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Blue-White Game Countdown / 26 Days: Penn State’s Need For Explosive Plays & Play-makers

By Mike Poorman

Editor’s note: This is the fifth post of a daily series counting down to Penn State’s Blue-White Game on April 18.

Big plays are a big deal for Penn State.

Especially in 2014, when the Nittany Lion offense had a small number of them. Forty-five in 13 games, to be exact.

That’s why, on Saturday afternoon, James Franklin was yacking it up about wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins.

It’s all about YACs – yards after catches.

“Thompkins got a couple vertical balls today and ran probably different than the way we’ve had guys run with pads on,” Franklin said after his team’s second official practice of the spring. “Some guys test well but don’t play fast. He was playing fast.”

The fast part came after Thompkins jumped high to grab a pass. He would land, then continue running – and fast, as in 4.36 fast, to gain whole bunch of YACs.

That’s the difference between an 11-yard reception – which Penn State averaged per completion in 2014 – and a play of 20 yards or more, which are typically coined as “explosive” or “chunk” plays. And more than almost anything, the 2015 Penn State offense needs a difference-maker.

That could be the 5-foot-11 Thompkins, who didn’t play as a freshman after arriving on campus in January 2014. He added 14 pounds in the off-season, going from 173 to 187, and has gained a ton of respect.

“I was talking with (cornerbacks coach) Terry Smith and our defensive backs,” Franklin said on Saturday. “And in watching them I saw their technique isn’t as clean as it should be when they’re going up against Thompkins. They know he can run right by them. That’s what happens. It affects you.”

Small Chunks

In its six Big Ten losses last season, Penn State rarely affected opposing defenses. Overall, the Nittany Lions averaged just 14.3 points in their defeats at the hands of Northwestern, Michigan, Ohio State, Maryland, Illinois, and Michigan State. And in those games, Penn State had just 10 plays of 20 yards or more from the line scrimmage. Three were runs and seven were passes.

In the other seven games, all wins, Penn State generated 35 additional plays of 20 yards or more. In all, of Penn State’s 45 plays of 20 or more yards, 13 came on runs and 33 on passes. That’s very close to the 2013 output, when in one less game Penn State had 47 explosive plays (11 runs, 36 passes).

Allen Robinson had 34 chunk plays in 2012-13. In 2013, with Christian Hackenberg throwing the ball and a veteran O-line offering time and protection, A-Rob averaged 14.8 yards per catch on 97 receptions. In 2012, with Matt McGloin slinging the ball, 45 of Penn State’s 52 chunk plays were passes. In 2005, quarterback Michael Robinson was a huge chunk of the PSU offense, as he accounted for 49 (seven run, 42 pass) of the Nittany Lions’ 67 plays over 20 yards.

Who were the play-makers for Penn State in 2014?

For plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage, wide receiver Geno Lewis led with 11, followed by fellow receiver DaeSean Hamilton (11), the departed Bill Belton (2 catches, 6 runs), running back Akeel Lynch (7 runs), departed tight end Jesse James (4 catches), receiver Chris Godwin (3), tights end Mike Gesicki (2) and Kyle Carter (1), and receiver Saaed Blacknall (1).

After the Nittany Lions fell 20-19 to Maryland last fall after just a pair of big-play passes of 20 and 33 yards, Franklin lamented the disappearance of big strikes and bursts that helped cover up the flaws of an inconsistent offense that lacked the ability to run the ball.

“Explosive plays – we’ve got to find a way to get more of them,” Franklin said after falling to the Terps. “That was an eraser for us early in the year, and we haven’t been getting them recently.”

Grading the D and ST

It’s not just up to the Penn State offense to supply the play-makers. There is the defense and special teams – neither of which was all that special with generating (or stopping) big plays on their own in 2014. Last season, Penn State’s defense and special teams gave up a combined 64 plays of 20 yards or more.

In addition, Penn State lost the turnover battle. The PSU offense surrendered the ball 26 times on 11 fumbles and 15 interceptions, while the PSU defense had only 21 takeaways – and just five of them via a fumble. D-lineman Anthony Zettel and freshman corner back Grant Haley both recorded pick-sixes. In all, Penn State had a turnover margin of minus-5, which ranked it No. 95 out of 128 FBS schools in the nation.

Franklin begins every in-season press conference reviewing key statistics from the previous game, and the Penn State coach’s comments form taken at the midpoint of the 2014 season are still telling.

“I think our defense is playing extremely well, but getting some of those game-saving plays (is important),” Franklin said last fall. “The interception for a touchdown, the punt return for a touchdown, setting up the offense with great field position. Special teams can help in those areas as well. For us to go from a good defense to a great defense or an elite defense, that’s where the turnovers come in.”

Penn State’s special teams rarely produced a big play in 2014. The Nittany Lions had one punt and four field goals blocked (Sam Ficken had nine blocked in his PSU career), but were oh-for-138 is getting a hand on an opposition punt (84 in 2014), field goal attempt (27), or PAT attempt (also 27). Haley averaged only 20.7 yards on 30 kick returns, with only two (31, 44) over 30 yards. Half of Jesse Della Valle’s 127 punt return yards were built around returns of 24 and 41 yards. Take those two away, and his 7.9-yard average drops to 4.4.

Where To Look

None of this is lost on Franklin. For answers, he looked outside the program and brought in a former NFL special teams coordinator to meet with Penn State special teams coordinator and running back Charles Huff and other coaches.

Franklin also took a look at his overall program, and is finally able to put scholarship players on special teams and take already-stretched starters off of them.

“On special teams we just have much more depth across the board,” Franklin said last week. “That’s in general — offense, defense, and special teams. We have pretty much a legitimate two deep at every position, which we did not have last year.”

Franklin also looked at Thompkins. Again.

“Thompkins looked really good at catching punts and returning kicks” in spring drills, Franklin said the other day. “I’m hoping he can do those things for us as well.”

If Franklin’s three-year history at Vanderbilt is any indication, he has ability to add big plays to make explosive changes.

Dandy At Vandy

In his final two seasons at Vandy, the Commodores had just one of 262 kicks blocked – that’s field goals, PATs, and punts. In turn, in his three seasons there, Vanderbilt generated points and big plays in myriad fashion. From 2011-13, Vandy blocked three field goal tries and two punts, had six pick-sixes, and ran three punts and one kickoff back for touchdowns.

And all the while they turned around some very bad turnover karma.

In 2010, the season before Franklin and Co. arrived in Nashville, Vanderbilt had a turnover margin of minus 16. Franklin’s first season it dropped to minus-1, followed by even in 2012 and plus-6 in 2013.

Sounds like something to yack about.

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