Enough Is Enough: The Case Against John Donovan
I’ve tried to be supportive over the past year. I’ve tried to exude patience, even though watching this team flail like a fish out of water week-in and week-out on the offensive side of the ball last year dug away at my insides. The 2014 season’s conclusion came by way of a storybook ending you see in Hollywood: a dominant performance by Christian Hackenberg, coupled with a game-winning field goal from one of the most popular players in recent memory. It was fun, but looking at that season from the top down left much to be desired. The team left wins on the table, and the offense’s ineptitude was a direct factor. You’d think 2015 would be different. Maybe adjustments were made. On Saturday, we learned that not only had nothing changed, but it seemed as though last season’s woes became amplified.
I understand there are a number of factors hindering Penn State offensively, but to me, the most glaring issue starts with the man calling the shots from the press box. I’ve tried to be patient, but enough’s enough.
John Donovan is crippling this offense, and the team is suffering in the win-loss column as a result. I’ve tried to hold my tongue. I’ve tried to remain optimistic. But I’ve had enough.
Let me begin by stating that this is not a barrage on the man’s character. John Donovan seems like a reputable man who has always been respectful of the media and the fans. I am not chiding him for that. I cannot, however, sit back after watching a Penn State team favored by 14 points over Temple lay a metaphorical goose egg — all while totaling 183 yards to Temple’s 313.
The rhetoric that’s constantly been repeated by Donovan over the offseason has been his desire to implement his offensive scheme, rather than adjust to the pieces around him. This is my first major issue with Donovan’s coaching philosophy. Looking back at his years with Vanderbilt — a team he helped rejuvenate under James Franklin — Donovan had both a recipe for success and a platform to execute his plan. His quarterback, Jordan Rodgers, was the epitome of what every coach wanted in a mobile, spread-offense passer. Rodgers, standing at 6-foot-1, 212 pounds, fit the mold of Donovan’s offensive scheme perfectly. He wasn’t a burner on the ground, but he was quick. He could move around in the pocket, but was effective when he tucked the ball and ran upfield. He was no Michael Vick, but with 491 yards and six touchdowns on the ground for his career, his versatility did not go unnoticed by opposing defenses.
I mention his mobility because it’s a favorable trait for an offensive scheme such as Donovan’s. Rodgers thrived in the shotgun formation, flanked only by a running back. He could be used as a weapon in the read option, and executed Donovan’s gimmicky scheme — full of screen passes and receiver sweeps — to perfection. With running back Zac Stacy — who rushed for 3,143 yards and 30 touchdowns in his Vanderbilt career — to complement, Donovan had a number of established weapons to work with.
Now we compare Rodgers with Donovan’s current signal-caller: Christian Hackenberg. As a freshman in 2013, Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards, with 20 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions. He won 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, and looked every bit the five-star, blue-chip savior he was hailed as coming out of high school. As we all know, 2014 was a much different story. Hackenberg endured rocky start after rocky start, and finished the year with 2,977 yards. Contrary to 2013, however, his consistency took a plunge. The sophomore struggled mightily throughout the season, throwing 12 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. His quarterback rating dipped from 134.0 to 109.4, and he resembled a shell of his freshman self.
The difference? In 2013, Hackenberg operated under center, under the tutelage of quarterback-guru Bill O’Brien. In 2014, Hackenberg was thrust into a foreign offensive system, one that forced the pro-style quarterback to operate primarily out of the spread. Instead of spreading the ball across the field, Hackenberg was forced to throw shorter passes — highlighted by the infamous screen pass. From 2013 to 2014, Hackenberg’s average yards per attempt dipped from 7.5 to 6.2 — and that’s no coincidence. When glazing over Hackenberg’s career statistics, another area stands out — his ground numbers. In each of his two years as starter, Hackenberg never finished positive in regards to rushing. He was labeled the polar opposite of a scrambling quarterback out of high school, and his negative rushing totals reflect that notion. Christian Hackenberg was never meant to be utilized on the ground, and it baffles me why Donovan continues to ignore his strengths.
Christian Hackenberg operating in John Donovan’s offense is like forcing a square peg into a round hole; it simply does not work. Bill O’Brien acknowledged Hackenberg’s strengths during his lone season working with the quarterback, and built around those strengths accordingly. I’m not saying Hackenberg isn’t to blame for Penn State’s offensive woes — he’s as much at fault as the next player — but being confined to throwing short passes in an otherwise conservative offense certainly isn’t helping his development. Christian Hackenberg displayed a gunslinger mentality during his first collegiate season, and having the freedom to take shots downfield earned him that title. Now, he’s confined to limited options within a restricted window, and rarely have we seen that commanding poise he emanated under O’Brien.
These are valid points, but nonetheless remain in retrospect. This takes us to our next topic: the team’s dismal 2015 opener against Temple.
Penn State’s first-quarter performance against Temple left plenty of reason for optimism. By no means did the offense resemble a synchronized unit firing on all cylinders, but at least there was life. Akeel Lynch broke off a 42-yard touchdown run, and the unit patched together a pair of noteworthy drives that resulted in 10 points on the board. After that, however, the offense sputtered, as if careening off a cliff. Momentum transformed into stagnation, and Temple smelled blood. Don’t get me wrong, Temple is no afterthought — as much as Penn State’s fanbase tried to convince itself that it was — but it was the utter discombobulation of the Nittany Lion attack that allowed Matt Rhule and his jumpstart program to take the lead, and do so with conviction.
Let’s look at some numbers, shall we? Christian Hackenberg threw the ball 25 times, connecting on just 11 of those attempts for 103 yards and one interception. It’s not the grand total that stands out, however, rather his woeful 4.1 average yards per attempt, so admirably complimented by his ghastly 3.2 quarterback rating. Let’s stray away from the passing statistics for a second, and turn our focus to the team’s rushing output. Akeel Lynch — Penn State’s bellcow back — carried the ball ten times for 78 yards and a touchdown. For the statisticians out there, that’s 7.8 yards per carry. Hell, freshman Brandon Polk even chipped in, taking two jet sweeps for a total of 50 yards — even breaking off a 33-yarder in the game’s opening minutes.
Take a second to digest these figures. Stings, doesn’t it?
How on earth does John Donovan justify allowing his featured running back to touch the ball only ten times, while continually forcing an aerial attack that simply wasn’t there? There is absolutely no logic in that decision, and it played a direct role in preventing Penn State’s offense from erasing Temple’s substantial lead. Refer back to Hackenberg’s measly 4.1 yards per attempt, and now consider that Temple quarterback P.J. Walker posted a figure of 7.2 yards per throw. That’s no coincidence, ladies and gentlemen. Temple’s offensive framework allowed Walker to spread the field and take chances. Donovan’s system does the complete opposite, restricting Hackenberg to designated targets — like on screen plays — and limited options. Penn State’s pro-style quarterback — a playing style that thrives working under center, complimented by a commitment to the run game — took every single snap from the shotgun formation. Forget that Penn State’s interior line couldn’t pick up a blitz up the middle, when you isolate your quarterback and running back in a scheme they so obviously don’t fit, progress remains nothing but a fantasy.
Again, when a quarterback is confined to such a vanilla framework despite an arsenal of weapons surrounding him, there’s only so much he can do.
DaeSean Hamilton led the Big Ten in receptions last season as a redshirt freshman, and Kyle Carter has compiled 70 catches for 828 yards and four touchdowns over the course of his career. On Saturday, the two combined for one reception for five yards, coming by way of a quick pass to Hamilton. Carter, the team’s most experienced receiving threat, saw only a handful of plays. Mike Gesicki, Carter’s position-mate at tight end, also finished the day without a catch. To call this egregious is a complete understatement. Again, I wish I had an answer for the utter lack of aggression, or the perplexing array of plays signaled in by Donovan. Unfortunately, I don’t.
It pains me to say this, because based off of Donovan’s entire body of work at Penn State — let alone Saturday’s horrific showing — there’s no indication that we’ll be getting an answer anytime soon.
But I digress. Maybe I’m just an infuriated supporter yearning for the slightest trace of improvement, but maybe I’m not. Maybe I raise a valid argument — one currently echoing across the state — that Penn State’s offense has hit the ceiling, and that Donovan can only take it so far.
As I stated earlier, I’ve tried to remain optimistic, but I’ve reached my breaking point. Something needs to change, or we’re in for a dreadfully long season.