STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich knows that much of what has fans on edge also has him digging deep for solutions.
Though No. 6 Penn State doesn’t play a game this week, it’s a critical time for honest evaluations as the team works through a self-scout. What Penn State is already well aware of is the reality that the offense hasn’t been explosive enough. James Franklin has mentioned it nearly every week. The Nittany Lions have scored plenty of points in five consecutive runaway wins, but big plays have been few and far between.
“Not satisfied with it thus far,” Yurcich said Tuesday. “… A lot of times what we’re seeing is softer-type coverage in inopportune times, so that’s part of it — just timing there and making sure that we’re getting into good looks, which is something that I can control. … We know we have to be more explosive. We’re going to work real hard on it.”
Yurcich is calling games from the box this season. With a first-time starting quarterback in Drew Allar, some hiccups along the way were inevitable as the offense gels and develops. But despite the 5-0 start and average of 40.6 points per game, Penn State ranks 95th in yards per play (5.34) and 124th in explosive play rate (9.5 percent), which TruMedia defines as rushes of 12-plus yards and completions of 16-plus yards.
While Penn State knows what it has in top wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith, the production from the rest of the receiving corps has been erratic. Yurcich called the group a “work in progress.” Harrison Wallace III, who had seven catches in the opener, has largely been unavailable the past three games while recovering from an injury. Florida State transfer Malik McClain made one start at Illinois, had two drops and played just one snap against Northwestern. Kent State transfer Dante Cephas, who has 2,242 career receiving yards, has been out of sync with Allar. Cephas, who didn’t enroll until after spring practice, has started two games but at Northwestern looked exactly like someone who has limited experience working with Allar.
“It’s a big concern with me right now and to us as an entire staff,” Yurcich said of the timing between Allar and an evolving receiving corps. “We’ve gotta remedy that fast. We’ve gotta be on point with our landmarks and depths of routes and our timing. That is something we’re going to address, and that is a big issue we have to clean up.”
Snyder: Penn State routed Northwestern as expected, but first-half woes can’t be dismissed
The Nittany Lions know the clock is ticking. After the idle week, they welcome UMass for homecoming. Then comes the Oct. 21 showdown against No. 4 Ohio State.
Franklin will meet with the media Wednesday night after practice. Here are other takeaways from Penn State’s Tuesday media session with the coordinators and strength coach Chuck Losey:
2. Running back Nicholas Singleton hasn’t rushed for more than 80 yards in a game and ranks 29th in the Big Ten in yards per carry, a development that seemed unfathomable after how his freshman season ended.
Yurcich said he was pleased with how all of the running backs performed from a pass protection standpoint in the win at Northwestern. He said the trio of Singleton, Kaytron Allen and Trey Potts needs to continue to “trust their instincts, trust their vision and their speed.”
Yes, Yurcich is aware that the explosive plays in the run game have to increase, too. Nobody has a longer rush than quarterback Beau Pribula’s 21-yarder at Illinois.
3. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz isn’t willing to share his thoughts on Ohio State’s offense just yet. Diaz is savvy behind a microphone and likely knew this type of question was coming after Franklin said on Saturday that some staffers would start looking ahead to Ohio State during the idle week.
It’s common for coaches to work ahead during an off week, which is also why Franklin has been so outspoken about wanting as many analysts in the building as possible. More analysts means more hands on deck. So yes, there are plenty of coaches and analysts getting a jumpstart on the Buckeyes. Next week the focus will shift to UMass.
When it comes to early impressions of Ryan Day’s team, though, Diaz didn’t bite.
“My opinions (about Ohio State) are absolutely very strong and they’re absolutely going to stay to myself,” he said.
4. I’ve written about Penn State’s decreased snap counts seemingly after every game. Diaz expects that decreased workload to pay off in a big way as Penn State approaches the meat of the schedule. He said there are some players on his defense who have played 75 perfect fewer snaps than they played at this point in the season last year, a product of blowout wins and the fact that the defense has faced only 55.8 plays per game, the fifth-fewest in the country.
“October and November are gonna come through and come and go, and that’s really going to tell the story of our football season,” Diaz said. “You want to make sure that you’re ready for that, fresh and healthy. We won’t get another bye. This is it.”
5. Once the turnovers started coming in bunches against Illinois, Diaz noticed this defense started to let loose a bit. They’ve stayed that way ever since. Diaz said that during the West Virginia game and part of the Delaware game, players were trying to be “perfect.” Because of that, they were playing tight.
“We started having fun and we look like we’re having a lot of fun right now,” Diaz said. “One of my favorite plays in the game on Saturday, we told the guys it’s 10-3, we’re down at Northwestern and we just punted them the ball with like five minutes left in the second quarter. That’s not really going according to plan. Our kids, before we took the field on defense, they were in a great headspace. They were ready to go have fun and play. … I think we’re seeing a little more of the 11 guys becoming one in that unit.”
6. The strength of the defense is in the depth across the board. It helps having three defensive ends who have been a handful for opponents in Chop Robinson, Adisa Isaac and Dani Dennis-Sutton. Penn State leads the nation in pressure rate for the second season in a row, per TruMedia, and has 20 sacks spread between 14 players.
“We’re getting a lot more chipping this year,” Diaz said of how teams are trying to handle the ends. “Iowa didn’t chip us and you saw how the ends can dominate the quarterback that way, so you’re seeing more tight ends and backs try and chip those guys and try to take those guys out of the game. But there’s a downside to what that does offensively and fewer guys can get out on routes.”
Penn State making case for nation’s best defense: Final thoughts from Northwestern
7. How did Penn State get flagged for a delay of game penalty on the opening kickoff of the second half at Northwestern? It’s the question I posed to special teams coordinator Stacy Collins.
“We’ve gotta be able to kick the football before the 25 seconds. They’re gonna start that clock once they hand the ball to our kicker. We gotta do a better job,” Collins said. “We go through a progression where we make sure we start inside the numbers, we work outside the numbers. We got a progression and didn’t look at the play clock and didn’t kick the ball off in time.”
That penalty was a low point for a unit that’s been inconsistent this season. Singleton lost a fumble on the opening kickoff. Columbia transfer Alex Felkins has stepped in at kicker to replace Sander Sahaydak, who struggled in the season opener. Florida Atlantic transfer Riley Thompson has supplanted punter Alex Bacchetta, who was recruited here to be the guy. One week after Franklin praised Kaden Saunders for being sure-handed, Saunders muffed a punt. It’s a long season, but it’s been a weird five games for special teams. However, a heads-up play by Zion Tracy on the Wildcats’ failed fake punt was a highlight.
8. Penn State has two scholarships invested in kickers and two in punters. Sahaydak is “striking the ball extremely well” in practice, Collins said. They need to keep him ready should Felkins struggle. Thompson, the punter who Collins said had his best game against Northwestern, has been “up and down” this season. Bacchetta, who hasn’t cracked the travel roster yet, is continuing to work through his consistency on the practice field, Collins said.
It spoke volumes when Penn State added two specialists this offseason via the transfer portal. It’s a storyline that we’ll continue to monitor this season and beyond.
9. Collins said a point of emphasis for the special teams is to become more explosive from a punt block and punt return standpoint. Saunders’ 12 returns have averaged just 3.58 yards.
“We’ve had a chance to get a couple (blocks) and that to me works right into what you’re doing in the return game,” Collins said.
10. Strength coach Chuck Losey spends more time around the players than anyone else in the program. Losey said Allar, who came in with limited experience in terms of strength training, has “exploded” in all areas since arriving.
“He’s done an outstanding job,” Losey said. “He’s playing at 235 pounds right now, which increases his durability for us throughout the season. His power numbers, all the metrics in the weight room are exponentially up from what they originally were. Speed is another area that’s a work in progress and that’s an area we’re really gonna continue to dial in on for him and he knows that.”
11. Losey and the strength staff enjoy watching Penn State execute its version of the Philadelphia Eagles’ “tush push.” Seeing a play that’s strength-on-strength is a point of pride for the strength staff.
“Some of my favorite runs are the ones where it’s yards after contact and when we get those three, four, five O-linemen pushing Kaytron, pushing Nick down the field for the extra 5 to 10 yards,” Losey said. “… We would be lying if we said we didn’t take a little extra pride in those reps.”
12. One of the more interesting developments for Losey and his staff has been working with Saunders, the shifty wide receiver who has had to transform his body a few times already. Saunders, listed at 5 feet 10, 175 pounds, knew he needed to gain weight before he got to Penn State. The problem was the weight gains threw off his body composition, which is what the strength staff spent last season, Saunders’ first on campus, working through.
“Kaden’s frame is smaller than most guys,” Losey said. “… Yeah, guys gotta get their weight up, but it can’t come at a cost. I think Kaden got so consumed with hitting a certain number out of high school that by the time he ended up showing up at Penn State, he was overweight for his position, which cost him in the speed department.”
Last season the strength staff worked to get him back to being the type of player he was in high school while making sure he was getting stronger and putting on good weight. In addition to being the punt returner, Saunders is competing for reps in the receiving corps, where he has three catches for 18 yards.
“He’s producing now on the field, so I’m excited for him, excited for his future,” Losey said.
13. Left tackle Olu Fashanu is on a load management plan this season. The projected first-round draft pick has been on board with it and continues coming in to put in extra stretch and soft-tissue work throughout the week, Losey said.
“Thank god he’s been healthy throughout,” Losey said. “He’s on a plan where he’s a guy that we don’t have to be super aggressive with. He’s a guy that we are aggressive enough with so that he doesn’t lose his edge from a strength and power standpoint, but at the same time as far as him trying to make these crazy strength and power gains during the season, we don’t have to do that with him.”
Fashanu is still third on the offense in snaps at 304, per TruMedia, and has allowed just one pressure and zero sacks.
(Top photo of Mike Yurcich and Drew Allar: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)