Blue White Illustrated

December 2023

Penn State Sports Magazine

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 35 of 67

3 6 D E C E M B E R 2 0 2 3 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M O P I N I O N THOMAS FRANK CARR T F R A N K .CA R R @ O N 3 .C O M J ames Franklin offered a succinct assessment of Penn State's passing game following the team's 20-12 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 21. Was it good enough? "No," he said. "We didn't make enough plays today. We weren't able to create separation." You can understand why Franklin didn't want to do a deep dive into the finer points of Penn State's aerial at- tack in the immediate aftermath of another frustrating loss to the Buck- eyes. But this is football, and the answers are never simple. The Penn State passing game has some deep- seated issues that go beyond receiver separation. To understand the problem, we need to understand how the offense has op- erated so far. The Nittany Lions have feasted on "easy access" throws against zone coverages. The wide placement of the hash marks in the college game makes it hard to cover the field evenly, so the defense "gives" the offense the farthest sideline based on how it situ- ates defenders at the second and third levels. Because sophomore quarterback Drew Allar has the arm strength to make those long throws, Penn State has emphasized them in its offense. This area of the field, which is outside the numbers and under 10 yards, was ac- counting for 14 percent of Allar's total dropbacks through eight games. Allar has repeatedly said that he's satisfied taking these throws on a regular basis because they are a safe, efficient way to move the ball. "We can talk all we want about tak- ing shots downfield," he said, "but we have three safeties running deep most of the game and then the corners fall- ing off on our level routes, so I'm not going to throw it into harm's way and get our receiver lit up or allow the de- fense a free interception." If we add in passes thrown outside the numbers, Allar's rate of "safe" throws was 27 percent through eight games. By contrast, he threw only 11 percent of his passes between the numbers and more than 10 yards downfield. For reference, the numbers on a col- lege football field are roughly seven to eight yards from the sideline, so this area accounts for 39 lateral yards and theoretically 90 vertical yards. That's a massive expanse of grass. A year ago, with Penn State deploy- ing the same offensive system it's using now, Sean Clifford threw 17.5 percent of his passes into this area. Even that number is below what Michigan's J.J. McCarthy and Ohio State's Kyle Mc- Cord have done this fall, with both targeting the area on more than 20 per- cent of their attempts. Franklin has acknowledged the need to threaten the full field. "We've got to be able to attack the entire 53-and-one-third width of the field and the entire 120 yards of the field," he said. "If most of our produc- tion is coming in similar areas of the field, it makes you easier to defend. There's no doubt about it." A year ago, the presence of tight end Theo Johnson in the middle of the field was a massive advantage for the Nit- tany Lions. More than half of his targets (52 percent) came on routes down the middle of the field and over 10 yards. He caught 10 of 12 targets for 194 yards and 3 touchdowns from Clifford in this field zone while seeing only 10 targets across the rest of the field. This year, Johnson has been used mostly as a catch-and-run target. The fourth-year junior caught 11 of 12 tar- gets in the middle of the field under 10 yards, mostly on screens and crossing routes, totaling 103 yards and a touch- down on those plays. Football is a matchup-driven sport. You can't control what the defense does on each play and how it schemes to stop your offense. Ohio State protected the middle of the field with its scheme. In- diana did not. The collective focus after PSU's 33-24 win over the Hoosiers was on the final touchdown pass of the game, a 57-yard strike to junior KeAndre Lambert- Smith. But there was more to the Lions' success than just that one play. Against the Hoosiers, Allar finally used the full width of the field. He connected on 3 of 7 passes down the intermediate deep middle of the field, including a 16-yard touchdown toss to Johnson. Those throws accounted for 23 percent of his total passing attempts. While the intermediate area is still a work in progress — he went 1 for 4 with an interception — the threat of Allar targeting these areas of the field is now on tape. What's more, he went 3 of 6 on deep passes, including the game- winner. Was the win over Indiana a step for- ward for Allar? Or did the Hoosiers' aggressive man coverage scheme open things up? The final weeks of the season will provide answers, but it's a positive sign that he is willing to adapt. ■ Quarterback Drew Allar has been trying to take what the defense is giving up rather than forcing throws into coverage downfield. PHOTO BY STEVE MANUEL PSU's Passing Offense Needs To Use The Whole Field Upon Further Review

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of Blue White Illustrated - December 2023