After Just One Week, John Donovan’s Offense Deserves More Chances
To the naked eye, Penn State’s discouraging loss to Temple on Saturday implies that the season is as good as lost. There was shaky play-calling, a renewed lack of depth on the offensive line, and another “rival” fan base looking to spark a feud with the Nittany Lions. After the game, I was described by a friend as “just lost his job” sad, and I was by all accounts ready to write this season off with the rest of the naysayers. Upon further review, however, I am not ready to give up on this season just yet.
Penn Staters everywhere are calling for John Donovan’s head after the barrage of short gains and screen passes that he called on Saturday. Donovan didn’t use his tight ends, he failed to involve the right players at the right time, and he certainly didn’t let Hackenberg show off his arm. One thing that Donovan did do well, though, is run his offense. As the offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt, John Donovan took a team ranked 112 out of 120 in scoring offense in 2010 to new heights in 2011, when it was ranked 61 out of 120 in the same category. Vanderbilt’s points per game jumped by nearly ten points in that time, and its yards per game average grew by almost 41 yards. Over his next two seasons in the perennial SEC bottom-feeder, he saw similar success. It was no practice of nepotism that brought Donovan along to Penn State with James Franklin — the man can coach. While Vanderbilt may not have had the most highly ranked recruits during Franklin’s tenure there, many of them had a quality that made them perfect for Donovan’s offensive scheme: SEC speed. Donovan would ideally like to run a spread-style offense with a dual-threat quarterback at the helm and blazing fast athletes around him. He doesn’t have that yet, but through recruiting he’s getting close. Look at Brandon Polk’s long runs in the first quarter if you need proof. If John Donovan and his play-calling style get a few more weeks with some of his players in the system (even better, a few years), he will deliver special results.
One area of Penn State’s play on Saturday that is slightly less defensible than its offensive play calling is the play of the offensive line. Coming into the season, it was pretty clear that this was the team’s weakest unit. The group is still young; the group still has converted defensive linemen lining up in the trenches; and now the group has a junior college transfer starting in its most important slot at left tackle. The offensive line looked like a giant turnstile against the above average Temple defense on Saturday, and it needs to get better if it has any hope of turning this season around. The team can use the Buffalo game this week to let the line gel as a unit and to give Paris Palmer more reps at left tackle. These two things will hopefully act as a springboard going forward to turn a group that allowed ten sacks in one week into one that can perform at a level exceeding last year’s offensive line play.
Watching Penn State get beaten by Temple hurts. It was so hard to watch, I think, because it was Temple, the team from Philly who hasn’t beaten its big brother from Happy Valley in 74 years. Like the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins of the world, the Temple Owls came into the game against Penn State looking for a rivalry and played like it. They outplayed the Lions handily and deserved the victory. But ultimately, does one game matter? Probably not. Recruits understand that, coaches and players understand that, and as fans we should too. This game should serve as a wake-up call for the players, and will make for one hell of a match-up against Temple in the future.
I’m a Penn State football optimist. Sometimes I wish that I wasn’t, but I can’t change that. Just because Penn State lost to Temple doesn’t mean that the season is lost. Penn State still has arguably the best quarterback in the country, a top ranked defense, and coaches with more heart than most. There is a lot of hope for this team — don’t lose it just yet.