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What Happened to Penn State's Explosive Plays?

James Franklin defines big plays as an offensive cornerstone. But their numbers are down this season.

Penn State has defined explosive plays as an offensive tentpole under multiple coordinators. First-year coordinator Mike Yurcich is wedded to the philosophy as well. So what's happened this season?

The Lions average 4.4 plays from scrimmage of 20+ yards, ahead of only the 2014 team (3.7 per game) under head coach James Franklin.

Penn State made three such plays, all in the passing game, in its 21-17 loss to Michigan on Saturday, underscoring an issue to which Franklin has pointed often this season.

"We have played hard, but we haven't made enough big plays," Franklin said after the game. "You take Jahan Dotson out, and we're not making enough big plays or explosive plays."

Penn State has defined explosive plays as 12+ in the run game and 15+ in the passing game, but the 20+ benchmark helps to standardize the comparison among teams. This season, Penn State ranks sixth in the Big Ten in 20+ plays from scrimmage (44), which is just one more than it made in the 2020 nine-game season.

And so far, Penn State's 2021 offense is averaging fewer 20+ plays per game than any team since 2014:

  • 2021: 4.4
  • 2020: 4.8
  • 2019: 4.8
  • 2018: 5.6
  • 2017: 6.5
  • 2016: 6.5
  • 2015: 5.2
  • 2014: 3.7

Penn State has been even less explosive on the ground. The Lions have just six run plays of 20+ yards (ahead of only Purdue's four) this season. Last year, Penn State ran for 13 plays of 20+ yards. Here are some 20+ run totals (stats via SportsSource):

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  • 2019: 22
  • 2018: 23
  • 2017: 26
  • 2016: 26
  • 2015: 25
  • 2014: 14

Yurcich and Franklin are aligned philosophically on the need for explosive plays. "Explosions are huge in this day and age as far as what correlates to wins," Yurcich said earlier this year. But for a variety of reasons, Penn State hasn't been able to string together a consistent stream of those plays.

Penn State's offensive line and backs haven't established the run game as a consistent home-run threat. Penn State's longest run this season is Keyvone Lee's 44-yarder against Indiana, and the longest touchdown run is Noah Cain's 5-yarder vs. Ball State. The Lions do not have a 100-yard rusher this season.

Before the Penn State-Maryland game, running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider said that he had charted just 10 run plays of 12+ yards this season. "We've had games where we've had more than that," Seider said.

Opposing defenses also have schemed to prevent Penn State's passing game from being consistently explosive. And the offense's big-play targets are concentrated.

Receivers Dotson (13), Parker Washington (11, including three vs. Michigan) and KeAndre Lambert-Smith (six) have combined for 68 percent of Penn State's 20+ plays from scrimmage. And Dotson has seven of the team's 11 explosive-play offensive touchdowns.

"That is something we're going to have to look at hard," Franklin said. "But I think that's the biggest issue [in close games]. We just don't have enough explosiveness besides Jahan Dotson on the offense."

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