STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — For two years the Penn State offense has limped through Big Ten play with flashes of brilliance from players like Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton often overshadowed by sacks, short-circuited drives and curious play calls.
A stingy Nittany Lions defense helped the team remain competitive despite Penn State scoring 17 points or less 12 times and 21 or less in an additional three games.
Three games into the Joe Moorhead era, Penn State’s offense looks revitalized. The Nittany Lions have scored more than 30 points in three consecutive games for the first time since doing so against Eastern Michigan, Central Florida and Kent State early in the 2013 season.
Now the biggest tests commence. Will Moorhead’s offense play against Big Ten defenses? The Nittany Lions are going to need it to. The defense has not been as effective and is trying to survive myriad injuries.
Let’s take a look at some key factors that will help determine if Penn State can continue to consistently score enough to help out the beat-up defense.
It’s been a popular topic this week. Penn State has fumbled the ball 12 times in three games. There are 128 teams in the FBS, and 127 of them have fewer than 12 fumbles. The Nittany Lions have recovered six of them, but a recovered fumble in the backfield is basically like a sack.
No one in particular deserves the most blame, but there is plenty to go around. There have been a couple of issues with shotgun snaps. The protection has broken down, leading to blindside hits on quarterback Trace McSorley. He can’t avoid all of them, but a little improvement in pocket presence would help.
Superstar running back Saquon Barkley has fumbled. Freshman Miles Sanders has fumbled. Sanders in particular needs to make sure that doesn’t become a trend. Barkley has the coaching staff’s trust. Sanders, who looked dynamic in brief work against Temple, does not and did not carry the ball again after his fumble against the Owls.
It’s pretty hard to write about the Penn State offense and not drift to this at some point. After 84 sacks in the past two seasons, a combination of the new offense and improvement has helped cut down that total to 5 in three games.
It hasn’t been perfect. Pitt’s defensive line caused plenty of havoc, though credit the Penn State coaching staff for making some second-half adjustments. Michigan’s defensive line is among the best in the country, especially if Taco Charlton is able to play. The Nittany Lions will continue to try to temper the pass rush with quick passes, but at some point McSorley will need time to work the ball down the field. The Wolverines will be a gigantic test.
For as much chatter in the preseason about Penn State’s new up-tempo offense, there hasn’t been a lot of “up” involved. The Nittany Lions do not huddle and do get to the line of scrimmage quickly, but the varying tempos have been mostly slow.
It’s a combination of everyone still figuring out the intricacies of the offense and the ongoing relationship building between Moorhead and McSorley. As the season progresses, expect Moorhead to want to push the tempo more at times and McSorley to get more comfortable and need the “check with me” looks to the sideline less.
Penn State is not going to be Oregon, though. The offense is designed to vary the tempo and keep the defense from being able to make extensive substitutions. Also, going fast doesn’t always have the benefits a team desires, like keeping its injury-riddled, thin defense off the field a little more than previously planned.
The injury luck on the defensive side of the ball has been among the worst in the nation. Losing three starting linebackers before Week 4 is an anomaly. The defensive line and backfield have also dealt with injuries.
To this point, the offense hasn’t been immune but has fared slightly better. Wide receiver Saeed Blacknall has missed the past two games, and his speed can stretch the field vertically and help open holes in the defense for Hamilton and Godwin to move into. DeAndre Thompkins has been a revelation in Blacknall’s place, but getting him back will help.
Barkley missed about half of the game against Temple, and a funny thing happened. Penn State’s offense did not fall apart. The Nittany Lions scored on three of the next four possessions and lost a fumble in the red zone on the fourth. Mark Allen, Andre Robinson and Sanders all saw action in his place, and each had some strong moments.
There is more depth than in years past, particularly at running back and wide receiver. There is also depth along the offensive line, but it is largely unproven. Keeping McSorley and the line healthy is a big deal, even if it’s largely uncontrollable.
If Moorhead has a bag of tricks, he hasn’t dipped into it very often during the first three weeks. The offense did expand in the second half against Pitt, and different receivers were open in different circumstances, but there hasn’t been a lot of misdirection or slight of hand involved to this point.
Maybe there will be more instances of trying to create space for players like Barkley, Godwin and Hamilton (not to mention Brandon Polk, Thompkins and Sanders) through nontraditional means in the weeks to come.