To hear Head Coach James Franklin tell it, Penn State’s offensive line is the engine that makes their offense work. While that is a strong group, which returns four starters and two other players with significant playing time in 2016, the offense as a whole returns starters at every skill position. Chief among those are quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley, and tight end Mike Gesicki. Both Gesicki and Barkley are considered to be top-tier draft prospects at their positions, and as Indiana head coach Tom Allen explained in Chicago over the B1G Media Days, McSorley is the player that makes the offense something special. Allen would know. As Indiana’s defensive coordinator last season, he watched his Hoosier defense hold Barkley to under 60 rushing yards, only to give up 332 passing yards and two touchdowns from McSorley, as well as another rushing touchdown from the QB.
When watching the Nittany Lions offense work, what does stand out is how the coaching staff uses those three skill players both as part of their base offense, and then build around those concepts to get all three players involved. It has almost an element of a basketball triangle offense to it, with designs that stretch the defense both vertically and horizontally on each play. Let’s look at some of the ways Penn State uses these three players in concert.
Split Zone and Variants
One of the core running plays from Penn State is the split-zone design, which is a common concept used at all levels of football. They usually call upon Gesicki to execute the slice block, asking the tight end to cut across the flow of the play and handle the back-side defensive end. Gesicki is very adept at this task, as this play in the Rose Bowl against USC illustrates. Facing a 3rd and 6 just outside the Trojans’ red zone, the Nittany Lions line up using 11 personnel, with a slot formation to the right and Gesicki in a wing to the left. USC shows pressure, with both outside linebackers of their 3-3-5 nickel defense on the edges:
Looking at the end zone view, we can see that a critical block is thrown on this play by right guard Connor McGovern (#66). Middle linebacker Porter Gustin (#45) blitzes on the play, attacking the B Gap on McGovern’s right shoulder. As the ball is snapped, the guard steps to his left with the flow of the play. But as the MLB cuts to the right of the guard, McGovern recognizes this threat and immediately turns his hips back toward the right, sealing off Gustin:
Now that we have seen the basic split-zone design, where Barkley serves as the vertical stretch and McSorley the horizontal, we can now look at two variations, where they involve Gesicki in the passing game off this look. From the game against Indiana, the Nittany Lions trail by three midway through the third quarter, and are buried deep in their own territory. On this 2nd and 9 from their own 3-yard line, they use 11 offensive personnel, with Gesicki in a wing to the right:
Penn State shows a split-zone design here, with McSorley meeting Barkley in the backfield at the mesh point, while Gesicki looks to cut across the formation:
As you can see, Indiana’s defenders react to the run action, particularly MLB Marcus Oliver (#44) and “Husky” defender Marcelino Ball (#42). Oliver crashes to the inside while Ball looks to blitz off the edge, as noted on the previous still. Only, with McSorley keeping the football and the flat vacated by Ball, the tight end has nothing but grass in front of him as he releases into his quick pattern:
That gives us a look at this “triangle” aspect of the Penn State offense with these three players:
Even when the tight end releases to the flat, the quarterback still reads the flow of the play and can decide to give the football to the running back on the vertical stretch, depending on the defense. On these occasions, if the defense reads the play well and reacts to the potential throw to Y, they can expose themselves to Barkley on the inside. Take this example from Penn State’s game against Iowa. Facing a 3rd and 4 on the Hawkeyes’ 44-yard line, the Nittany Lions line up using 11 personnel, in a 2×2 alignment using tight splits to each side of the formation. Gesicki in in a wing to the left. McSorley is in the shotgun with Barkley standing to his right.:
As the play unfolds, middle linebacker Josey Jewell (#43) crashes down on the run action, and as the RB approaches the mesh point, it looks like McSorley might be wise to keep the ball and throw to Gesicki, who is about to release to the flat:
What is also amazing about this play, in addition to the quick read and decision from the QB, is the vision and change-of-direction from Barkley. Jewell recognizes the handoff and cuts back into the hole. Barkley sees this, puts his left leg in the turf, and bounces the play back to the right edge, where he nearly converts the first down:
Inside Zone and Variants
Penn State also incorporates some options into their inside-zone game. Given the experience of their offensive line in the year ahead, this design can be a potent weapon for the Nittany Lions, especially when combined with Barkley’s running ability and the variations they can build into the scheme to keep a defense honest and stretch them from sideline to sideline.
On their opening play against Iowa, the Penn State offense lines up facing a 1st and 10 on their own 48-yard line. With 11 personnel, they put McSorley in the shotgun and use a 2×2 alignment, with slot formations to each side of the field. Gesicki is in the slot to the right, and Barkley stands to the right of the quarterback. Iowa keeps their base 4-3 defense on the field, and they show a two-high safety look:
The Nittany Lions utilize a packaged inside zone play here, with Barkley meeting McSorley at the mesh point and aiming for the interior of the offensive line. To the left side of the field, they set up a bubble screen, and to the right they run a two-man combination with Gesicki on a curl route and the outside receiver on a quick out pattern:
This sets up another three-man game, with McSorley, Barkley, and Gesicki taking on the Iowa defense. Specifically, McSorley reads Bo Bower (#41), the outside linebacker shaded to Gesicki before the snap. As the QB takes the football and puts it in his RB’s belly, he’ll base his decision off Bower. If the LB crashes inside on the run, he can pull the ball and take an easy throw to his tight end. If Bower stays on Gesicki, then McSorley simply lets go of the football.
Here, as the QB and RB meet at the mesh point, the LB has slid over the TE:
Again, we see the vision and change-of-direction ability from the running back. Bower sees the handoff and crashes down in response. Barkley reads that, and then bounces the run to the right edge, around the crashing linebacker. Bower is now too far inside to make a play on the RB, and Barkley picks up blocks from Gesicki and wide receiver Chris Godwin (#12), en route to picking up the first down.
Now, here’s what happens when the linebacker plays the run.
This is a slightly different design, as the Nittany Lions use a power blocking scheme up front and Barkley aims for the right edge rather than the interior, but the read is the same for the quarterback. Facing a 2nd and 10 near midfield against Ohio State, the offense lines up using 11 personnel, this time with three receivers to the right. Gesicki is the inside receiver in this trips look. McSorley is in the shotgun with Barkley standing to his left. The Buckeyes show Cover 2 before the play, and linebacker Raekwon McMillian (#5) is cheating down toward the right edge pre-snap:
As indicated, the Nittany Lions use a power scheme up front, with left guard Ryan Bates (#52) pulling. Barkley cuts in front of his quarterback and looks for the handoff. At the mesh point, McSorley rides his running back and reads the defense, specifically the linebackers. Because his tight end is releasing vertically, and if the linebackers crash forward on the run, he’ll pull the ball and take the easy throw to Gesicki.
Both McMillan and Jerome Baker (#17) slide down on the run action, and Gesicki is wide open over the middle:
Again, the design sets up a triangle look between these three skill players, with Barkley’s potential run to the edge creating the horizontal stretch on the defense, while Gesicki’s release becomes the vertical stretch. Using your core three skill players to stretch the defense in this way is a good means of putting pressure on the opposition, and creating space for each of the three players to operate with the football.
RB Sweep and Variants
Finally, I want to look at one last design from Penn State that builds off one of their core concepts. They often begin plays with McSorley alone in the backfield using an empty formation, but prior to the snap they either shift Barkley into the backfield, or bring him in jet motion, to begin the play. Then they can run sweep or jet sweep with Barkley (depending on whether the RB shifted or comes in motion). Here’s a look at that design:
Barkley begins this play against Indiana in a wing alignment on the left. He comes in jet motion before the snap, and takes an immediate handoff from McSorley on the jet sweep.
Now, we can look at two variations off this concept that continue the idea of a triangle attack on the defense. First, with Barkley’s sweep action serving as the horizontal stretch on a defense, the Nittany Lions can use McSorley himself as the vertical stretch, giving the quarterback the option to keep the football on an inside zone run. That’s exactly what happens on this play against Ohio State. Note, however, that Gesicki is on the sideline for this play and Tom Pancoast (#89) is on the field instead:
On this play, Barkley again starts to the left and comes in jet motion toward the QB. At the snap, McSorley meets the RB at the mesh point and reads the linebackers. This time, he sees them flowing toward the potential jet sweep, so he keeps the football and attacks the interior of the defense as the vertical stretch, picking up four yards on this 1st and 10 play.
Finally, we can close this out with a look at how Penn State throws out of this design, again on a play against Ohio State:
Trailing by 14 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions begin a drive on their own 10-yard line. McSorley stands in the shotgun, alone in the backfield, with Barkley in a wing to the right and Gesicki in a wing to the left. The RB comes in motion toward the QB, resets in the backfield for a beat and then starts in motion back toward the right, before taking off on a wheel route up the right sideline. That’s McSorley’s first read. But the QB is pressured off the edges, so he comes to his second, which is Gesicki on the crossing route. After climbing the pocket, McSorley hits his wide-open tight end to move the chains.
Basketball’s “triangle offense” is designed to give the team on the floor multiple looks at an easy basket, combining low post passing with cuts to the hoop and players in shooting position on the wings. Penn State has taken this concept to the gridiron, and incorporated designs that use these three players – McSorley, Barkley, and Gesicki – to stretch the defense horizontally and vertically, in a triangle of their own. Last season the Nittany Lions rode plays like these to the Rose Bowl, and this year, they’ll look to use them to rise to even greater heights.