Clash of styles in Big 10 title game
STATE COLLEGE >> When James Franklin looks at the numbers, he can’t help but wonder how many times his offense will get the ball against Wisconsin.
The No. 6 Badgers (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten, No. 6 CFP) have limited opponents all season by setting a methodical pace with a grinding, physical running game. Wisconsin leads the nation in time of possession.
“It affects how offenses are because they’re worried about how many possessions they’re going to get, start to change how they call the game as well,” Franklin said Tuesday. “That does have a big effect.”
The No. 8 Nittany Lions (102, 8-1, No. 7 CFP) take a different approach into Saturday’s Big Ten championship game.
Franklin knows his offense doesn’t need much time to rack up
points. Penn State’s coach has learned to value explosive plays over all other aspects since offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead installed a new, no-huddle scheme.
Just as Wisconsin’s plodding, keep-away strategy has helped the Badgers post a national best 35:12 per game in possession time, Penn State’s big-play offense has made defense after defense pay. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten and are tied for seventh in the country with 80 plays of 20 yards or more.
The explosive plays, including 57 through the air, have helped Penn State score just over 36 points per game. Quarterback Trace McSorley, always willing to give his receivers a chance at a 50-50 ball, has been the trigger-man on many of them.
“He makes a lot of plays,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “Certainly pushing the ball down the field, but it looks to me like he loves playing the game and he competes and has a great energy about him. I liked watching him until this week getting ready to play him, but looks like a heck of a quarterback.”
McSorley has often described Penn State’s offense as up-tempo. That’s accurate in the way the Nittany Lions attack. But their approach is actually much more methodical than possession numbers might indicate and McSorley’s been at the forefront of a patient process.
Not only is Penn State making second half adjustments that yield more big plays, McSorley has proved himself as a game-manager. Although the Nittany Lions don’t huddle, they spend a lot of time at the line of scrimmage as McSorley surveys the defense, then looks to the sideline for Moorhead’s signals after
he’s had a chance to do the same. The Nittany Lions are using an average of 30 seconds of play clock between each snap the last two games.
“It’s huge there because you have to be able to see the play call and the signals and then relay the information that’s necessary to people that need to know, our offensive line and making sure everyone’s on the same page,” McSorley said. “I think it’s definitely helped the quarterbacks and myself mature.”
With so much going on before each snap, the game has slowed down for McSorley. He’s not making the mistakes or misreading coverages like he did at times earlier this season and was nearly perfect after taking time to survey Michigan State’s defensive alignment last week. Then, he completed 12 of 15 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns against the blitz. His incompletions against extra-man pressures were throwaways to avoid sacks and a drop from one of his receivers.
“I know huddles are a bad word around here now, but I think quarterbacks always have to be really engaged in running the show,” Franklin said. “I think Trace has done a really, really good job of that.”
Penn State’s Saquon Barkley dives over the pile for a touchdown against Michigan State on Saturday.