Under-Center Formation Yielding Positive Results For Penn State Football

When offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich unveiled an under-center look for Penn State football’s offense last year, it felt almost sacrilegious.

For years, Nittany Lion teams under James Franklin went away from a traditional singleback formation in favor of new-age spread looks, mostly to open up the run-pass option. With a dynamic, mobile player like Trace McSorley at quarterback, this added flexibility made sense.

But now, with Sean Clifford at the helm of the offense and Yurcich as the coordinator, Franklin is mixing in new looks with the quarterback under center. As it did last year, Penn State is lining up in this formation a tasteful amount. But, thanks to a massive run game improvement, the effects are more tangible in 2022.

In this under-center look, the Nittany Lions are also deploying the i-formation with a tight end operating as a fullback. For Franklin, this specific formation enables a new level of physicality, largely thanks to the run-blocking skills of his tight ends.

“[The formation] has helped our physicality…I think the strength of our tight end room plays a factor in that as well,” the head coach said. “I don’t think you do this if you don’t have the depth and the strength of a tight end room like we do.”

Penn State was in this formation for Nick Singleton’s first touchdown against Auburn. They’re in 12 personnel and bring on an extra offensive lineman to clear a lane for the running back.

Brenton Strange is in full bull-dozer mode as basically a seventh lineman, and Tyler Warren, who gets just enough of a hand on the defender to complete the play, is essentially a fullback here.

The physicality of the tight ends is on full display in this formation, as well as when Penn State lines up in the T formation. Yurcich uses this “T” look as an assault on the defense, with Clifford usually sneaking it in. Franklin noted that the quarterback sneak is the “one difference” of lining up under center, as it’s impossible out of the shotgun.

Against Purdue, Strange lined up behind Clifford, who was under center, and pushed him across the goal line.

Franklin also pointed out that lining up under center helps in the play-action pass game, saying it “helps you sell it a little bit more.”

The play-action was especially effective against Purdue. In this play, Clifford really sells the handoff to Kaytron Allen, and the linebackers completely bite. Penn State runs an Ohio pass concept, the safety is playing catchup, and Parker Washington is wide open for an easy pitch and catch.

If you look at a similar play-action pass against Auburn out of the shotgun, the fake isn’t nearly as effective. The linebackers stay home and Clifford instead has to rely on Mitchell Tinsley to beat his man in a one-on-one matchup, which he does. But, no one on that field thinks Allen is getting the ball here.

It’s worth noting that this wouldn’t work as well in either scenario if last year’s running struggles carried over to 2022. The Boilermakers respected Allen in the run game and had to bite on the play-action, rather than playing a pass-first defense every time.

For Franklin, another new-found benefit of running these under-center formations is a sharpening of the defense in practice. When the Nittany Lions basically only ran a spread offense in the past, their defense wasn’t as battle-tested against hard-nosed offensive looks.

“Also your defense getting some of those things throughout the year in good-on-good periods so that you don’t get into a situation you’ve never seen,” Franklin explained. “Under center, hard ball runs, and now you got to defend them when you’re playing a team that is like that…having that balance is something that has always been important to me.”

When Penn State does run the ball from under center, whether in practice against itself or live against an opponent, extra physicality and burst come from the running back’s momentum, too.

The back receives the ball 4.5 yards back from the line of scrimmage in both shotgun and under-center formations, but the difference is that he lines up seven yards back in the latter. Those extra 2.5 yards give the rusher extra time to read the defense and accelerate, which has already paid dividends for guys like Allen, as demonstrated here against Auburn. It’s worth noting that the Nittany Lions are in 12 personnel again with Warren and Strange putting in major work.

There’s no doubt the newfound success of the under-center concept is helping to create a more dynamic and physical offense for the Nittany Lions. If the success holds, the formation could very well serve as a difference maker against Big Ten rivals, like Michigan and Ohio State, later this season.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected].

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