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Penn State saw early success with two tight ends in win over Purdue

The Nittany Lions utilized a heavy amount of 12 personnel in their win over Purdue on Saturday.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) scores on a 3-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against Purdue on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa. The host Nittany Lions won, 35-7. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) scores on a 3-yard touchdown run in the first quarter against Purdue on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa. The host Nittany Lions won, 35-7. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)Read moreAbby Drey / MCT

After Wednesday’s practice last week, James Franklin spoke highly of his team’s use of 12 personnel –– two tight ends, one running back –– and the avenues it opens up for the Nittany Lions offense.

That should have been a sign for what was to come Saturday.

“Everybody talks about creating space,” Franklin said last week. “Well, there’s a lot of ways to create space. You can get in spread and spread people out. Or, you can get in a 12 personnel set, bring everybody in the box, but when you do that, a lot of times you’re creating one-on-one throwing situations, which creates space that way.”

Penn State was without starting wide receiver Justin Shorter, who left last week’s game against Maryland after taking a big hit over the middle. Daniel George filled in and made a few plays, but offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne brought out some creative play design out of the 12 personnel package.

In the first half, in which the Nittany Lions scored 28 points, they ran 10 plays in 12 personnel and accumulated 100 yards, producing two touchdowns. Seven of the 10 plays were run inside the red zone, but even the three that weren’t averaged of 25.7 yards gained on those three plays.

Here are three highlights from Penn State’s use of 12 personnel in the first half:

Sean Clifford’s 4-yard touchdown run

The design on this play was one that the Nittany Lions show often in practice, but one we haven’t seen in a game. The play is supposed to be an run-pass option, and the pass option is a jump pass from Clifford to Pat Freiermuth. But once Clifford pulls the ball from the running back and sees Freiermuth is covered by the Purdue linebacker, he tucks it himself and heads for the end zone.

The Nittany Lions are confident in both Freiermuth’s and Bowers’s run-blocking abilities and both of them were in to block as the first part of the option.

“It brings a whole physicality to our game,” offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez said. “It brings another element to our game. Those are two physical guys, Pat and Nick, so they help on the run blocks a lot.”

Pat Freiermuth’s 7-yard receiving touchdown

The Nittany Lions’ fourth touchdown was similar to Clifford’s earlier touchdown run. It was an RPO in which Bowers is in the game to run block while Freiermuth slips past the defense as a receiving target. This time, however, Freiermuth comes across the formation as if to block the weak side defensive end, but instead he slips out into the flat.

This play wouldn’t have resulted in a touchdown without the blocking of KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson, however. Both receivers hold off their defenders and Freiermuth’s stiff arm is enough to get him into the end zone.

“We were a little short on wide receivers, so we knew we were going to have to get both [Bowers and Freiermuth] involved at the same time,” Clifford said. “That 12 personnel package was pretty big today. Everybody could see that. Whenever either of them are in the game, I’m really confident. They have different skill sets, but they’re similar at the same time.”

Nick Bowers’s 48-yard completion

» READ MORE: Bowers' 48-yard catch

Nearly half of Penn State’s yardage from 12 personnel plays came on this play.

It was a much different formation as Bowers was lined up to the right of the right tackle, while Freiermuth was out wide acting as a slot receiver.

There appears to be three options on this play. The first option is a hand-off to Ricky Slade up the middle, the second is a screen pass to Freiermuth with Hamler and Dotson serving as downfield blockers, and the third, how the play actually unfolds, is Bowers slipping into the second level. Clifford quickly recognizes the defensive end leaning toward stopping the run, pulls the ball and immediately looks toward Bowers.

Bowers has acres of space to operate and came up just nine yards shy of the end zone.

“It’s a pretty cool package,” Dotson said postgame. “Both our tight ends are very versatile. They make big plays when the ball’s in their hands. We’re able to mix it up and throw defenses off.”