Penn State fans have certainly noticed Saquon Barley’s lack of production in recent games, and many are quick to blame the offensive line for failing to provide the star running back with room to work with.
There may be an answer to the confusion surrounding the Nittany Lions’ recent ineffectiveness on the ground.
Penn State's 82 tackles for a loss allowed is dead last in the Big Ten and two spots from being the worst in the nation. 25 of those are sacks.
— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) November 12, 2017
Ahead of Saturday’s matchup with Rutgers, former New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma explained on ESPN’s The Russillo Show that the Penn State offensive line was accidentally giving away plays to opposing defenses.
Even James Franklin responded to Vilma’s comments in his press conference on Tuesday.
Franklin on @JonVilma51's comments on the team tipping its hat offensively: "That's a lot of stuff we did during the bye week is scout ourselves from the opposite side of the ball. Every offense and defense has tells."
— Onward State (@OnwardState) November 14, 2017
“So for Penn State, it all started when I was watching the Northwestern game on Saturday,” Vilma explained in the week following the Nittany Lions’ second straight loss. “And I was like, ‘Wow, Northwestern is doing a tremendous job against Saquon Barkley.’ And then Penn State ended up winning, they blew the game open, but I wanted to really see what happened in that game so I went and watched the film the next day.”
It’s certainly true that the Northwestern defense bottled up Barkley for the most part. Other than a dazzling 53-yard run, Barkley was held to just 22 yards on 15 rushes. The Wildcats seemed to one of the first teams to slow down the then-Heisman frontrunner in any effective way.
“I started seeing some tells with the way the offense was lining up and what some players on the offense — particularly on the offensive line.”
According to Vilma, one offensive tackle for the Nittany Lions had a tendency to give away the upcoming play with his stance. And if a former player casually watching some film could figure this tell in a short amount of time, the likelihood of an opposing coaching staff finding the tell is very likely.
“You knew whether it was run or pass based on one of the offensive tackles. One of the offensive tackles was very, very lazy in his stance. So when it was a pass, he was very upright and you could tell that he needed to kick back and get back for a pass. When it was a run, he was leaning in, he was locked in to make sure he goes and gets his guy.”
Vilma didn’t mention which offensive tackle he was referring to, but as the game wore on, the apparent tell became clearer and clearer to Vilma.
“It was particularly noticeable when he started getting tired. As all linemen do, they get tired. And he would then start to really lean in on his runs, sit back on his passes. And I said ‘Wow, I could call run-pass this whole game. Run, pass, run, pass.’ I was right.”
Vilma went on to explain that when Saquon Barkley was lined up on the side of the defensive tackle was lined up over one of Penn State’s guards, Barkley was usually getting the ball. In those cases, the run would be designed to take advantage of the A-gap or would be a designed cut-back.
When Barkley lined up on the other side of that particular defensive lineman, known as the three-technique lineman, Penn State usually ran a true zone-read offense. Vilma noted that an aware linebacking corps and secondary could really take advantage of this problem.
“And sure enough, I remember watching the Ohio State game’s second half. And they lit up that Penn State offense. And I would like to think that it’s that they knew they had the tell.”
Saquon Barkley’s 22 carries for 44 yards in Columbus for an average of 2.1 yards per carry shows that the Buckeye defense was certainly ready for whatever the Penn State offense was trying to throw at them.
“I literally just sat there like, ‘Run, pass, run, pass — this is too easy.’”