Penn State’s New Offense Struggles In First Major Test
One of the most discussed topics coming from spring ball was the new fast-paced offense being implemented by James Franklin and his new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
The offense has received some praise through the first three games of the season with the Nittany Lions averaging 35.3 points per game. It seemed like Franklin finally had the pieces to make it work with a versatile quarterback in Trace McSorley and an experienced, flashy core at wide receiver and in the backfield.
In reality, Penn State’s defense was too battered to be able to compete with No. 4 Michigan’s offense that has run through its three opponents so far. The real question in today’s game was whether Trace McSorley and co. could punish the Wolverines’ defense with this high-tempo offense that worked so well in the opening few games of the season.
The short answer: Moorhead’s offense wasn’t up to the task today.
Penn State’s offense had all of two first downs and four three-and-outs on six drives in the first half. The Nittany Lions had fifty yards of offense at halftime and couldn’t keep up with the Michigan offense, which was probably the only chance they had to stay competitive in this one.
The second half showed improvements, but not nearly enough to overcome a 28-0 halftime deficit. The only touchdown drive of the game was aided by two pass interference penalties, earning Penn State 30 of its 75 yards on that possession.
“One of the top defenses in the country, they were beating us up front,” Franklin said. “Like I told you guys in the past, when you’re getting beat up front on offense or defense, it could be challenging. Yeah, I thought we could be more successful offensively, especially early on. We weren’t able to do that.”
The offensive line has been an Achilles heel for the past couple seasons. That was especially true today with McSorley being sacked six times and having to deal with constant pressure.
This game was a bit of a change of pace for McSorley. He never had much time to sit in the pocket and make decisions, constantly being forced to go on the move. Good defenses are going to be able to rush the quarterback and that was part of the struggle today.
“I felt like it was little bit of a speed change,” McSorley said. “Those guys are fast. They’re aggressive and they fly around. Their entire team flies to the ball. They gang tackle, they hit hard, and they arrive violently.”
McSorley wasn’t the only one without much time to work with. Saquon Barkley had similar issues in the backfield, getting tackled for losses on a handful of occasions. But in his opinion, the offense should have been better today and did show some potential.
“We just try to get out playmakers in space,” Barkley said. “Michigan did a really good job. They’re the No. 4 team in the country for a reason.They’re a heck of a team. Their defense is awesome, superstars all around. But like I said, I think we’re a lot better than what we’ve shown. We showed some spurts where we were able to move the ball down the field and we just have to be more consistent.”
That front line, if anything, has some experience. No person on that line is more experienced than Brian Gaia, who has started in the last 25 games. Franklin was somewhat optimistic during the spring, but now the offensive line is once again a negative topic of discussion.
The offensive line has been questioned frequently and is still searching for answers.
“We have to be a lot more physical up front,” center Brian Gaia said “We have to go in every week of practice and be conscious of being more physical. Be ready to put people on the ground, stuff like that. It’s a mentality thing. Comes a lot with confidence.”
Michigan was always going to be a tough test, but now the offense enters a key stretch of the Big Ten season — winnable home games against Minnesota and Maryland — with its confidence taking a hit.
It may have been a difficult atmosphere for Moorhead’s first major test, but the offense needs to be clicking again next Saturday if Penn State is going to win with the defense still hard done by injuries.