Penn State’s offense, in recent years, has probably been best known for running backs Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders and Journey Brown. But the Nittany Lions really make their hay on deep passes to their tight ends and receivers.
PSU had 59 passes of 20 yards or more in 2017, 50 in 2018, 41 in 2019 and, this season, 12 in three games. The Nittany Lions’ rushing attack, decimated by injuries at running back, is nevertheless used, Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said, to set up a big-play passing game that will have the Huskers’ secondary on their toes.
“It’s going to be a big week for them,” Chinander said of his defensive backs. He noted that Penn State’s new offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca, was previously at Minnesota, which gashed Nebraska’s defense last year with a steady diet of outside zone runs and deep playaction passes.
“It’s going to be a lot of hard, hard, play action, and you’ve got a tendency to see some safeties sucked up,” Chinander said. “That’s what creates those big passing plays on the outside. Your corners, a lot of times, are playing mano-a-mano, just because of the safeties.”
Safeties are often used as run support players, so if a team — like Minnesota did last year — is having success running the ball, safeties will naturally flow more to stopping that play. Penn State can work a run-pass option — or an RPO — into its offense, too, in which the quarterback can choose between handing the ball off or throwing a quick pass, often a slant, to a receiver.
“You just can’t fall asleep out there when they’re trying to pound the ball and pound the ball and flip in an RPO, pound the ball, flip in an RPO and then, boom, here comes the big shot,” Chinander said. “That’s always a test for those guys to stay mentally locked in for 75-80 plays.”
Offense, defense ready for faster pace
Nebraska’s offense has yet to shift into a higher gear through two games. Its coaches hinted that might be coming this week.
The reaction from the defensive side Tuesday? Bring it on.
Quicker drives on offense mean more snaps for the Blackshirts, who defended 69 plays against Ohio State and 65 against Northwestern. Those totals are relatively low, coach Scott Frost said this week, in part because he wanted to protect the defense.
Chinander said the defense, which has generally performed well in the early going, should be happy whenever it gets on the field. Every play is a chance for a turnover, a sack or a big hit.
“We all came here to play football, not sit on the bench,” Chinander said. “Whatever (Frost) wants to do on offense, that’s up to him, that’s great. We just gotta be able to go play when it’s our turn. When the bell’s called, we gotta answer it.”
NU’s defense saw a per-game average of about 69 plays in 2019 and more than 74 in 2018. When the coaching staff was at UCF in 2016 and 2017, the totals hovered around the mid-70s.
Outside linebacker Garrett Nelson said the Huskers can see and feel the unit’s improvement among themselves. With depth allowing for rotations at every position, there’s no reason the group should shy away from all the action it can get.
“We don’t get upset when something happens on offense or you gotta go out there for a really long drive,” Nelson said. “We embrace the fact we get to play football, we get to go hit people on the other side. … No matter how many plays that offense gives us, we get to be out there with each other and playing and having fun.”
Lubick said Nebraska each week searches for a good “tempo opportunity” — something in the opposing defense that would show it might not handle a quick pace well. When the Huskers are really humming, they can snap the ball every 10-12 seconds.
But it’s hard to do, Lubick said, if penalties crop up and explosive plays are rare outside the quarterback run game. Sometimes in a key longer-distance situation, it’s better to trade in speed for making sure all the details are right for a given play call.
Nebraska ran 56 plays against Ohio State and 88 on Northwestern. It has averaged about 72 snaps per game offensively the previous two seasons under Frost.
Franklin, Nittany Lions searching for first win
Penn State is doing some soul searching amid an 0-3 start to the season. As such, the questions Tuesday from media members were much more focused on the Nittany Lions — and not so much about their next opponent.
PSU coach James Franklin conducted a press conference that went longer than 40 minutes — Nebraska coach Scott Frost’s are usually half that — as he fielded questions about the program’s longest skid since dropping four straight games to end 2015. He talked opt-outs, buy-in, culture and how to help good practices translate to good games.
“At the end of the day, we gotta get it done,” Franklin said. “It’s our job to make sure we get back on that plane on Saturday for a long flight and that our players are excited about getting on that plane and flying back to Happy Valley.”
Franklin opened his availability with a short scout of the Huskers, noting the uncertainty at quarterback between junior Adrian Martinez and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey.
“Obviously we expect to at least see them both,” he said.
COVID-19 has weighed heavily on his mind, Franklin said. His family is in Florida indefinitely as a precautionary measure. When one reporter asked how he was doing, he answered “Good” before circling back and saying “That’s probably not an honest answer — but I appreciate you asking.”
Franklin likened Nebraska’s defensive scheme to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and said opportunities will be there to make plays if they can take advantage. Competing in an empty Memorial Stadium will also be a different sort of task than entering a hostile, sold-out venue.
“This is 2020; you’ve got to embrace it,” Franklin said. “Your energy needs to come from your team and from your staff and from your sideline.”
Penn State is starting a season 0-3 for the first time since 2001 following losses to Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland. Amid injuries and roster turnover, multiple players said Tuesday their path to victory this weekend will be by locking in on their own play.
“I don’t really know much about Nebraska,” redshirt freshman cornerback Joey Porter Jr. said. “I’ve never really looked into it. I just know they’re a really good team.”
Farniok centers in on new O-line role
Matt Farniok has dabbled with snapping footballs for a while. After all, he figures, it’s good to be able to do a little of everything.
But as much as the fifth-year senior has done along Nebraska’s offensive line in recent seasons — he now has appeared in 33 career games, including 30 starts — Farniok received a new assignment leading up to the Northwestern game last week.
NU starting center Cam Jurgens was out with an injury. The 6-foot-6, 330-pound Farniok, whose name rarely came up among coaches when discussing other center options in the offseason, was in.
“The main focus was just getting the ball to the quarterback,” Farniok said.
The speed of the game is similar to right guard, he said, where he began against Ohio State after 24 straight starts at right tackle the previous two years. He had to verbalize the calls at center, but they always run through his mind anyway, he said.
With Jurgens day to day, it’s possible Farniok is again the man holding the football Saturday against Penn State.
Ironically, Farniok said, his little brother is to thank for his smooth transition Saturday that had Frost saying it was perhaps the lineman’s best college game. Sophomore Will Farniok, one of the backup centers along with Trent Hixson, had been working occasionally with his brother on snaps in recent months. Proper stance, footwork and lots of reps were all part of the instruction.
“I think Matt was our best offensive lineman in that (Northwestern) game,” Frost said Monday. “It's a credit to him that he's able to do all those things. He's a team captain for a reason, and I'm sure he'll be ready to play whatever role we ask him this week.”
» Nelson said he loves playing for outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson because of the commitment Dawson requires from his group on a daily basis.
» Husker guard Ethan Piper said NU defensive tackle Ty Robinson is a vastly improved player because “he really bulked up.”
“He’s very big, very strong, very athletic,” Piper said. “I think he has a very bright future ahead of him.”