'Oh Yeah, There's a Whole Lot More'

Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich ran a bunch of new stuff vs. Ball State. And the Lions say they're just getting started.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State's offense ran plays Saturday with three tight ends, two running backs and (saving the biggest gasp for last) its quarterback under center. And, as running back Noah Cain said later, the Lions barely have tapped the playbook.

"Oh yeah, there's a whole lot more," Cain said. "We're going to be ready for Auburn next week."

Mike Yurcich, Penn State's first-year offensive coordinator, began a love affair with Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Xboxing his offense in a 44-13 victory over Ball State. That might be exaggerating, but Yurcich certainly called a freer, more exciting offense than he did in his debut at Wisconsin.

No doubt, the opponent made a difference. Ball State's front seven looked nothing like Wisconsin's, and the Cardinals set out to keep Jahan Dotson and Penn State's receivers in front of them.

So how did Yurcich respond? He called plays with tight ends Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren on the field simultaneously. He ran backs Noah Cain and Devyn Ford together.

Yurcich gave quarterback Sean Clifford pocket-passing opportunities to scan for open receivers and called a quarterback draw that was a timely gem. The Lions ran receiver bubble screens, quick throws over the middle and power and outside-zone rushes.

They did almost all of that combined on their first two series, scoring 14 points on a combined 21 plays. The last play of that sequence might have been the most fascinating, at least from a James Franklin-at-Beaver-Stadium perspective: Clifford, lining up under center for the second time in the quarter, plunged into the end zone on a 1-yard quarterback sneak.

Such a thing hadn't been tried since Bill O'Brien and Christian Hackenberg ran Penn State's offense. Get used to it, though, because it's going to happen more often.

"You liked that, huh?" a smiling Clifford said after the game. "There was a lot of stuff going on. That's what coach Yurcich is all about. You're not going to see the same plays over and over."

This was the kind of offense Franklin promised when he brought in Yurcich from Texas: fast, diverse, and a threat from everywhere. Penn State totaled 493 yards and 32 first downs, 21 more than it managed at Wisconsin and tied for the second-most under Franklin.

Last week, when Wisconsin stuffed Penn State's run in the first half, Yurcich responded by swinging plays outside and then taking deep shots downfield. But Ball State was determined to mitigate that, so Yurcich responded with the variety of looks and plays.

Clifford completed passes to 10 different players in the first half on his way to going 21 for 29 for 230 yards and a touchdown. He looked as confident and in control as ever, particularly during a first-half sequence in which he completed eight consecutive passes.

More important, Clifford did not commit a turnover for the second straight game. Last year, Clifford was part of 12 of Penn State's 17 turnovers, which included nine interceptions. During Penn State's 0-5 start of 2020, Clifford was involved in 10 turnovers.

"You win a lot of games when you don't turn the ball over," Clifford said. "I learned that last year. I made a lot of adjustments to myself and how I am with the football, and I think it's paying off big dividends for the team."

Franklin thought Yurcich called a smart game, particularly with regard to Clifford. The quarterback ran 11 times for 66 yards, including a 43-yarder in the second half that led to a Jordan Stout field goal.

Penn State was better on third down (converting at 46.2 percent) in part because its average distance was more than 2 yards shorter (5.7 yards vs. 7.9). The Lions also were much better on first down, averaging 8 yards per play vs. 5.6 at Wisconsin.

Yurcich employed his running backs much more (Keyvone Lee ran for a very lively 68 yards on eight carries) and called a fly sweep for Dotson early.

All of that helped Clifford find his rhythm, as did better pass protection. What also helps is Yurcich's willingness to allow Clifford workshop plays in practice.

"Coach Yurcich lets you do a lot of different things, to experiment," Clifford said. "... If it works, good. He gives a lot of criticism at the same time. He pushes you extremely hard, probably harder than I've ever been coached. And I needed that after last year. It's a breath of fresh air to have him around."

If there was a quibble, it was with Penn State settling for two red-zone field goals in the second half. Otherwise, this was a much better offensive day than the Lions had in Wisconsin. Perhaps that's one reason the sneaks didn't send Beaver Stadium into delirium.

Franklin said he expected a larger reaction from the crowd of 105,323 to the under-center sneak. "I thought the stadium would erupt, but everybody's moved on," Franklin said.

Saturday's game might have raised their expectations, especially with Auburn coming to town for the 2021 Whiteout.

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