Penn State hasn’t been able to run the ball with much success a quarter of the way through the season.
But that doesn’t mean the Nittany Lion offense has been an all-or-nothing, boom-or-bust engine. A short, efficient passing game has gotten Penn State (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten) up and down the football field in small chunks when its rushing attack has sputtered. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg attempted 16 throws to running backs, tight ends or receivers that arrived at their targets just a yard or two beyond the line of scrimmage on Saturday.
Some of those throws ran parallel with the line, others — like three screen passes to tailback Bill Belton — found their mark behind it.
That trend could continue if the Nittany Lions can’t get their 120th-ranked running game going against Massachusetts in Week 4.
“That’s what we’ve been doing,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “All the screens and things like that we’ve been doing, that’s a way to supplement your running game and also to help with some of your protection issues to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands.”
Of course, the goal for Penn State’s offense is to chew up short to moderate yardage with Belton, Zach Zwinak or Akeel Lynch, force defenders to crowd the line of scrimmage then unleash through the air. So far, none of Penn State’s trio of backs have had much running room.
The Nittany Lions will keep trying.
“Each week we’re going to try and establish the running game,” Franklin said. “Each of those back will get a series and whoever looks like they’re the most effective will go from there. Obviously, we’re not going to keep trying to run the ball in the game if we’re not having success. We’re going to do whatever we have to do to win the game.”
The Nittany Lions are averaging just under 76 rushing yards per game, which ranks 13th in the Big Ten, behind an offensive line with four new starters. Center Angelo Mangiro said after the game that himself, guards Brian Gaia and Brendan Mahon and tackles Donovan Smith, the only starter back from previous seasons, and Andrew Nelson have to execute better and play as a unit. They were able to open the most important hole of the game when Belton scurried in from five yards out for what held up as the game-winning score against Rutgers last week.
But holes were hard to find for much of the night where Penn State called 56 passing plays to just 21 runs. Hackenberg was sacked five times and scrambled out of the pocket on seven plays which inflated Penn State’s official number of carries to 33.
And while Belton, Lynch and Zwinak all got carries, there has been a contingency plan in place for a stagnant running game. DaeSean Hamilton, Geno Lewis, Jesse James and Chris Godwin got carries too. Kind of.
Penn State used screen passes to wideouts Hamilton, Lewis and Godwin with Hamilton and Lewis combining for six targets -- three each -- on similar short-yardage pickups. Godwin caught two screen passes. James, a tight end, was targeted twice in the short passing game while Hackenberg threw quick passes to Hamilton and Lewis on short curl routes multiple times each.
Belton was targeted five times out of the backfield with three of those coming on screen plays.
“We’ve got a good quarterback in Hackenberg and having that short passing game is just another extension of the run game to be honest,” Belton said. “When we do that well, we’re moving the ball. However we need to move the ball, we’ll do that.”
Hamilton said Rutgers’ defensive looks provided Penn State’s offense with room to throw the short routes.
“Their defensive scheme was to keep everything in front of them because they had safeties about 25, 30 yards down field, and they wanted no big plays,” Hamilton said. “And our offensive mentality, we like to take shots when they are giving to us. They were just trying to keep us from giving shots. So we just had to get a in little bit of chunk plays to get the ball moving.”
From a defensive perspective, short passing games can be a tiresome for defenders who have to cover side-to-side.
Penn State struggled to contain bubble screens last season, most notably in a loss on the road to Indiana where the Hoosiers threw to slot receivers who simply turned, caught the ball then ran through downfield blocks. The strategy for attacking offenses who rely on short passes isn’t tough to get down, however, Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell said.
“(It’s) just a test of pursuit and swarming to the ball,” Bell said. “If you swarm to the ball, it’s not going to be that big of an effect. It’s not that difficult.”