STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — They began working the play in camp, but it sat on the shelf for the first half of the season. Finally, on the second play of the game against one of the nation’s top defenses, Penn State coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead unleashed it.
The basic description—a Wildcat play for star tailback Saquon Barkley—doesn’t sound like anything special. Barkley is one of the nation’s best backs and a likely Heisman Trophy contender. Of course the coaching staff would find a way to snap the ball to him directly and run something simple like QB Power or inside zone. But it wasn’t the play itself that shocked Michigan. It was the way the Nittany Lions set it up.
On a typical Wildcat play, the quarterback splits out wide while the tailback takes his place behind the center. A defender has to remain near the quarterback on the off chance he may be used as a receiver, but the quarterback rarely does much except serve as a decoy. This was taken to hilarious extremes a few weeks ago by Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler.
But why use Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley as a decoy? He can run as well as most tailbacks. So instead of splitting McSorley out wide, Moorhead decided to simply swap McSorley and Barkley’s roles in the read option. This didn’t change anything for Penn State’s blockers and didn’t change much—other than offering a refreshing change of pace—for Barkley and McSorley. But it did accomplish two things:
1. The Nittany Lions could get into the formation much more quickly than if they’d sent McSorley to the edge of the field, and this kept Michigan from adjusting. All McSorley and Barkley did was trade places and run the play. “That was pretty fun to see it from that point of view,” said McSorley, who took a handoff from that formation later in the game.
2. It really messed with the Wolverines’ heads.
Michigan players spent all week practicing to defend read option plays in which McSorley puts the ball in the belly of Barkley and reads an unblocked defender. Repetition taught Michigan defenders that the guy holding the ball first is the less dangerous runner and the one who might take the ball is the more dangerous runner. Plus, the action of the blockers told the Wolverines that the play was designed to go to the player who might take the ball. The quarterback will only pull if he has an obvious running lane.
Barkley took the snap and placed the ball in the belly of McSorley, who ran from left to right toward the short side of the field. (That was on purpose as well, leaving more field open to the left.) Michigan defenders flowed with Penn State’s linemen as they blocked an inside zone to the right. They left one defender (linebacker Mike McCray) unblocked on the right, suggesting that’s where the play would go. Everything they’d been trained to do told them to favor the runner who might take the ball (McSorley) rather than the player who took the snap (Barkley).
And that’s exactly what they did. The only detail remaining was to leave a crease for Barkley to escape through when he pulled the ball back from McSorley’s belly. That was achieved by having left tackle Ryan Bates pass set instead of run block. That drew defensive end Rashan Gary on an upfield rush and opened a seam to the left for Barkley. You probably already know what happened next.
Barkley outran Michigan’s entire secondary and scored the first of his three touchdowns: two rushing, one receiving. Penn State set a tone that no matter how stingy Michigan’s defense had been before, it would not limit an offense that had better players than Michigan had previously seen and had saved several new wrinkles just for the Wolverines.
“That offense is ridiculous,” Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “Joe Moorhead’s a genius.” And Penn State’s willingness to break out new wrinkles early in games has contributed to a 90–0 advantage in first quarters this season. “If you can get a lead, it changes how people have to play,” Franklin said. “So we play with an aggressive mindset.”
That Wildcat formation was the most obvious, but the Nittany Lions unveiled several new formations and motions Saturday just for Michigan. They had practiced all of these earlier, but they didn’t want them on video, so they avoided using them in games. This included starting with an empty backfield and staying empty through the snap of the ball. (Previously, someone had motioned into the backfield from an empty set, or someone had motioned out of the backfield to create an empty set.) Barkley’s juggling 42-yard touchdown catch came out of one of these formations.
It also included the occasional game of skill player monte, using pre-snap motion to disguise Barkley’s location at the snap for as long as possible. The less time the Wolverines had to adjust after determining where Barkley would start each play, the better for Penn State. But while the Nittany Lions had saved some scheme specifically for Michigan, the Wolverines had opted to stick mostly with what they’d already shown Penn State on film. “They stayed true to themselves,” Barkley said. “They changed a little bit of stuff, but they played us how they played a lot of other teams.”
This is an eternal debate in football. When faced with a dynamic opponent, how much should a coach change or add? Or should he dance with the date who got him to this particular party? Penn State didn’t unveil a new offense for Michigan. Moorhead added on to concepts the Nittany Lions use frequently. Even the most extreme example—the Wildcat read option—isn’t that much of a stretch. Barkley and McSorley run the read option routinely. Each knows who should get the ball when based on what the defense shows. All they needed to hone was Barkley’s ability to hand off (or not) and McSorley’s sense for when to clamp down on the ball if he was going to take a handoff.
They built their catalogue of skills with a practice ethic created from the ashes of last season’s 49–10 disaster at Michigan. “That was rock bottom for this team,” McSorley said. “Everyone was embarrassed. We thought we’d been working hard the entire time. … We had to swallow our pride and realize we weren’t working to the standard we needed to compete at the highest level of the Big Ten.”
They learned their day-in, day-out preparation needed to be better, to be more like Michigan’s disciplined, veteran 2016 team. They also learned that they needed to have something special for special opponents. They’ll need something especially special this week when they go to Columbus to face Ohio State in a game that likely will decide the Big Ten East title.
After the Michigan win, James Franklin picked up a reporter’s phone and checked the time. Seeing it was 11:23 pm, he made a declaration. “We’ve got 37 minutes to enjoy this win,” he said. “I’m not going to talk about the next opponent. I’m going to enjoy the heck out of this win for 37 minutes.”
By now, the Nittany Lions have fully immersed themselves in preparation for the Buckeyes. This includes something they might have shown Saturday had Michigan kept the score a little closer. “We had another play that Joe wanted to call,” Franklin said. “I just said, ‘I would prefer that you not.’”
What could it be? Will it be as fun as Barkley’s Wildcat formation?
We’ll find out when the Buckeyes do.
Sports Illustrated is celebrating Penn State’s last quarter-century of Big Ten play with a special issue, honoring the school’s greatest players and games from the era. You can get your copy at newsstands now, or order it online here.
A Random Ranking
We’ve got a user-generated topic this week, and it’s a beauty.
The best karaoke songs aren’t the best songs. They’re the songs that the crowd is most likely to help you sing, thus drowning out your terrible voice.
1. “Don’t Stop Believin’”, Journey
2. “I Want It That Way”, Backstreet Boys*
3. “Sweet Caroline”, Neil Diamond
4. “If I Could Turn Back Time”, Cher
5. “Gangsta’s Paradise”, Coolio
6. “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, Def Leppard
7. “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”, The Proclaimers
8. “Bust A Move”, Young MC**
9. “Teenage Dirtbag”, Wheatus
10. “Love Shack”, B-52s
*If we were ranking only songs meant to be performed by groups, this would be a runaway No. 1. You’d probably be shocked at how many males of a certain age have the choreography down.
** If you decide to try this one, make sure you’ve been hitting the gym. Young MC rapped faster than you remember. This will test your lung capacity.
The Crimson Tide get a week off from bludgeoning everyone in their path, and then they face LSU on Nov. 4. They’re probably going to get the best version of this year’s LSU team, and that’s probably not going to matter.
2. Penn State
You just read why the Nittany Lions belong in this spot. The question is how long they can stay. They’ll play their toughest opponent of the regular season on Saturday in Columbus.
The Bulldogs had the week off, but every game Notre Dame wins makes Georgia’s win in South Bend on Sept. 9 look even better. This week, Georgia must exorcise some World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party demons in Jacksonville. Other than the Party In The End Zone game 10 years ago and the four-touchdown game by Robert Edwards in 1997, the Bulldogs have underperformed to their talent level against the Gators since Steve Spurrier arrived as Florida’s coach 27 years ago. Come to think of it, this year does end in a seven. So perhaps the Bulldogs don’t need to do anything but show up to roll over the Gators.
4. Notre Dame
Though it still seems highly unlikely, this is the nightmare (for three conferences) scenario I spun two weeks ago. The Fighting Irish hammered USC, and if they can survive their last five games unscathed, it will be awfully tough to leave them out of the playoff. It also would be tough to leave out Georgia—even if the Bulldogs were to lose the SEC title game to Alabama. Notre Dame looked great on Saturday, but the path only gets tougher. NC State visits South Bend this weekend. The Wolfpack are coming off an open date, and they’re well equipped to limit Notre Dame’s rushing attack.
Big Ugly of the Week
Notre Dame’s offensive line has been blowing open holes for its backs all season in large part because of 6' 5", 330-pound left guard Quenton Nelson, who played yet another excellent game against USC. Enjoy watching the pad level clinic put on by No. 56 every time Notre Dame has the ball in this clip.
Three and Out
1. Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate continues to astound. On Saturday, Tate threw two touchdown passes and ran for another—a 76-yarder—in the Wildcats’ 45–44 double-overtime win at Cal.
The average distance of Tate’s seven touchdown runs is 57.1 yards, and the Wildcats are 3–0 since he replaced an injured Brandon Dawkins at Colorado. This week, Washington State will bring a rushing defense that allows only 3.4 yards a carry to Tucson. If Tate can keep up his pace and the Wildcats can win, things could get very interesting in the Pac-12 South.
Meanwhile, Arizona State will face USC in Tempe. After allowing at least 30 points in 11 consecutive games, the Sun Devils allowed a total of 17 in wins against Washington and Utah. With defensive coordinator Phil Bennett calling the plays and head coach Todd Graham resisting the urge to zero blitz his team into vulnerable situations, Arizona State also has an opportunity to compete for the title. If both Arizona schools win Saturday, the possibility of a Territorial Cup with the division title on the line becomes much more realistic.
2. The coaching carousel began spinning two weeks ago when Gary Andersen quit at Oregon State, but the first in-season firing came Sunday when Georgia Southern axed Tyson Summers. The Eagles are 0–6 following a 55–20 loss to previously winless Massachusetts, and a once-proud program was embarrassed enough to fire Summers in the middle of his second season. Summers won his first three games as head coach after being hired to replace Willie Fritz, who left for Tulane. Since, the Eagles are 2–13.
The formula at Georgia Southern is fairly simple:
A. Run the triple option, just like Erk Russell, Paul Johnson and Jeff Monken did.
3. Coaches often make their players do push-ups or up-downs after failures at practice. Washington State coach Mike Leach figured he’d do the same thing in a game after a frustrating offensive series during the Cougars’ 28–0 win against Colorado.
For Your Ears
Because of travel issues on my part, the latest edition of the Place At The Table Podcast will drop on Monday night. But if you subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or Google Play, each new episode will get delivered directly to your phone.
What’s Eating Andy?
It’s one thing when the television networks cluster all the good games in prime time. I understand that. More people are watching TV in prime time. But after several weeks of that this season, we get a Saturday where the two games everyone wants to see will now appear opposite one another at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time. This time, though, we can’t blame ESPN. The NC State–Notre Dame game is on NBC, and Notre Dame just played a night home game this past weekend. Meanwhile, Fox has the rights to the World Series and is using Penn State–Ohio State as a lead-in to its coverage of Game 4. It makes sense, but it still would be nice—and great for ratings!—if networks would break up the games that draw a lot of national interest so we didn’t have to choose.
What’s Andy Eating?
I’ve never liked tater tots as much as everyone else, and I’m pretty sure the fault lies with me and not the tater tots. Perhaps it’s a suppressed memory from some school cafeteria that made me avoid the cylinders of fried potato. Maybe some childhood crush broke my heart over a tray full of tots. I really don’t know why. I just know my previous feelings toward tots were silly. I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t seek them out, either.
Fortunately, the recent tater tot renaissance has allowed me to re-evaluate my relationship with the hash brown’s cylindrical cousin. Restaurateurs have figured out that people of legal drinking age still love tater tots as much as they did when they were nine, and this love grows with each drink consumed. On Friday night I pondered the humble tot as I sipped a barrel-aged Manhattan—with house-made cherry bitters—at Irv’s Pub in Hershey, Pa. This is not the kind of drink that would have been served five years ago in a place that serves tater tots, but fortunately for us, that sort of potable and edible classism has largely been relegated to history’s dustbin.
Irv’s calls its tots Tater Tot Nachos, which is slightly confusing. Are these tots made of corn? Are they shaped differently? No. They are simply tater tots, but they are topped with the usual loaded nacho accoutrements. Specifically, they come covered with bacon cheese sauce, bacon, pickled jalapeños and cilantro lime sour cream. The first bite made me feel guilty for keeping tots so low in my personal carbohydrate top 25 for so many years. A crispy, golden tot with a hint of sour cream, bacon sauce and jalapeno makes for an ideal drinking buddy, and it competes with some of the best fries.
That was good, because I had given up my fries on this night. I had ordered Irv’s black truffle burger, but I also really wanted to try the blistered brussels sprouts. The bartender, noting that I’d already ordered the tots, suggested I swap out the hand-cut fries that come beside the burger in favor of the sprouts.
This proved to be the perfect order. After the carb fix from the tots, I needed the sprouts to balance out the meal. These sprouts were roasted and then tossed in a tangy lemon vinaigrette and sprinkled with grated parmesan. If you read this space often, you know I can’t fathom how sprouts became the butt of every vegetable-related sitcom joke, and this particular bowl of sprouts continued to put the lie to that trope.
Also, alternating bites of sprouts lightened up what otherwise would have been a pretty heavy burger. The truffle flavor made an already rich beef patty even richer, but Irv’s tomato jam countered the savory with just enough sweetness. And yes, I know tomato jam is just churched-up ketchup. It’s actually one of two churched-up condiments that come on this burger. There’s also an aioli (churched-up mayonnaise) that I wiped off, because calling it by another name doesn’t keep it from tasting like a lifetime of failure in spreadable form.
As I worked my way through a second Manhattan, I reviewed the meal in my mind. How could I have been so wrong about tots for so long? Oh well. I may have missed the party in middle school, but I’m here now and ready to keep ordering more.