On Penn State's NASCAR tour, foes wave white flags not checkered ones

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It takes just a few seconds and sometimes as little as one word for Penn State to set up at the line of scrimmage with a play ready to go.

Coach Bill O'Brien signals to quarterback Matt McGloin, who shares the play with the rest of the offense. They know the formation, their routes, the protection, everything from that one word. A huddle is not necessary.

Then, NASCAR happens. That's what Penn State calls its no-huddle offense, the one fans saw most of the Iowa game, the one Penn State has grown more and more comfortable with as the season has progressed. As Iowa exemplified, the opponents haven't caught up yet.

"It's hard to prepare for," McGloin said. "I don't think they were ready for it. They couldn't match up with us. We were in a lot better shape than them. That's going to be the case for a lot of games."

In the first game this season, Penn State had 70 offensive plays against Ohio. The Nittany Lions averaged 73.5 plays per game for the next four games. Against Northwestern and Iowa, when NASCAR was utilized more often, they had 99 and 90.

O'Brien said this no-huddle offense is part of his game plan each Saturday. How much he uses it depends on the opponent and the flow of the game. If a team pressures on defense, he is more likely to go with the no-huddle.

Against Iowa, he considered its use necessary in part because of the atmosphere. He said he didn't think his team could afford to take its time huddling in a hostile environment.

If Penn State can be successful on first down, then it will generally continue to skip the huddle for the second- and third-down plays.

As much as anything, the NASCAR offense thrives on rhythm.

"If you can gain positive yards on first down, then your second-and-medium call or second-and-short call, you can call it whatever you want," O'Brien said. "That's a play-caller's dream. That's really the most important thing."

In the spring, summer and early fall, more than one player used the term "foreign language" to describe O'Brien's new offense. Tight end Gary Gilliam said the new playbook weighed five pounds.

The offense clearly has turned into English, but it has required a significant amount of work to memorize all the conjugations. McGloin said they must constantly analyze the offense. Fullback Mike Zordich said NASCAR was like taking an extra class, and each week something new is added or overhauled.

The study time has been worth it. Penn State is ranked fourth in total offense in the Big Ten and second in passing offense.

O'Brien acknowledged that part of his team's success might be the newness of this system at Penn State, but he also said teams should be used to it by now.

"I don't think at the end of the day we do anything that's really that complicated," he said.

Or anything new at all. Though this offense, run by the New England Patriots, is being hailed as revolutionary, O'Brien told his assistants the other day how he gets deja-vu moments when he strategizes. He is transported back to his assistant days -- to Brown, to Maryland, to Georgia Tech, where the quarterback George Godsey ran a similar offense to this one and they once ran a no-huddle wishbone.

He's pointing out that he and his staff have not invented a new way of playing football.

"It's about communication, understanding substitutions, and it's really not that big of a deal is what I'm trying to say," O'Brien said. "It's been going on for a long time."

Penn State just happens to be employing the offense as well as anyone right now.


Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com and Twitter @mdent05. First Published October 26, 2012 4:00 AM


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