STATE COLLEGE — Here’s what we learned Saturday, when Penn State played a carefully choreographed game against itself that didn’t count:
►The Nittany Lions’ first- and second-teamers on offense are much better than their third- and fourth-teamers on defense. Big mystery solved, for sure.
►The depth issues brought about by the NCAA sanctions over the last few years are all-too-real.
►The new offensive scheme installed by coordinator Joe Moorhead might make that second point moot.
You can forget every statistic compiled Saturday at Beaver Stadium, and most of you probably already have. Because it hardly matters that Trace McSorley completed all but four of the 27 passes he threw, or that four of them went for touchdowns. Or that the Blue team won the Blue-White Game, 37-0. Or that Mark Allen or Andre Robinson or Mike Gesicki or Saeed Blacknall all looked at times like they are primed for breakouts.
These statistics aren’t worth the paper on which they’re printed. The only thing that mattered Saturday turned out to be an idea, the thought that damn the depth issues and the inexperience at the most important position on the field, Penn State could scheme its way to the top of the Big Ten by being everything it has wanted to be on offense.
And to tell that story, look back to a span of about three minutes inside the 5-yard line in the second quarter.
The Blue squad had just marched 66 yards in 11 plays, never huddling and never stopping until redshirt freshman defensive tackle Robert Windsor dropped to a knee. Exhausted, he...well, lost his breakfast on the 1-yard line, to put it delicately.
On the next play, McSorley bootlegged to the right, strung out the play and, at the last moment as safety Koa Farmer bore down on him, lofted a 2-yard touchdown toss to backup tight end Tom Pancoast.
Combined, those two moments were the story of a day not about numbers, but about a new offense, what it can bring to a team loaded with skill-position talent, and what it can mean to the defense that has to stop it.
Because that’s exactly the type of play Penn State’s first-team group turned into big chunks of yardage Saturday. The quarterback gets on the move, keeps his eyes upfield and is able to make defenders pay for the choices they make.
“On plays like that, one guy has to make a decision,” McSorley said. “Either force a defender out into coverage or, if he comes at me, I can flip it up to Tom or whoever. And, that’s huge. Because, in a sense, (the defender) can’t be right.”
That’s such a great way to put it, too. If Farmer covers Pancoast, McSorley jogs into the end zone. Anything he did was wrong.
Simplicity rules: So much has been written about the new Moorhead offense, but what made it so attractive to Penn State is that it is so simple in its what it tries to do. Receivers flood an area. The quarterback reads the coverage. Every play is designed to against a certain look, to get one defensive player to choose between doing one thing or the other. And, from there, it’s the quarterback’s lone job to recognize what that one player did and make the proper play against it.
It’s a simple offense that looks complicated, as opposed to what Penn State used last season: A complicated offense that looked all-too-simple.
How simple was this offense to pick up? Head coach James Franklin said Saturday that 95 percent of it has already been installed. Think about that. In just a few months of studying the playbook and understanding the principles, as well as 14 practices and Saturday’s scrimmage, they’re essentially ready to go.
Granted, what everyone saw Saturday was a first-team offense going against a scout team. The results were lopsided, and they should have been. But it doesn’t always go quite that easily in the spring scrimmage, does it? Last year, if you recall, the White team loaded with backups almost won. And the Blue team had a quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, who is going to be drafted into the NFL in a few weeks.
This is an offense doing much of the same stuff it did last season, only at a much different pace, with a whole new set of principles. Once the offensive players started getting used to the pace, they realized two things: there was ample ability to use every weapon available at the skill positions; defenses had no time to substitute, to call the blitz packages used to harrass Hackenberg and demean the offensive line the last two seasons.
“It wears down a defense at all 11 positions,” receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “It goes with our strengths, because we have speed on the outside, and me and the guys behind me on the inside. We’re all just running crisp routes and letting our own athleticism take over.
“We were a young team two years ago, and even last year. One of the youngest teams in the nation. Finally, we’re coming into our third year with coach Franklin and having this new offense that takes advantage of our talent that we have on offense and guys having game experience. The play calls put us in the right position, no matter who is out there.”
Relationship at right time: Franklin likened Moorhead’s offense to a relationship that happened at just the right time, a scheme that happens to fit best what the Lions conceivably do best.
Conceivably is the key word, because who knows how this all works out in September. For sure, Pittsburgh and Ohio State and Michigan will have something more to offer in the way of defense than Penn State’s scout team did Saturday.
But it’s undeniable this offense is heading in the proper direction, and even in a game that doesn’t matter in the middle of April, making the change Penn State did ultimately will prove to be the right move. We didn’t learn a lot Saturday. But that much proved clear.