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COLLINS: Penn State displays new offensive mindset

DONNIE COLLINS
(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • Trace McSorley completed 18 of 24 passes for 287 yards.
  • After getting injured, Saquon Barkley returned to score on a 55-yard TD run.
  • Penn State improved to 2-1 and will play Michigan next.

For a few moments earlier this week, James Franklin said something without saying it. Illustrated a point he has been waiting to make since he arrived in Happy Valley in 2014. Dropped some knowledge the rest of the country had long ago come to accept but Penn State fans had not.

Essentially, it’s that a college football team at a big-time level these days isn’t going to win many games — never mind conference or national championships — playing the way Penn State has played over the last decade or so. The days of being the biggest, baddest, deepest team in the state or in the conference or on the schedule and expecting to win because of it are gone.

In other words, you have to have a system. You have to have a scheme. And you have to — absolutely must — be able to gain yards and score points. A lot of yards. And, a lot of points.

“I think if you look around college football in general, that’s really how things have changed,” Franklin said during his press conference last Tuesday. “I remember a few years back, if you had 400 yards on offense, that was considered a good day. Those days are gone. If you scored 30 points, that was considered a big-time scoring day. Those days are gone. People are winning games 62-58. It’s common more across the country.”

Looking back on those words in relation to what happened at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, when the Nittany Lions outlasted opportunistic and unintimidated Temple, 34-27, it should provide an interesting look at where Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead want and expect the Penn State offense to eventually be.

Because by Franklin’s own standard that he established in those words, Penn State’s 34-point effort does not qualify as “big time,” nor does the 403 yards it piled up on the way to those points rate as “a good day.”

It’s not likely he’d back off those numbers and statements just because they were good enough to beat Temple, either. In the early moments of his postgame press conference Saturday, he praised the play of the defense, while adding that the offense needs to stop turning the ball over, which it did once against the Owls.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of 34 points or 403 yards. Or, for that matter, 39 points and 406 yards last week against Pitt. And certainly not a measly 26 points and 354 yards in the offense’s first try against Kent State.

The guess here is that Penn State fans will take it, though.

In comparison to recent offenses, this one looks like the 1999 St. Louis Rams.

Through three games, Penn State is averaging 35.3 points per game and 387.6 yards per game on offense. They haven’t averaged more in both of those categories over a three-game stretch since the Eastern Michigan, Central Florida and Kent State games in 2013.

The Nittany Lions had just three games last season — Rutgers, Indiana and Michigan State — in which they had more yards than they gained in either of the last two weeks. And in their final eight regular season games of the 2014 season, including all of their Big Ten contests, they didn’t top 400 yards once.

Yet Saturday, quarterback Trace McSorley didn’t appear as sharp throwing the ball as he has in recent weeks. And Temple’s defense held star running back Saquon Barkley to 13 yards on eight carries until he finally ripped off a 55-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. And Penn State played without a top receiver, Saeed Blacknall.

Penn State didn’t fire for most of the day offensively. This game proved to be a struggle. And it still played what statistically will go down as one of its better offensive games in years.

These aren’t the Nittany Lions of old. This is a team with a new philosophy, and though that philosophy is in its infancy and going through growing pains at times, it’s a philosophy that does seem to have some merit.

“It’s awesome that we have the mindset that we have a lot of faith in our offense, our offensive coordinator and our team that we can go out and score a lot of points,” receiver Chris Godwin said. “That’s something we’ve been working in all offseason, something coach Moorhead really believes in.

“It’s a little bit of a different feeling than we’ve had before. It’s an aggressive attitude.”

If Franklin is right, and this offense is building toward something much better than it has seen, it’s Penn State’s ticket back to relevance.

Hard to argue that, in the interim, it at the very least has made this team a bit more interesting than it has been recently.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) dives in for a touchdown as Temple's Jarred Alwan (41) drags him down during the first half on Saturday in State College.