It feels like a lifetime ago that this space addressed Penn State’s offensive tempo after the Nittany Lions’ Week 2 loss at Pittsburgh. Back then, we noted that the unit operated at a faster clip than the year before. But it still wasn’t “fast” relative to its peers.
The program had spent the entire offseason hyping fans on first-year coordinator Joe Moorhead’s game plan. Penn State, they said, would become known for a pace so quick that players would be throwing up trying to keep up with it in practice.
It’s Week 10, and guess what? Penn State still isn’t fast.
At 2.43 plays per minute, it is in line with where it was at the end of Week 2. And it is No. 51 on the national tempo rankings, just one spot higher than it was Sept. 11, according to College Football Analytics. It’s also taken a step back in offensive snaps per game from 68 to 66, just two more than it averaged a year ago in former coordinator John Donovan’s plodding offense.
There can be a lot of reasons for this aside from consciously running a slower pace. Among them is a running clock late in the blowout wins Penn State has enjoyed frequently on its five game winning streak. But you’d expect a unit that’s trying to move faster to be doing so with the goal of getting in as many snaps as possible.
Clearly, Penn State was not sandbagging ahead of the Big Ten opener against Michigan. What we’ve seen is who the Nittany Lions are. Unless they have been saving a surprise for Indiana, Rutgers and Michigan State, three teams with a combined 3-15 record in Big Ten play. Unlikely.
So what gives? Where is this promised speed? Some theories:
- Penn State actually is moving faster than the numbers suggest, but its plays per minute figure is deflated because it doesn’t pass a lot. Quarterback Trace McSorley hasn’t attempted more than 23 passes since the Minnesota game Oct. 1, the only time he cracked 27 attempts since the Pitt game. This means fewer clock-stopping incompletions and more running plays after which the clock continues to roll.
- Moorhead doesn’t want to push an offense loaded with young players into making poor, impulsive decisions by hurrying them too much. You’ll often notice Moorhead taking his time to read the defense and signal in audibles from the sideline once the Nittany Lions get to the line of scrimmage, with all of the offensive players turning to the sideline to make sure they understand the call. This runs a lot of clock, but it can also explain why McSorley & Co. have taken relatively good care of the ball this season.
- They never intended the offense to run at full throttle the whole time. Instead, there would be progressively faster tempos in the arsenal as a means of changing speeds, keeping defenses on their toes the same way baseball pitchers fool hitters by mixing fastballs with breaking pitches. That’s a scenario we’ve seen play out fairly often now. Sometimes Penn State will hurry up and call plays at the line as soon as the ball is marked. Other times, it runs the play clock to zero.
- And, of course, there is a chance that Moorhead, head coach James Franklin and the rest of the players were creating some misdirection from Day 1. Perhaps they were just putting the idea of an up-tempo offense into opponents’ heads only to be more deliberate in reality. The trademarks of this offense to this point are a willingness to throw downfield to soften up defenses and a dedication to the zone running schemes that form the base of the offensive playbook. Drawing attention away from those designs gives opponents something else to game plan against. It probably doesn’t make a huge difference. But it does give them something else to think about in an offense that already seems to be fooling a lot of people.
In the end, Penn State’s lack of tempo is likely a result of a combination of those factors, and that’s not a bad thing. The Nittany Lions have been putting up a ton of points. And it doesn’t really matter that the way they’ve done it doesn’t match up with the way they said they were going to do it.
As the offensive personnel mature between now and the beginning of next season, it will be interesting to see if this speed wrinkle re-emerges as a focal point for the unit, a way to keep things fresh next year after opponents have had a long offseason to digest what has made Penn State successful so far.