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Penn State Football: Playbook New But Not Yet New England

by on April 21, 2012 6:21 PM

Don’t believe everything you saw in Penn State’s offense on Saturday.

Which may be a good thing indeed.

That’s because the Nittany Lions threw five interceptions, yielded eight sacks and averaged just 2.0 yards per rush – if you factor in the sacks.

“Fans saw about 10 percent” of Penn State's playbook, said head coach Bill O’Brien.

In other words, don’t take offense by the Penn State offense that was on display in Saturday’s Blue-White Game in Beaver Stadium. In the words of Gertrude Stein, there’s no there.

“We probably only have one-fourth of the playbook in,” said receivers and assistant head coach Stan Hixon.

Quarterback Rob Bolden, who threw three picks, said don’t grade his – and any other player’s – performance by the intrasquad scrimmage: “What we ran today was elementary.”

So simplified, in fact, that quarterback Matt McGloin said the Nittany Lions ran just four basic pass plays.

Fans may have expected more from the Nittany Lions, especially given O’Brien’s pedigree as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach of the New England Patriots. But since the game was broadcast on the Big Ten Network, and Beaver Stadium was wide open for any visiting scouts, O’Brien was afraid of showing too much to any 2012 opponents.

So he dummied down the offense. Penn State, however, did display a number of offensive sets that looked like they were on loan from the Patriots.

Wide receivers were split in tight bunches of three. At times, five receivers were split wide. Fullback Michael Zordich played mainly on first down. Tight ends lined up in the backfield. Those tight ends ran a bunch of routes down the middle and drags to the side.

Often, though, the Penn State offense was a drag.

Hixon, for one, isn’t worried. His significant coaching roots include a stop at LSU, where the Tigers won a national title as Hixon’s star pupil, Michael Clayton, grabbed 21 TDs in a single season. Hixon also has coached wide receivers in the NFL, with Washington and, most recently, Buffalo. So his knowledge of an intricate offense, like the one O’Brien is installing, is more than a passing fancy.

“We have big-time formations, big-time concepts,” Hixon said. “We just tried to lay down the foundation this spring.”

The concepts include a much greater reliance than years past on audibles by the quarterback, enhanced route decision-making responsibility by the receiving corps and putting pass-catchers all over the field – and backfield.

A bakers’ dozen of players had at least one catch in the game, led by three receptions each by Allen Robinson and Shawney Kersey, understudies last season who will play key roles in 2012. Share and share alike is by design.

“We spread the ball around in this offense,” O’Brien said. “People ask me about the tight ends over and over again, because of the success we had the last two years in New England. Every year is different, every team is different.

“But we’ll spread the ball to the tight ends, the receivers, the backs. Hopefully, it will be very balanced. The tight ends will be an important part of what we do and we will keep on developing them in training camp.”

No Penn State tight end this spring has developed faster than Jesse James.

James, who graduated from South Allegheny High School in December and matriculated at Penn State in January, has come up big as perhaps the primary tight end among a cast of thousands. James grabbed two passes for 24 yards on Saturday, and the 265-pounder was impressive when he stretched high on a crossing route to catch a nearly errant toss from Bolden.

The other Lions’ receiver to shine this spring was Robinson, who emerged as a strong No. 2 man, nicely complementing Justin Brown after a very strong set of spring drills. His three grabs Saturday went for 87 yards, including a long of 41.

“I went out every day and tried to compete every single practice,” said Robinson, a sophomore who played at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in Michigan with Bolden, a junior.

“Robinson,” said Hixon, “had the best spring of all the wide receivers.”

O’Brien opened the game by calling for a pass from McGloin to Robinson on a deep route. The throw was long and incomplete, followed by a run by Silas Redd.

On third down, there was a hint of the new Penn State offense by way of New England. Split left in a tight bunch were Brown, tight end Kyle Carter and wide receiver Christian Kuntz. Split wide right was Robinson.

After a quick drop, McGloin threw the ball on the money to Kuntz over the middle for a 5-yard gain – the first pass reception of the Bill O’Brien Era.

McGloin couldn’t have been happier – about the pass, the catch and the whole darn shooting match.

“This system,” McGloin said, “is a phenomenal offense.”

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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