Lewis has the lone touchdown.
“I think about it a little bit but at the same time, like if I have a big play or something, it can set up someone else’s touchdown if it’s not my own touchdown,” Hamilton said. “I’m not really harping on it, not basically going out there to score a touchdown. Just going out there to play and whatever happens, happens.”
But time hasn’t been there for plays down the field and Hackenberg has had to use his legs to scramble for yards. If the offensive line could open holes for running backs to do so, it would help.
“I think it definitely will slow down the pass rush,” Hackenberg said. “If the defense knows the fact that you’ll be back there dropping back, it makes it easier for them. So, continuing to mix things up and keeping them on their toes and continuing to have a threat, we can do that. I think we’ve done that in games this year. We need to clean that up and do it a little more consistently and I think we’re on track to do so.”