Since the moment Joe Moorhead was hired to replace John Donovan as offensive coordinator last December, Penn State has been promising a faster, up-tempo offense. And they’ve really been hyping the speed of it around Lasch Building. Coach James Franklin told reporters in the spring:
“Because of our tempo, we’re getting unbelievable conditioning, and the other day in the indoor facility, in the middle of a series, (redshirt freshman defensive tackle) Robert Windsor threw up all over the place. And I saw all the offensive guys’ eyes light up, like, ‘Exactly. We’ve got you now.’ ”
You’ve probably been able to pick up on the new pace with the naked eye through the first two games, too. The Nittany Lions now often get to the line without huddling, instead signaling their plays in with those goofy posters now commonplace throughout college football. Even the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers are taking notice.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@Sixers) September 3, 2016
The stats quantify these observations nicely. Penn State averages 2.43 plays per minute of possession in 2016, compared to 2.15 last season, according to College Football Analytics. That’s quite a leap forward in speed.
You might be surprised to learn, though, that this offense isn’t yet qualifying as “up-tempo” relative to its peers.
That plays-per-minute figure? It’s the 52nd-quickest pace in the bowl subdivision through the first two weeks. And if anything, that ranking is probably being skewed higher by a second half against Pitt in which Penn State was down multiple possessions and was forced to hurry things up to stay in the game. If we consider just the first half of the Pitt game and the win against Kent State in Week 1, when Penn State was dictating its own clip a little more, it’s probably slotting closer to the FBS median.
Granted, we must always take a sample size as small as two games with a grain of salt. But it does comprise two-thirds of the nonconference schedule, and so far, the only thing you can say about this pace is that it’s faster, but still not fast.
So maybe Penn State is sandbagging?
It seems hard to imagine given how important the rivalry game last week was to the program’s recruiting efforts and its fan base’s sanity. One would expect the whole playbook to be available for a game of that magnitude.
It’s not like Penn State was having a ton of trouble moving the ball, though. The Lions hung 39 points, their most ever in a loss, and were only stopped cold when they turned the ball over or looked away from their bigger offensive guns, running back Saquon Barkley and receiver Chris Godwin. So one could reasonably say Penn State was confident it had Pitt figured out without relying too much on an elevated tempo.
Further muddying the waters, Moorhead’s offense at Fordham last year averaged about 70 snaps a game. Penn State is sitting at 68 in 2016 after finishing around 64 a year ago. Again, that suggests a swifter pace, but one with room to grow.
And remember. The Nits draw No. 4 Michigan in their Big Ten opener in nine days. If Franklin did want to keep the teeth of his offense hidden until a game against a truly big fish, he wouldn’t risk paying any price in the conference standings for attempting to jump the Wolverines. The schedule would line up perfectly for such a stunt.
None of that is to say that’s definitely what’s going on here. Moorhead talked with the Centre Daily Times’ Jourdan Rodrigue for this piece about having four different speeds within the same offense, the idea being that Penn State could switch things up to keep defenses on their toes. It’s the same logic behind mixing up fastballs and breaking pitches in baseball, and that could very well explain why the Nits aren’t moving at a breakneck rate on every drive.
That said, it is hard to reconcile a quote like this from quarterback Trace McSorley in the same piece …
“Let’s make Penn State like an Oregon. Let’s be known for Penn State playing fast, tons of yards, explosive plays.’”
… with what’s actually played out over the first two weeks.
So as we get that last nonconference data point Saturday with Temple in Happy Valley, you’ll probably see Penn State moving more quickly than it did last year. Ask yourself, though. Does it seem like vomit-inducing speed?
If not, there might be a surprise waiting for everyone in Ann Arbor.