Joe Paterno's teams at Penn State were traditionally cut from the same cloth: if you play tough defense and make less mistakes than the other guys, you put yourself in a good position to win the football game. I don't think you could say offense was an afterthought, but the ability to out-scheme the opponent was not part of the core DNA of those teams. It seemed as if Penn State had their plays, they ran what made sense according to the down and distance, and if they out executed the opponent the play was successful. Great Penn State offenses, such as 1994 and 2008, were the result of a wealth of talented upperclassmen playing together more than anything else.
The Bill O'Brien Era is just beginning, and we don't know a ton about the guy as a head football coach. We do know that he'll bring a different mindset towards how you win football games. We know that he wants to carry on a legacy of "tough, smart football", but his bread and butter is going to offensive playcalling. He's avoided the legendary faux pas of even hinting at a "decided schematic advantage", but every writer, commentator, or fan that discusses him as a hire is sure to bring up that he will modernize Penn State's offense.
And after last season the time for an overhaul has never been better. 110 in the country in Points Per Game? 112th in Passer Rating? 118th (this is out of 120 for those keeping score at home) in Completion Percentage? That's not bad, that's atrocious. For a program of Penn State's pedigree it's embarassing. The team needs more "Face/Off" than facelift, and hopefully an energetic young coach with a shiny new playbook is the answer.
We know that in a perfect world O'Brien would like to install last year's Patriots playbook at Penn State. We know he's aware that there isn't enough time for student athletes to absorb that much information. He's said it could take a few years; he's tried to throw all the concepts at them this spring and then, when they come back for summer camp, install the parts that make the most sense for the playmakers they have.
Installing a complex new offense is a long term goal, but the new coach has already made some major changes that should lead to big returns this fall:
Audibles. Penn State fans were somewhat aware of this, but I don't know if other Big Ten fans knew much about PSU's playcalling system. In addition to the strange chain of command with two offensive coordinators and then a head coach who sometimes vetoed plays as they went in, Penn State virtually always stuck with the called play regardless of what the defense showed. As Matt McGloin stated recently regarding changes:
"A lot more audibles, a faster pace," McGloin gushes summarizing O'Brien's first spring practice.
How many times did McGloin audible last year? 10?
"Less probably," he says.
You have to think a lot of crucial third down attempts and goal line opportunities were wasted by being handcuffed by the called play. Personally I think this could be the biggest difference maker for the new offense if McGloin can develop a skill at it. Being able to check into a bubble screen when the cornerback is playing far off the line, check out of a play when the defense is clearly showing a full blitz... that alone gets you big yards, regardless of the arm strength of the player under center.
Up Tempo/No Huddle. The second thing the players have spoken about a lot with the new offense. Now the team is running no-huddle through most of practice. It's a trend you're seeing all across college football (you don't have to look any farther than the new regime in Columbus), and that's because it works. For one, you get more reps in at practice, which is vital considering the limited time coaches get with players. In games you put more pressure on the defense, particularly by asking collegiate athletes to make adjustments without the benefit of speaking with their coach. Penn State fans agonized as the team took every second of the playclock last year, even needing time outs on random downs in the second quarter because they flat out couldn't get their act together before time ran out. This year should be the complete opposite.
Offensive Line Preparation. I touched on this in the potluck: one o-line coach and an improved S&C program will pay off immediately. I've yet to see one person even try to make an argument that splitting Tackles into different player meetings than Centers and Guards is a good idea. People: we need our meatheads to be deadlifting, and they finally are. It's not complicated. It's about time.
Get the Ball to the Playmakers (including Tight Ends). People think because New England used two tight ends so effectively last year that Penn State is destined to do the same. While O'Brien has installed the "Y" and "F" tight end positions, the goal is not necessarily to get it to them a lot, but rather to get the ball to the playmakers. O'Brien wants to run a balanced offense, but if the best player is Silas Redd then you can expect Silas to be catching the ball in space a pretty good amount every game. O'Brien has said:
"We spread the ball around in this offense," O’Brien said. "People ask me about the tight ends over and over again, because of the success we had the last two years in New England. Every year is different, every team is different.
"But we’ll spread the ball to the tight ends, the receivers, the backs. Hopefully, it will be very balanced. The tight ends will be an important part of what we do and we will keep on developing them in training camp."
In the past Penn State's attempt to "get the ball to the playmakers" was to give Derrick Williams the ball on an end around...and that's about it. Now O'Brien is taking WR Bill Belton and making him the second string tailback, but still promising that he'll get plenty of passes thrown his way (think LeShon McCoy). At the college level, where the disparity between a team's best defensive player and their worst is probably pretty strong, having multiple viable options to move the ball is the key to taking advantage of good matchups and being able to win games.
I'm one of many Penn State fans very excited to see O'Brien's new offense coming to life in State College. We've always been very proud of our traditions on defense, and now there is hope that with the implementation of a lot of these modern concepts that the offense will begin to have some consistently noteworthy success of it's own. Penn State fans are thirsty (parched? dessicated?) to see something new on offense. After last year, O'Brien has the luxury that there really is no where to go but up.