STATE COLLEGE, Pa. –– Jared Smolar’s kickoff sailed into the back of Penn State’s end zone, and the Nittany Lions’ offense trotted onto the field clinging to a 27-24 lead with 10:45 left in Saturday’s game.
Sean Clifford was clearly banged up, KJ Hamler wasn’t even on the sideline, and the Lions were coming off a quarter in which they had possession for just under 2 1/2 minutes.
But 17 plays later, the offense was half-a-yard from Indiana’s end zone. There was 1:48 left on the clock. It was fourth down. Coach James Franklin was on the headset, discussing what the decision would be. But it was pretty clear what the crowd –– and the offense –– wanted.
“You heard the crowd, they wanted [us] to go for the touchdown, and the offense did, too,” tight end Nick Bowers said. “We were confident we were going to score.”
Clifford wanted the ball in his hands. Franklin obliged.
“I wasn’t directly trying to call the play, but at the same time, we were moving the ball,” the quarterback said after the game. “I either wanted it in [running back] Journey Brown’s hands, because he was moving, or my hands. And they elected to give it to me, so I was not gonna be denied that end zone.”
Once Clifford crossed the goal line with 1:44 left to play, 9:01 had come off the clock since Indiana kicked off. It was Penn State’s longest scoring drive of the season by far, topping a 5:51 drive against Idaho.
Aside from the time, Penn State looked like a different team. Of the 18 plays, only two were passes. Brown carried the ball eight times, and Clifford added four. Even backup quarterback Will Levis got involved, picking up a crucial 3 yards on a fourth-and-1 to the Indiana 21-yard line.
“Our mindset is to score and to keep driving until they stop us,” said Brown, who picked up 27 yards on that drive and 100 for the game. “We kept doing what we’re doing, and they couldn’t stop us.”
A big reason for Penn State’s success running the football on that drive was the use of the two tight end, or 12 personnel, package. It’s a package the Nittany Lions have used quite a bit this season, but without Hamler, it became even more essential in the second half. Penn State fans might not realize it, but Franklin said 12 personnel is exactly what they’ve been clamoring for during his tenure.
“The reality is, it’s essentially what everybody wants since I got here,” Franklin said. “The second tight end is essentially a fullback.”
Ah, there’s that word –– fullback –– that continues to pop up everywhere on social media, as Penn State has abandoned the position in its pro-style, West Coast offense.
But that nine minute drive to seal the victory looked a lot more like the Penn State of old, rather than the no-huddle, shotgun offense Franklin and his staff have implemented. It was a rarity, and even Franklin knows it.
“For our offense to go on an 18-play drive, I haven’t been around many of them,” Franklin said.
That drive showed how far Penn State has come in its recruitment and development at tight end and along the offensive line.
Two or three years ago, the Nittany Lions wouldn’t have had the luxury of leaning on the offensive line in a spot like that when the team’s top skil- position player goes down. But times have changed, and the offensive line has continued to improve to the point that it’s eager for moments like that.