One of Penn State’s challenges in a college football season unlike any other has been to incorporate new ideas into its offense without having a spring football period to work out the kinks.
The Nittany Lions had their share of problems in their season opener against Indiana but still managed to roll up 488 yards of offense. However, the changes in the revamped attack didn’t work so well against a talented Ohio State defense that controlled the line of scrimmage throughout Saturday night’s 38-25 loss.
The offense couldn’t make a first down on third-and-2 and fourth-and-2 situations on its first possession. It was penalized twice for delay of game in the red zone. The Nittany Lions ran 10 plays on third down and nine of them required 8 yards or longer. They converted only three.
Yes, the offensive line had its share of struggles and therushing game accounted for just 44 yards on 27 carries. But head coach James Franklin said some of it had to do with the Buckeyes' talented front seven.
“It starts with that,” he said Tuesday at his weekly Zoom news conference. "There were a number of plays where we actually had things blocked well and had a running lane, and a [Ohio State] guy would rush upfield, stick his foot in the ground and retrace us and tackle us in the hole for a yard or two gain.
“But I do think there are some aspects of a little bit different philosophy, a little bit different offense, not as much confidence early on that you’re usually able to work through early in the season. So I think it’s a little bit of both – a little bit of mental [mistakes] and a little bit of physical [mistakes]. I know nobody wants to hear that. We have to get it done.”
The “little bit different philosophy” to which Franklin referred comes from first-year offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who had made some tweaks to the system after being hired but needed to teach them remotely after the campus was forced to close down in March due to the pandemic.
The plan for Ohio State was to call more running plays for quarterback Sean Clifford, who took his share of hard hits in his 18 carries – 13 planned rushing plays and five sacks. Franklin said it won’t be that way every week for Clifford, who has rushed 35 times in the team’s first two games.
“We knew that [running the quarterback] was a thing that has given them issues and challenges in the past,” he said of the Buckeyes. “So it was a big part of our game plan. There are going to be weeks that we do that and there’s going to be weeks that we try to limit that.”
As for the running backs, sophomore Devyn Ford got all eight of the carries. Freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes were on the field for very few snaps, and neither had a touch. With the Nittany Lions down to three backs, Franklin said Lee and Holmes must step up.
“They’re going to have to be a big part of what we do moving forward,” he said. “We’re excited about Devyn and what Devyn is going to be able to do this week and moving forward, but we need those complementary pieces. We can’t just ride Devyn all year long.”
The Nittany Lions (0-2) will need to improve their offensive consistency Saturday at Beaver Stadium against Maryland (1-1), a team that has given up 87 points in its first two games after a season in which they yielded an average of 41.8 points against nine opponents in Big Ten play.
But the Terrapins had an offensive awakening last Friday when they amassed 675 yards of total offense behind sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of Miami Dolphins rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa, and edged Minnesota 45-44 in overtime.
“We’ve got a hot quarterback coming in here,” Franklin said, “and whenever you’ve got a hot quarterback in college football or the NFL, you’ve got a chance. So it’s going to be a tremendous challenge.”