PSU likes fast pace, if circumstances permit
STATE?COLLEGE?- Go, go, go. No huddle. Snap it. Go, go, go. Get up to the line of scrimmage. Go, go, go.
Fast-paced offense is all the rage in football these days, and after what Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles displayed Monday night, the copycat trend figures to take effect in the NFL and college football.
Penn State has an effective no-huddle package that Bill O’Brien calls NASCAR, and the offense was highly effective and efficient in it last season. The Nittany Lions haven’t run it as much so far this year, although they looked crisp the few times they went to it Saturday against Eastern Michigan.
O’Brien was asked about the Eagles’ offense Monday night and said, “It was unbelievable. It was great.”
O’Brien is certainly an offensive-minded coach, and it would surprise no one if the Lions would ever go to the NASCAR package extensively in games. But there is, as the coach mentioned, “a fine line that you walk with your tempo.”
A big part of the equation has nothing to do with how the offense is playing.
“A lot of it has to do with how your defense is playing,” O’Brien said. “With the way our defense has been playing in the last couple games, it was probably appropriate for us to be in more fast tempo because our defense was playing pretty well.”
Teams can’t just decide on a whim to play fast a good bit of the time. To do what Kelly did at Oregon or now with the Eagles takes a mindset and commitment that has to start with the training and conditioning programs during the offseason.
Fast offenses don’t just wear out the defense, they can wear out the offensive players, too.
“In the huddle you get that 10, 15 seconds of breath, and NASCAR, it’s just keep going, going, going, going,” PSU left tackle Donovan Smith said. “Any team that runs a fast no huddle will tell you that it will get tiring.”
The Lions seemingly would be able to pull it off, however, as they’ve repeatedly praised strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald for getting them in tip-top condition.
“I think we’re in good shape,” Smith said. “We ran NASCAR [on Saturday], and … I asked a couple of guys on the line, ‘How are you feeling?’ We feel great. And I feel good myself. I don’t think it’s any problem in terms of conditioning that when we go NASCAR or anything like that.”
That’s going to it several times a game. But how about using it extensively?
“That will be fun, actually, to find out myself,” Smith said.
Sooner or later, Penn State will play a team that runs a lot of no-huddle offense — Indiana will in week five — so the defenders’ conditioning will be put to the test.
“It’s really hard to simulate the type of tempo like that at practice,” safety Malcolm Willis said. “With our team, we go against fast tempo every day in practice, and it does nothing for us but help us.”
There are two things that prevent Penn State from doing more NASCAR.
“It’s hard to start a drive with ultra-fast tempo right away,” O’Brien said. “It’s important to gain the first first down, and that kind of gets you flowing from there.”
The Lions are a woeful 2-for-26 on third down this season (see more on that below), and negative plays on first or second down have prevented them from getting into their NASCAR sets more.
The other big reason is they have a freshman quarterback who has played only two games, and he’s running a highly complex offense that requires him to make a lot of checks at the line of scrimmage.
“In high school I really didn’t have to do that much,” Christian Hackenberg said. “So coming here that’s something I felt like I did better [against Eastern Michigan] than last week.”
As Hackenberg gets more comfortable with the offense and better understands what he’s seeing at the line of scrimmage, the more comfortable O’Brien will feel going no huddle.
“I love to play at a fast pace,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s a lot of fun for the kids. It’s fun in practice. They enjoy it. They have a lot of confidence in it. So we’ll try to keep mixing it in there.”
Linebackers Mike Hull (knee) and Ben Kline (shoulder) are good to go Saturday, O’Brien said, which is a big boost for the PSU defense. Safety Ryan Keiser from Selinsgrove is listed as questionable.
Tight end Matt Lehman underwent surgery Tuesday on his injured knee and is out for the season.
Penn State is 2-for-26 on third down this season. That’s not a misprint. Despite being 2-0 and scoring 23 and 45 points, the Lions have been the worst team in the nation on third down, and it does help that they’re 4-for-4 on fourth down.
“It will get better,” O’Brien said. “I can’t guarantee it. I’m not into guarantees. But I do believe we’re working on it, and it will definitely, in my opinion, it will improve. It needs to.”
One of the main problems is that PSU has found itself in many third-and-long situations.
“We’ve got to get off to a better start on first down,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got too many [bad plays], whether it’s a penalty to put us back or a lost-yardage play. So now you’re in second-and-long, and you’re already off schedule. It’s not a good thing.
“Once we get to third down, we have to execute better. I thought on Saturday there were plays to be made there. Whether it was a protection breakdown or a poor throw or whatever it was, we just didn’t make the play.”
RB by committee
The depth chart lists Zach Zwinak or Bill Belton or Akeel Lynch as the starting running back. Having two players listed isn’t uncommon, but three is very rare.
“Running back by committee isn’t so bad when you have three good running backs,” O’Brien said.