The following sequence in Penn State’s season-opening win against Kent State resulted in the Nittany Lions’ first red zone visit without a touchdown in 2016. Late in the first half, the Nits drove from their own 39-yard line to the Golden Flashes’ 6. Then:
1st-and-goal: Incomplete pass from quarterback Trace McSorley to tight end Mike Gesicki.
2nd-and-goal: Run by halfback Saquon Barkley for a loss of six yards.
3rd-and-goal: Incomplete pass from McSorley to receiver Chris Godwin.
4th-and-goal: Tyler Davis field goal attempt good from 29 yards.
It was the first of 12 occasions in the red zone last season that a Penn State drive fizzled after the Nits failed to convert a third-down attempt of at least seven yards. Such long attempts are part of the reason why Penn State finished 110th nationally in red zone possessions with a touchdown (53.1 percent).
On Monday, this space tackled Penn State’s broader third-down problem and how it’s a result of dead plays — those that go for negligible gains or losses — on early downs, forcing the offense into difficult third downs. That’s reflected in the Nits’ average third-down distance of 7.4 yards compared to figures between 6.0 and 6.5 yards for conference scoring leaders Michigan and Ohio State. If you haven’t already, you can read that Monday post for a full explanation.
That sequence against Kent State does a pretty good job of illustrating how the former problem affected the red zone problem, Penn State’s only other real wart offensively last season. They’re not separate issues. One is the symptom of the other.
The pattern played out the following week at Pittsburgh, too, in a 42-39 loss that likely cost Penn State a spot in the College Football Playoff. Down 35-28 early in the fourth quarter, the defense forced a fumble and recovered at the Pitt 11-yard line, setting up the offense with a golden opportunity. Here’s what happened:
1st-and-10: McSorley run for a gain of 1.
2nd-and-9: Incomplete pass from McSorley to DaeSean Hamilton.
3rd-and-9: McSorley sacked for a loss of 10.
4th-and-19: Davis field goal attempt good from 38 yards.
Many Penn State fans will remember Hamilton’s drop on the final drive as the death knell in that game. The receiver was wide open, the ball hit his hands in stride, and it’s likely he’d have scored an easy go-ahead touchdown had he squeezed that pass. Instead, McSorley threw a game-ending interception a few plays later, and the rest is history.
Get seven points instead of three on that early fourth-quarter drive, though, and maybe Hamilton’s drop is moot. If Penn State had managed to set up a 3rd-and-5 instead of a 3rd-and-9, maybe it gets those points. Instead, it put itself and its quarterback at the mercy of a pretty nasty Pitt pass rush that could pin its ears back.
As was pointed out Monday, there are reasons Penn State’s offense will always assume a certain amount of dead plays. Joe Moorhead’s offense was the nation’s second-most explosive in terms of long gains in 2016, in large part because the first-year coordinator was aggressive in calling for low-percentage throws downfield and persistent with the zone read run schemes that can open big holes but also can’t fool opponents every single time.
Those long pass plays are off the table inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, though. And there’s a difference between managing a short gain and losing the six yards Barkley did in that opening series against Kent State.
The execution on early downs simply has to get better if Penn State’s going to improve overall in 2017. That was the point established in the post Monday, and this followup isn’t intended to belabor that point.
Rather, it’s to show the depth of the issue. The Nits need to score more touchdowns when they get deep in opponents’ territory, and it’s not a matter of finding some magic red zone clutchness or playcalling genius. It’s a matter of churning forward, consistently, and creating easier conversions when it matters most by avoiding dead plays and penalties that popped up more than a couple times on red zone trips in 2016.
Do that, and Penn State will be close to unstoppable next season. Fail to, and it won’t be surprising if another generally good season is tarnished by a loss or two where a long third down cost the Nits points when the end zone was just a short distance away.