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Adventures in Offense 2013: Penn State

Wide receiver Allen Robinson.
Wide receiver Allen Robinson.

2012 Quick Stats

Passing Offense: 2nd in Big Ten, 35th Nationally
Rushing Offense: 9th in Big Ten, 85th Nationally
Scoring Offense: 7th in Big Ten, 62nd Nationally
Total Offense: 4th in Big Ten, 53rd Nationally

3rd Down Conversions: 42.56% (83 out of 195 attempts)
4th Down Conversions: 55.88% (19 out of 34 attempts)
Red Zone Conversions: 78.95% (45 out of 57 attempts)
Total Points: 349 (44 TD, 14 FG, 39 extra point, 2 two-point)
Average points per game: 29.1

2012 Record: 8-4 (6-2 in Big Ten)
Record vs. Michigan: 6-10
Head Coach Bill O'Brien: 8-4 at Penn State and overall

What's up with the offense?

Bill O'Brien won the Big Ten Coach of the Year Award in 2012 because he kept Penn State together in spite of the sanctions brought down by the NCAA, he led the team to 8 wins, and he somehow improved the offense. Fans took note of the stark difference between Matt McGloin's performance under the tutelage of O'Brien versus under the tutelage of former offensive coordinator Galen Hall and quarterback coach Jay Paterno.

Here's a bit from Black Shoe Diaries writer Cari Greene summing up the fans' reaction to how different O'Brien's offense was in 2012:

Most of us knew we’d have a change on offense; after all, O’Brien was an offense guy, and the Patriots were prolific under his tutelage. But few of us could have guessed how impressive our offense would turn out to be, especially with a signal caller in Matt McGloin that had previously proven to be underwhelming at best. What transpired on the offensive side of the ball this past season was inspired, and makes me rethink the hiding of my face in my hat during possessions—and for me, that’s saying quite a bit.

O'Brien's team succeeded, for a variety of reasons, on both sides of the ball, though we will be focusing on offense in this piece. First, and probably foremost, was that the players completely bought in, similar to how Hoke and Borges achieved unbelievable early success in 2011. Seniors like McGloin and Michael Mauti held the team together with the goal that they would play for pride.

Second, O'Brien streamlined his offense to where it was both simple and complicated. He relied on McGloin's smarts and was fortunate that playermakers like Allen Robinson, Jesse James, and Zach Zwinak stepped up to help the signal-caller in the wake of transfers from such former stars as Silas Redd, Justin Brown, and Rob Bolden.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, is that O'Brien inserted a no-huddle tempo, a largely uncommon component of the pro-style offense--except, of course, for the two-minute drill. Even though O'Brien ran a relatively fast tempo at New England, it is still somewhat unorthodox to combine no-huddle and pro-style together, even more so at Penn State, which has generally shied away from no-huddle offenses. According to Football Study Hall, Penn State played faster than anyone in the Big Ten, but they fell behind offenses like Nebraska and Ohio State, who were more effective scoring and sustaining drives. claims that the offense had a near 50-50 balance between pass plays and run plays, which seems odd given how pass-happy O'Brien's offenses tend to be. It's somewhat troubling, then, that Penn State's passing game did so much better (2nd in Big Ten) than their running game (9th). Admittedly that could just be the nature of the offense, but if you're running an equal amount of passing plays to the amount of running plays, there should be a closer balance between the two, at least in terms of effectiveness. Needless to say the Nittany Lions had nearly double the amount of total passing yards (3283) to rushing yards (1727). Like nearly every coach, O'Brien says that he wants to be more balanced going forward, but it remains to be seen if that actually happens.

Key Players

Following the graduation of senior quarterback Matt McGloin, who led the Big Ten in passing last season, Penn State's quarterback situation going forward is a bit hazy. It was initially a two quarterback race between Steven Bench, McGloin's backup, and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson, who enrolled this January. Statistically the two were dead-even in the spring game, but more people appeared impressed with Ferguson because he had picked up the offense so quickly. However, the QB race became less of a race when Bench decided to transfer (to USF), apparently on the grounds that O'Brien had told him that he wouldn't be the starter in the fall.

That makes Ferguson the most foreseeable starter at QB, at least until incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg arrives and can start taking snaps. Hackenberg is about as highly touted as they come and stuck with his commitment to Penn State even after learning that the program couldn't compete for championships for most of his career. (He turned down notable offers from Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina.) The fact that Bench transferred also means that Hackenberg most likely won't be able to redshirt. He'll either be the starter or Ferguson's backup, unless O'Brien can find another Matt McGloin among the ranks of walk-ons.

The running back situation is similarly kind of a mixed bag. Like Iowa, Penn State got through last season by playing a fullback, Zach Zwinak, at running back when the guys recruited for the position either couldn't get it done or sustained injuries. Zwinak impressively reached 1,000 yards when given the bulk of the carries for the last 9 games. Behind him is junior Bill Belton, not a fullback, whose presence on the field is questionable given that he's still been battling injuries. However, redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch (nicknamed "Big Maple" because he is Canadian) was the talk of the town following an impressive jaunt in the spring game in which he racked up 85 yards on big runs and a touchdown. Although Lynch primarily served as Penn State's running back for the scout team last year, he hopes to prove himself worthy of carries this season.

Wide receiver Allen Robinson gets the photo bump because he is Penn State's most productive returning player. He also led the Big Ten in receiving last season, and was the only receiver to crack 1,000 yards for the year. Admittedly, that might say more about the conference in 2012 than Robinson, but it's still noteworthy that at least one person was productive and it was him. Michigan fans might find themselves even more frustrated to learn that Robinson was an in-state prospect out of Orchard Lake St. Mary's Prep, a program that has produced athletes like Jermaine Gonzales, Morgan Trent, and James Ross. Despite the fact that Allen Robinson committed to Penn State before Hoke's staff was hired, it's frustrating because Michigan missed on Robinson when they could have doubtlessly used him at receiver, where we've lacked a true star recently.

The Nittany Lions have a plethora of receiving options besides Robinson, as Brandon Moseby-Felder (31 receptions, 437 yards) returns for his senior season. However, it's at tight end where Penn State has its deepest array of talent. Underclassmen Kyle Carter and Jesse James both had excellent campaigns as freshmen, catching for 453 and 276 yards respectively, and should be considered mainstays for Bill O'Brien's offense going forward, which relies heavily on tight ends. There is also former walk-on Matt Lehman returning, and sophomore Brent Wilkerson caught a touchdown in the spring game. Finally, don't count out incoming freshman Adam Breneman, a blue-chipper at the position, who should prove dangerous in the offense once he's fully healed up from a knee injury that hampered his senior year of high school. If nothing else, Breneman can at least provide even more depth before he gets his shot as an upperclassman.

The offensive line returns a unit that allowed more sacks than anyone in the Big Ten last season. On top of that, depth is also a big concern for the Nittany Lions, according to Black Shoe Diaries. The returning starters along the line are John Urshel, a redshirt senior with arguably the most experience, as well as redshirt sophomore Donovan Smith, who should anchor the line at left tackle, and left guard Miles Dieffenbach. With an inexperienced quarterback taking the snaps, the offensive line will have to perform much better if the offense expects to survive the season.


I don't know if it was because opposing defenses got whipped by Penn State because Penn State was actually good or because those opposing defenses assumed the Nittany Lions would just accept the sanctions and roll over and were then caught unawares, but Penn State was probably the biggest offensive surprise of the 2012 season in the Big Ten. They ended up leading the conference in passing and receiving, though simultaneously they had one of the lesser effective rushing attacks in the conference and an offensive line that allowed 33 sacks.

At least half of what made Penn State so effective passing is now gone. When Bench was on the roster, the Nittany Lions had at least one quarterback who had spent a year learning Bill O'Brien's playbook. Now they'll have two quarterbacks who have to learn as they go, making the quarterback spot one of Penn State's biggest question marks for the upcoming season. However, O'Brien worked wonders with someone like McGloin in the span of one year, and don't be surprised if he does it again.

Whoever ends up taking the snaps at quarterback, whether it's Ferguson or Hackenberg, should get plenty of help from their receiving targets. They'll be a test for any defensive secondary, and if they can find a signal-caller to match McGloin's stats from last year, they should be able to pick up right where they left off.

Grade: B+/A-