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Penn State Football’s Fast-Paced Offense Hopes to Reach Warp Speed in 2013

by on July 29, 2013 2:05 AM

Warp speed?

Here’s what Sybok had to say about traveling FTL – faster-than-light -- in 1989’s “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”:

“The people of your world once believed the world was flat. Columbus proved it was round. They said the sound barrier could never be broken!... It was broken. They said warp-speed could not be accomplished.”

In 2013, Bill O’Brien will try to prove them wrong.

“Warp speed” is what O’Brien tried to coax out of the Nittany Lions’ offense throughout spring drills, extorting his quarterbacks to get off a play every 10 seconds – or less. That’s even faster than in 2012, when Penn State’s NASCAR offense gained speed throughout the season, averaging 462 yards of total offense and 33.8 points over the final seven games.

And they scored with a flourish and in a flurry.

Twenty-one of the Nittany Lions’ last 30 scoring drives of 2012, dating back to an 18-second TD drive against Northwestern, came in under three minutes. And in five of the final six games (discounting a 35-23 loss to Ohio State), the average Penn State scoring drive lasted all of 2 minutes and 32 seconds.

That’s reminiscent of the Nittany Lion juggernaut of 1994, when Collins, Ki-Jana and Co., averaged 2:14 over 78 regular season scoring drives. And compare that with the 11-2 squads of 2008 (3:05 per scoring drive) and 2009 (3:42), as well as the 9-4 2011 team (3:45). Thanks to Daniel Cullin, who helped me crunch the numbers, this is all original research done using drive-by-drive stats found in Penn State’s media guides.

This may be the hardest number to believe, but it’s true: In 1994, 70.5% of Penn State’s offensive scoring drives were completed in three minutes or less. Over the last six games and one drive of 2012, 70% of Penn State’s offensive scoring drives lasted three minutes or less. That’s quite a jump from 2011, when Penn State drove for a score in three minutes or less just 49% of the time.

In addition, the change in one-year offensive stats from 2011 to 2012 is staggering. There were huge per-game increases in points (from 16.8 to 29.1), total yards (341.8 to 417.9), passing yards (177 to 273.2), touchdowns (30 to 42) and scoring drives (39 to 56). And that’s based on 12 games in 2012 vs. 13 in 2011. The 2012 offense ranked 53rd in yards and 62nd in scoring, while the 2011 squad ranked 95th and 110th, respectively.

And Penn State compiled its numbers last season after its top rusher, Silas Redd, and top returning receiver, Justin Brown, beat it out of town last summer.

So, what’s the hurry to hurry-up even more?

Well, the yards and points are just middle-of-pack. They did lose four games, after all. And O’Brien still has a long ways to reach what Chip Kelly did playing what the New York Times called “Speed Freak Football” at Oregon the past four years before heading to Philadelphia in the NFL. After a season of adjustment upon ascending from O-coordinator to head coach in 2009 (if 54 TDs and 36.1 points per game are an adjustment), Kelly’s offenses put up EA-like numbers. From 2010-12, Oregon averaged 70 touchdowns per season, 47.6 points and 503 yards per game, and 6.8 yards per play.

The Ducks are the yellow and green standard. O’Brien knows he must turn things up a notch or three. Ohio State and Nebraska have already seen what his offense has to offer. And it wasn’t enough.

Despite essentially a rookie quarterback at the helm – either true freshman Christian Hackenberg or juco transfer Tyler Ferguson -- O’Brien was adamant all spring long and into the Coaches Caravan that the Lion offense can’t stand still in 2013. Figuratively and literally.

O’Brien decided: We need more power, Scotty. Warp speed.

Don’t be surprised if in 2013 Penn State’s offense is even faster. And more furious. But with The Kids at QB it won’t be easy. Last season quarterback Matt McGloin was a fifth-year senior, the clubhouse leader as the starter early in spring camp and a relentless worker.

But it may be easier than you think. The Nittany Lions return a veteran offense that features nine players who started the final game of 2012. Only McGloin and center Matt Stankiewitch are gone. Two 1,000-yard men, wide receiver Allen Robinson and running back Zach Zwinak, are back, as are a host of top-notch tight ends and a starting offensive line that has averaged 4.4 years in Happy Valley.

“If we had a freshman quarterback playing last year with a bunch of guys that were just learning the system for the first time, it would be very, very difficult,” O’Brien said in the spring. “So, the fact that we’re a year into the system and we’ve got a lot of veteran players that played for us last year that produced and played well, I think that helps a young quarterback...”

So yes, O’Brien the offensive coordinator must operate without McGloin, the lynchpin of Penn State’s 2012 offense (and now with the Oakland Raiders), and his backup Steven Bench (transferred to South Florida). But he’s known that for quite awhile.

What do you do? In the words of O’Brien this spring, “You start all over again.”

“What we did in the offseason, we did a really good job,” he said. “I thought (we did) a better job than we did last year, because last year we were new and in the offensive meetings it was just me standing up in front of the staff and teaching them the offense. … Nobody in that staff room, when we first got here, knew the offense. I brought it from New England.

“This year, the guys on the staff felt a lot more comfortable with the offense. So now we were able to go back, study what we did last year and tweak a lot of it, tweak all of it. And then you start over with the players again.”

Ferguson has had the playbook since January, Hackenberg has had it since February. And they don’t need to know the whole thing. O’Brien dishes it out piecemeal, so the two QBs won’t have to memorize all 11 assignments on every play on every page by the Syracuse game on Aug. 31.

But it wouldn’t hurt if Hack and Fergie were warp speed readers, either.

As it is, players report next Sunday, with official practice starting a week from today. At this point, time -- and the Penn State offense, O’Brien hopes -- waits for no man.



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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