B1G 2011 // Penn State Football on 4th and 3...

Penn State is on their opponent's 5 yard line line with 1:00 left in the game, needing a touchdown to take the lead.  At this point, however, panic has set in for Nittany Lions fans: just a second ago the team was driving the field, managed to get to 1st and 10 on the 12, and things were looking just swell.

In this late, high-pressure situation, what kind of play do you think the Penn State Offensive Braintrust* will trust to keep hope alive?

Two instances of a situation along these lines spring to mind from last year.  Both of them were a bit early in the season, when we were still unsure if this was going to be a Rose Bowl contending squad or a disappointing 8-or-so win team.  

The first time Penn State had to produce in the clutch was the end of the third quarter at home against Temple.  I was at the game, and it was one of the more frustrating games I have watched.  Temple's Bernard Peirce started off with two big touchdown runs to which Penn State replied with field goal, field goal, field goal, field goal, field goal.  Add in a Temple field goal at one point (yes this game was that exciting) and PSU was in position to lose to it's Philadelphia rival for the first time since the 1940's.    

Bolden saved his best stuff for the fourth quarter, where he helped rescue the Lions from danger and a dicey situation. PSU led by two midway through the fourth and was taking over at its own 4-yard line. Another three-and-out would mean solid field position and a shot at a field goal for the win for Temple.

But Bolden converted a rare third down with a tough throw to Graham Zug for 19 yards on third-and-8. He then used a pump fake to spring Justin Brown for an even bigger gain, and suddenly the Lions were off. Temple finally wore down as fullback Mike Zordich had an impressive run where he carried an entire crowd of players up the middle for a gain of 8. Three plays later Zordich scored on the goal line to put the game away. 

The birth of my man-crush on Mike Zordich began on the first play described; I was smitten when he tore through for a touchdown a few plays later.  He showed a lot of fire at a time when it seemed that Penn State was going to sleepwalk into a historic loss.  For our purposes, Penn State's choice to run the FB up the gut on a tired, out-talented and undersized defense worked out well.

Penn State faced a similar situation in a much more high profile game a few weeks later in the end of the third quarter at Iowa:

There was a moment during Iowa’s 24-3 win against Penn State when a different outcome could have meant a different game. It could have led to a closer finish at color-coordinated Kinnick Stadium, rather than a blowout. It could have been a chance for a freshman quarterback to take a step to the next level on a chilly Saturday night.

Trailing 17-3, Penn State took the second-half kickoff, put together its best drive of the night and moved to a first-and-goal at the 10-yard line. A shovel pass from Rob Bolden to Evan Royster moved the ball to the 5 and a 4-yard run by Royster put the ball on the 1.

But Michael Zordich was stuffed by Christian Ballard and Jeremiha Hunter trying to run up the middle on third-and-goal, and Bolden was stopped by the same two defenders barely short of the goal line on a run to the right on fourth-and-goal.

An official review revealed what everyone watching on television already knew  – the knee of the Nittany Lions’ freshman QB was on the ground before the ball reached the goal line.

Instead of cutting the lead to 17-10, it was Iowa’s ball … and, as it turned out, the ball game was over. Penn State never sniffed the Iowa end zone again while falling to 3-2.

Joe Paterno's offensive coaches went with Zordich up the middle on the 1-yard line but this time to no avail.  They let Bolden run it to the outside on the next play, a play fans have seen Michael Robinson and Darryl Clark pull off in 2005 and 2008 many times, but Bolden wasn't able to channel his predecessors.

A lot of familiar names are on the Penn State offense's two-deep this year.  In a decisive late game situation, which one of them will be called upon to make the big play?

First things first, I feel the need to address the "Penn State Offensive Brain Trust" for those of you who may not watching the team very closely.  It may surprise you, but headset-less Joe Paterno does not actually call these plays directly.  The best I understand it, Galen Hall has jurisdiction over pass plays while Jay Paterno calls run plays.  When a play needs to be called, they put their heads together and call a play down to headset-wearing wide receivers coach Mike McQueary on the sideline.  At this point, Joe may or may not learn of the play and, if he does so, may veto it.  If I'm way off base on this I hope somebody lights me up in the comments...I really hope I am.  

For those of you who are confused at the process described above, try finding your nearest Supply Chain major for some help.  Suffice to say, in a dynamic, high pressure situation with only a little time available, I don't think anyone has a good shot at predicting what the play call will be.  This may actually include the  coaches themselves, as we saw at the end of the 1st half against Iowa in 2010 (emphasis mine):

There seemed to be as much confusion on Penn State's sideline Saturday night as there was on the field.

Quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said Rob Bolden's 49-yard pass to wide receiver Brett Brackett late in the second quarter of the 24-3 loss to Iowa caught the coaching staff off-guard.

Brackett ended up at the 2 with six seconds remaining in the half and Penn State down, 17-0, but the coaches couldn't agree on whether to spike the football or take a timeout.

...

Instead of using its last timeout, Penn State opted to have Bolden spike the ball on first down. Three seconds ran off the clock.

...

The confusion and perplexing clock management ended up leading to a delay of game penalty on Bolden.

The coaches then sent in Collin Wagner, who kicked a 25-yard field goal to cut the Nittany Lions' deficit to 17-3 at halftime.

 

So...yeah.  When it's 4th and 3, and Penn State needs the conversion/TD, what are they gonna go with this year?  Let's just hope it's not "fight over our options until time runs out."  Of course, if the game we are talking about is Iowa, something at least this random and terrible is the status quo.

My experience watching Penn State in these situations is that they will go with one of a few general playcalls: a dump-off pass to a tight end/fullback type, a fade pass to the corner, maybe a little trickeration if they have the personnel, but by and far most likely is a run up the middle with a RB.  I'll address each of them in turn and the consider what that option will mean in 2011:

Pass to a Tight End in the flat.  This is one of my favorite play calls in this situation: QB rolls out and hits the TE in the flat, and even if we don't get 6 I don't have to complain about PSU's atrocious run blocking for another 6 days.  Unfortunately for this year, Penn State doesn't have any tight ends left, due to injury, so it's probably not on the table for at least the beginning of the season. 

Fade/air it out to the back of the endzone.  Derek Moye was my favorite player last year and he is more than capable of getting the job done in this type of situation.  The problem on 4th-and-3, however, is that there is no way the coaches didn't already call this play on 2nd and/or 3rd downs.  If we're at this point, the coaches probably ran it up the middle twice, and then they threw the fade pass to no avail.  With the uncertainty at QB in the program right now, I think there is a much better likelihood they take their chances on the ground with only 3 yards to go.

Trickeration?  In the Derrick Williams days I could see PSU going with the end-around in this type of situation.  That, or maybe even an option pass for DWill.  Penn State has striven to have someone fill the "DWill position" in the years since he's left Happy Valley, but for the second year in a row the heir apparent, Curtis Drake, will be out with a major injury.  When Drake was injured before the 2010 season the coaches were unusually vocal about how big of a playmaker they had lost, saying that a significant portion of the playbook had been installed just for the multi-talented WR.  I was more excited to see what Drake could do than any other aspect of the team this offseason, but after he injured his leg in spring practice it looks like we will have to wait another year to see an unorthodox play from him on 4th-and-3.

With these options eliminated, I think the coaches will go with one of two tried and true playcalls in this situation:

Dump pass to a Fullback in the flat.  An alternative to hitting a tight end a few more yards down the field.  Penn State is one of the few teams that I see call this play with any regularity, and I think they've been pretty successful with it.  Joe Suhey is a little more likely to get this call than Zordich as he's showed he has some pretty good hands.  And again, this is at least one of those play calls that, for me, even if it doesn't work out I'll be somewhat less frustrated with.

Run it up the gut.  "Spread HD" marketing aside, this is still a Paterno football team.  The ability to run the ball up the middle and push for 3 yards when you need it should still be the bread-and-butter.  This year Penn State will have some great options, too, as the tailback stable will be physically larger than in years past.  A quick look at the best options:

  • Silas Redd - Just about everyone that has seen him play is excited for the kind of season he can have now that the majority of snaps don't have to go to Royster.  Incredibly talented, he may not have the ideal size for a play like this, but he's shown that he has some amazing moves.  You should not be surprised if by October Penn State is riding this kid in every game.
  • Brandon Beachum - He was just sort of assuming the role of PSU's short yardage guy last season until his tore in ACL against Northwestern.  Listed at 230 lbs, Beachum is a Senior and therefore the favorite if he can bounce back from his injury in time for the preseason.  
  • Curtis Dukes - When Beachum went down last year, Penn State fans got their first chance to check out the 240-pound Curtis Dukes.  It's been a couple years since Penn State fielded a real bruiser like Dukes, and if he can be a reliable short yardage option for the team in situations like this one it could mean a lot for the Nittany Lions' 2011 win column.
  • Mike Zordich - Along with Suhey, Zordich is one of PSU's true fullbacks.  They've given it to him in this situation in the past, and typically he's pulled it off.  He may not have the size of a Dukes or Beachum, but he ran with some real anger against Temple and he remains a great option.

There you have it.  2000+ words just to tell you that Penn State will probably run it up the gut when it counts next season.  Truth be told, though, I think PSU's options in the short-yardage run game are considerably better now than they were last year.  Hopefully they'll be able to convert in a few big spots, which the past two season have made all the difference between being a B1G Title contender and an also-ran.

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