WOGENRICH: The new Penn State values big plays and speed — and it's working
Shaka Toney arrived at Penn State without the prototypical defensive-end frame but with an “unbelievable” nervous system, as coach James Franklin described him before the season. Toney was 6-3, 195 pounds but had speed and jump that challenged the conventional notion of size.
On Saturday, now about 30 pounds heavier, Toney motored to two sacks and relentless pressure in Penn State’s 31-7 victory over Northwestern. He also underscored how Penn State football has changed, and will continue to change, with its desire to recruit speed.
“You’re going to look at him and say, ‘He’s not a defensive end in the Big Ten,’” Franklin said Saturday. “And we probably all need to change our picture of what a Big Ten defensive end is.”
In describing Toney, Franklin also summarized the need to change our picture of what Penn State football is overall. The past two seasons, the team has begun to flow speed and athleticism across its roster, building the kind of team Franklin wants to run.
Franklin's PSU has different ideas: Franklin’s Penn State venerates explosive offensive plays over six-minute drives and defensive shock plays and takeaways over run-stopping grinds. The Lions willingly accept four consecutive negative runs by Saquon Barkley because they know a 53-yard touchdown looms, as happened Saturday.
The team also accepts some yardage discrepancies on defense because it knows the cornerbacks are covering the ball, linemen are batting away throws and players like Toney are waiting on third down.
This is how Franklin summarized the new Penn State:
“If you’re looking to watch a three-yards-in-a-cloud-of-dust offense,” the coach said earlier this season, “then this probably isn’t the scheme for you.”
And: “We’re not a suffocating defense, where we take everything away on the field,” Franklin said Saturday. “But the most important thing is, we keep people out of the end zone and we create turnovers.”
Speed most noticeable on defense: The effect of Penn State’s newly recruited speed, and how it’s used, has been most noticeable on defense, which has allowed the fewest points (54) in the nation. The cornerbacks have six of Penn State’s nine interceptions (just one fewer than all of 2016), with Amani Oruwariye leading with three. Penn State’s plus-12 turnover margin is tied for first nationally with Alabama.
The secondary’s closing speed, particularly with cornerbacks Christian Campbell and Grant Haley and safety Marcus Allen, makes it the defense’s most disruptive unit. Campbell has broken up nine passes, and Allen might be the Big Ten’s best run-stopping safety across the field.
Up front, line coach Sean Spencer again rotates about 10 linemen, giving Penn State situational speed advantages and fresh legs in the fourth quarter. It’s also extremely fast, with Toney, Shareef Miller and tackle/end Kevin Givens.
Recruiting priority: Franklin and his staff made speed a priority in recruiting when they arrived, and those players are filling spots everywhere on the field. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry said he has noticed the biggest difference in the back seven, which has given Penn State more freedom to play with five defensive backs.
Even the special teams, where captain Nick Scott holds sprint contests with the coverage units, has benefited from the speed surge. Penn State’s coverage units, complimented by punter Blake Gillikin and highlighted by receiver Irv Charles, have allowed just nine punt-return yards this season.
“Our team speed in general, it’s not even close [to past seasons],” Franklin said. “We are running to the ball.”
Moorhead emphasizes explosive plays: Since Joe Moorhead has arrived, and for as long as he stays, the offensive coordinator has established his philosophy on the pillars of explosive plays and protecting the football. This season, opposing defenses have centered their approach on those ideas.
Northwestern and Indiana pressed extra defenders against Penn State’s run game, determined to stop Saquon Barkley. Iowa shifted that, retreating to hold off the deep passing plays. Penn State ultimately succeeded against both approaches.
On Saturday, the Lions accepted Northwestern’s approach and turned to quarterback Trace McSorley, who completed 73.5-percent of his passes. But they also still generated one big Barkley run, a 53-yard touchdown that the quarterback knew would come.
Studying hard: Franklin is big on studies. During the offseason, the coach studied his team’s four-minute offense, seeking ways to improve its short-yardage run game. Penn State hasn’t been great at that this season, with the offensive line still unexpectedly fighting more growing pains.
But once again Saturday, Penn State bettered Northwestern in explosive plays and turnover margin and improved to 6-0. In the process, Franklin changed football in State College.
“You read all the coaching books from the beginning of time and you go to all the clinics, and four-minute offense is: You run the ball, you milk the clock, you win the game on your terms and then you kneel down and flip the ball to the official,” he said. “Well, I think one of the mistakes that we made last year is we tried to be a four-minute offense in four-minute situations, and that’s not who we are. You can’t say at a critical time of the game, ‘We’re going to now become something that we never are.’”