In the final three games of 2017, Penn State’s offense unveiled an expanded look at a new wrinkle.
Really, it was the stretch of games that initially brewed so much excitement among Nittany Lions fans for the potential of the Lion package, featuring backup quarterback Tommy Stevens serving essentially as a utility player on offense. He lined up at receiver and running back as well as quarterback at times as Penn State wound out that schedule with three consecutive wins.
The Lion package didn’t turn out to be a major difference-maker in 2018, but Penn State players think things might be different if the newest wrinkle the offense briefly displayed Saturday in a 20-7 win over Rutgers at HighPoint.com Stadium sticks around for the long term.
On a handful of plays against the Scarlet Knights, the Nittany Lions lined starting running back Miles Sanders up on one side of quarterback Trace McSorley, with talented true freshman rusher Ricky Slade situated on the other.
Creating a buzz: The formation didn’t yield any results of notoriety, but the fact offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne — for the first time this season — had both players on the field for multiple looks had teammates buzzing after the victory.
“I think it gives us options, being able to utilize both of those guys in different ways,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “Each one of those guys can do things as a runner. Each one of those guys can do things as a receiver. Both those guys are pretty good in pass protection. So, we might be able to do some things where we get one of those two guys out quick.
“It’s one of those things that presents another look to defenses. Now, they kind of have to think about how they’re going to defend two true running backs, two real legitimate playmakers at the running back position.”
Giving defense more to consider: For head coach James Franklin, the benefit of that set has as much to do with what the defense has to consider before the snap as what the Nittany Lions can do after it.
Since being installed by then-offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead before the 2016 season, the Penn State offense has largely been run out of two personnel groupings:
►11 personnel, which is essentially the base offense with one running back a tight end and three receivers on the field. Or,
►12 personnel, which takes one of the receivers off the field and adds a tight end, which is used mostly in obvious rushing situations.
Getting Sanders and Slade on the field together added potential for 20 and 21 personnel Saturday, doubling the looks the Lions can potentially give out of sets with two backs and a tight end or two backs and three wideouts.
“It creates different issues,” Franklin said. “It forces the defense to have to worry about a different package of plays. You can run a split zone from that. You can run a split zone read. You can do some things in the passing game. It’s just another wrinkle. We’re really running the same plays, only from a different personnel group.”
Fans clamored for that type of formation last season, when the Nittany Lions had Saquon Barkley and Sanders to potentially give those same concerns to defenses.
Freiermuth's emergence: Franklin said after the game Saturday that now stood out as the best time to break in the two-back sets because of the emergence of Penn State’s freshman sensation at tight end, Pat Freiermuth.
Not only has Freiermuth emerged as perhaps McSorley’s most consistent target this season — his two touchdown catches Saturday against Rutgers stands as proof — but he has given Penn State a more physical presence as a blocker in the run game. Penn State used the two backs Saturday with Freiermuth lined up in the slot to the right side of the formation, which essentially gave the offense a 21 personnel package with a 20 personnel look. That means, an extra blocker on the perimeter who also is a dangerous threat down the field in the passing game.
“Instead of going 11 personnel, where you have that receiver split out, you now have similar speed, only from the backfield,” Franklin said. “A lot of our run game, or a good portion of our run game, is the perimeter run game stuff. So it allows us to get a bigger body in the slot, blocking that field ’backer and things like that.”