On a recent walk through Penn State's All-Sports Museum, offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich paused to study the playbook of former coach Rip Engle. Yurcich found the diagram of a shovel pass.
Engle coached at Penn State from 1950-65, but the play looked exactly like the one Yurcich called against Indiana. Yurcich's shovel pass worked — quarterback Sean Clifford flipped the ball to tight end Brenton Strange for a touchdown — but was negated because Penn State's offense had lined up improperly.
"Maybe I should have looked a little closer at coach Engle's playbook," Yurcich said.
Yurcich has breathed life, if not necessarily new life, into Penn State's offense this season, bringing fun back to a group that too often looked dour in 2020. The fourth-ranked Lions, who visit No. 3 Iowa on Saturday, run an offense that thrives on pace, concentrates on getting the ball to its best players in space and isn't afraid of the trick play.
Penn State has called receiver passes with Jahan Dotson, including one against Indiana to make Iowa practice it, that shovel pass and a Wildcat formation with tight end Tyler Warren, a former high school quarterback. Yurcich said his wife loves trick plays, which is why he calls them.
"I'm just kidding, but she does [love them]," Yurcich said. "Who doesn't, right?"
His players certainly do. Dotson has called Yurcich a "mastermind" and "a character," and Clifford has said he feels like a new player under Yurcich while thriving with the coordinator coaching from the sideline. Head coach James Franklin refers to Yurcich as a "mad scientist" who often brings NFL game highlights into meetings.
Indeed, this week Yurcich showed his quarterbacks film of former NFL quarterback Philip Rivers to make a point about staying in the pocket with a lineman in their face.
But most of all, Franklin said, Yurcich "loves plays."
"I know that sounds ridiculous as an offensive coordinator," Franklin said, "but he loves plays."
Yurcich has loved plays for a long time, since before he first became an offensive coordinator at St. Francis, a Division II school in Indiana, in 2002. That passion drew Mike Gundy's attention at Oklahoma State, Ryan Day's at Ohio State, Tom Herman's at Texas and Franklin's (twice) at Penn State.
Finally able to hire Yurcich this season, Franklin has been satisfied with the results while raising his expectations.
"I think his creativity and his ability to complement and set up one play to the next has been really good," Franklin said. "His intensity has been really good for us. We're going to continue to get better each week, and part of it is the staff getting used to Mike, and Mike getting used to the staff. So far, so good, but I still think there is a lot of room left for growth, and I think Mike would feel the same way."
Yurcich pointed to the run game, which is 11th in the Big Ten in yards per game and ninth in yards per play, and explosive plays as areas he'd like to improve. Explosive plays are a foundation of Yurcich's offense, and he wants the Lions to rank higher than fifth in the conference in plays of 20+ yards (28).
But Yurcich also referred to Penn State's lack of turnovers (three, all interceptions), its pass protection, the receivers' play and Clifford's commitment and consistency as signs of success.
"The fact is, we've done enough on offense to win," Yurcich said, "and as long as we continue to do that, that's really all that matters."
But Yurcich added another point that matters: His players love the wrinkles, which keeps them engaged in everything else he teaches.
"One thing about [having] a little bit of innovation in your offense is that the players really enjoy it," Yurcich said. "They love it. They embrace it. And that's the best part about being here."
Ultimately, Yurcich said, his offense isn't about "the really cool play" or "being fancy" or "sex appeal." His mission is to best disguise how he wants to get players into free space and make sure Clifford gets them the ball. Creativity and innovation fall behind the execution, Yurcich said.
And since Franklin said Yurcich "loves plays," he was asked about his favorite play. Naturally, the mad scientist didn't bite.
"I don’t have a favorite," he said. "The favorites are touchdowns. The favorite’s gonna be what it takes to beat Iowa. I don’t care if that’s a quarterback sneak, or whatever, a counter play, it doesn't matter to me."