Better by Miles on Third Down, Penn State’s Offense is Getting a Pass-Due Makeover
Penn State’s offense is getting a makeover.
On the run.
Whether by force or by choice, the Nittany Lions have taken on an offensive improvement project over the past two weeks.
And it involves putting more Miles on the road.
Especially on third down.
That’s Miles Sanders, the 5-foot-11, 207-pound junior running back who has carried the ball 50 times in the past two weeks — 23 carries for 159 yards and a TD vs. Wisconsin and 27 times for 88 yards against Rutgers.
He’s been a big part of the difference in a pair of tight games against competition that was banged up (Wisconsin) and beaten down (Rutgers entered the contest riding a nine-game losing streak).
While Penn State failed to score more than 22 points for the second consecutive week against Rutgers on Saturday, they did win for the second week in a row with a banged-up quarterback and a mostly kiddie receiving corps.
What they now have, after two weeks, is a ball-control offense that has provided some respite and support for a defense that had spent the better — and worst — part of a month playing 90 snaps a game.
In Penn State’s wins over Wisconsin and Rutgers, its offense has undergone a forced transformation to a run-oriented, eat-the-clock operation that has relied on Sanders and a solid and suddenly opportunistic defense.
Against Rutgers, Sanders ran for seven of the Nittany Lions’ 19 first downs. It’s when the first downs came that tell you all you need know about the recent run-first DIY project hammered out by James Franklin and Ricky Rahne; in order, here they are:
“It was one of those games where you have to grind out those 4- and 5-yard runs,” Sanders said afterwards. “There were a lot of situations where it was third-and-2, third-and-1, and they counted me on to get the first down.”
For Sanders, third-and-1 was Job One.
“I was just doing my job,” said Sanders, who has 1,095 yards rushing on 193 carries, and averages 5.7 yards per carry and 99.55 yards per game. “I’ll carry just as many times as they want to give it to me.”
Twenty-seven carries for 88 yards, with a long of nine yards and an average of 3.3 yards per carry, isn’t very sexy. But Franklin appreciated the esthetics that went into it: “Miles battled and fought like crazy for the yards he was able to get.”
PLOTTING THE CHANGES
Here’s a closer look at the transformation of Penn State’s offense over the past two games vs. the first nine games of 2018:
RUN FIRST — Penn State ran the ball 58% of the time vs. Wisconsin and Rutgers compared to just 42% in its first nine games.
POSSESS THE BALL — Penn State’s average time of possession was 26 minutes and 51 seconds through the first nine weeks of the season; the last two weeks it has been 30:45.
POSSESS THE BALL IN THE FOURTH QUARTER — Penn State’s average TOP average in the final 15 minutes was 6:19 through nine games, then jumped to 8:45 the past two weeks.
CONVERT THIRD (AND FOURTH) DOWN —Thanks to the sturdy work of Sanders, the last two weeks Penn State is 19 of 36 on third- and fourth-downs — a very successful 53%. Leading up to Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions were just 47 of 133 (35.3%) on third- and fourth- downs.
LONG DRIVES HOME —Through the first nine games of 2018, Penn State’s offense had only four drives that lasted 5 or more minutes. Total. Against Wisconsin and Rutgers, they had four drives that lasted 5 or more minutes. In fact, three of their five longest drives time-wise this season — 6:40 and 5:33 vs. Wisconsin, and 5:40 vs. Rutgers — have come in the past two weeks.
That 5:40 drive came in the fourth quarter against Rutgers, and although the 12-play, 40-yard drive ended in a lost fumble by Sanders on a third-and-6, Franklin was thrilled with it.
“I thought the four-minute drive at the end of the game was pretty impressive,” Franklin said. “We did a great job of working the clock and running the ball and mixing those things in there. Obviously, you don’t want to fumble it. We have to get that cleaned up. But I thought the way we were able to run the ball and eat the clock was a positive. That’s something that we’ve worked really hard at.”
DEFENSIVE ABOUT IT
The Nittany Lion defense held Rutgers to a single touchdown and came up with two interceptions and one fumble. Add that to the four turnovers the PSU defense caused two weeks ago against Wisconsin while yielding just 10 points, and seven of the PSU defense’s 20 takeaways in 2018 have come in the last two games.
So, as has been the case for most the season, defense is not problem for the Nittany Lions, who are 8-3, but just 4-3 since losing to Ohio State.
“Our defense has been terrific,” Franklin said on Saturday.
The passing game? Not so much.
As a result, points have been at a premium since the Whiteout.
Counting that 27-26 loss to the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lion offense has been outscored 159-155 over the past seven games. That translates to just 22.1 points per contest in that time span. That’s basically half of the 41.1 points per game Penn State averaged in all of 2017.
MCSORLEY IS McSORE
Quarterback Trace McSorley, hampered by a knee injury and afflicted with a receiving corps that is young and/or injured and/or unable to hold onto the ball, is not himself. Which is a shame, because it’s that time of year when the PSU QB usually shines.
Over the final three games of the 2016 season, McSorley threw for 1,024 yards and 12 touchdowns. (Against good competition, too: Michigan State, Wisconsin and USC.)
Over the final three games of the 2017 season, he threw for 936 yards and nine touchdowns. (Against Nebraska, Maryland and Washington).
Franklin was hoping for more of the same in 2018. McSorley has thrown for 83, 160 and 183 yards the past three weeks, as just two games remain in his Penn State career.
“We’ve been a little bit off in the passing game and it’s been a storyline this year,” Franklin said on Saturday. “We need to get that fixed for this week. And we need to get that fixed for moving forward.”
It’s been a perfect storm for the Nittany Lions’ passing game in 2018: A couple of dozen drops, injuries to veterans Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk (both of whom were not performing up to par prior to getting hurt), lots of inexperience at wide receiver — 24 of Penn State’s 36 receptions the past two weeks have been made by redshirt and true freshmen — and an offensive line that has not performed up to Franklin’s expectations.
“It’s something that’s hampered us all season long,” Franklin said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
McSorley, who injured his knee at the first half against Iowa, is gamely soldiering on.
Without Saquon, Mike, DaeSean and his health, McSorley’s numbers are down. In 2016, he averaged 258 yards passing per game, with a 58% completion rate and 29 TD passes. In 2017, he averaged 275 passing yards per game, with a 66.5% completion rate and 28 TDs.
In 2018, McSorley is averaging 187 yards passing per game, with a 53% completion rate, and 15 TD passes.
On Saturday, Franklin said he has already scheduled a little fix-it session for all of that.
“I think,” said the coach, “we are going to emphasize some 7-on-7 this week.”