After Five Weeks, John Donovan’s Offense Lacks Identity
Penn State’s offense has taken fans on a rollercoaster ride so far this year, and after the unit’s inconsistent performance against an inferior Army team, it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting answers anytime soon.
Let’s set the record straight: Regardless of weather conditions, Penn State was expected to annihilate Army, not eclipse one of the worst college football teams in the country by a mere six points. Bob Shoop’s reliable defense gave John Donovan the platform with three turnovers — all of which came inside Army territory. But, as he’s seemingly done ever since assuming the role of offensive coordinator, Donovan responded with his usual array of bland, predictable play calls, preventing his unit from gaining any momentum whatsoever. An Army beat writer sitting nearby labeled the Penn State offense a “dumbed-down” version of a functional unit.
It begins with situational awareness, something I seriously doubt Donovan possesses at this point. A prime example of this utter lacking came after Penn State settled for a field goal, despite marching deep into opposing territory in the first quarter. The drive began on the Army 41-yard line after Manny Bowen scooped up an AJ Schurr fumble, but a 19-yard scramble by Christian Hackenberg put Penn State on the 27-yard line — well within striking distance. The ensuing chain of events highlight Donovan’s sheer ineptitude, and are a prime example of why Army was allowed to remain in this game.
On first-and-10, Nick Scott was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, managing only one yard. On second-and-nine, Scott was called upon again, this time for a gain of three. On third-and-six from the 23 yard line — an obvious passing down — Donovan again chose to run the ball, a result that brought up a fourth and three.
I understand running the ball on first down, a tactic employed by coaches to feel out a defense, like a boxer would throwing a jab. I even understand going with the run if the look is there, especially if the defense deploys extra defensive backs in anticipation of a pass. What I don’t understand is essentially running the same three plays in succession against a stacked box, blatantly disregarding all of the talented weapons Penn Sate has in its passing arsenal in the process. It’s unjustifiable. Why not take a shot at the endzone? It’s these displays of conservatism that kept Army competing in this game, and are the reason Penn State’s offense remains so unpredictable.
When Penn State did choose to pass the ball downfield, it resulted in one of its two touchdowns. In the third quarter, Hackenberg found Godwin deep down the middle. The receiver, who’s quietly enjoying a breakout year, snagged the “contested catch” as Franklin labeled it. A play later, Hackenberg again unleashed, finding Mike Gesicki for his first career score.
What makes matters worse is that Penn State’s head coach, the commander in chief, is reluctant to truly and openly speak about the issues. He does own up to the errors and faces the criticism, but he has decided to shelter his embattled offensive coordinator, building a metaphorical wall around him.
“I’m going to come in here every single week and be positive,” Franklin said during his postgame press conference. “Even if it kills you guys, and you want me to be negative. Do we need to get better? Yes. But you guys can ask me every question in the book trying to get me to be negative, I’m not gonna do it.”
To me, that sounds like a coach choosing not to address his team’s most pressing concerns. It’s one thing to be negative, but it’s an entirely different thing to take a good, honest look at your staff, and then to make an honest evaluation. If Franklin addressed questions surrounding the execution of his offense, it would not be negativity. It would be a head coach providing answers.
It’s become increasingly frustrating to watch Penn State’s offense sputter, knowing that it’s nowhere near its ceiling. The Big Ten gauntlet is right around the corner, and this offense needs an identity more than ever if it hopes to put up a battle. Hopefully those lingering questions are answered, but with showings like today, it’s tough to imagine that one will be provided.