UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Picking one moment or series to describe Penn State’s offense Saturday against Minnesota is difficult. Was it the four consecutive passing attempts that stalled a red-zone drive, dropped passes by wide receiver Brandon Felder or the fumble at the 2 by quarterback Christian Hackenberg?
Few offensive plays that stick out are positive, and that has been the case since the Michigan game. What has happened?
Last year, everything was shiny, bright, complex and bold, and remember what Penn State coach Bill O’Brien did with quarterback Matt McGloin. Penn State, in one year, earned a reputation for having a productive, cutting-edge offense. You could hardly walk a block down College Avenue without hearing compliments about how it compared to the New England Patriots. Last year, the Nittany Lions averaged 27 points per game in Big Ten play. They were among the top five Big Ten teams in scoring, and they ranked only behind free-throwing Indiana in passing.
This season, Penn State ranks eighth in scoring offense in the Big Ten and fourth in passing. The past three games illustrate a grimmer reality: Penn State has been averaging 16 points and 213 passing yards per game — numbers that would rank the Nittany Lions 11th and seventh in the Big Ten.
Back to the earlier question — what has happened? What has changed about Penn State’s offensive strategy?
The play-calling from last year compared to this three-game stretch has differed and, in some ways, been more conservative.
Last season in Big Ten play, Penn State threw and ran the ball at a nearly equal rate, 41 rushes per game and 42 passes. The Nittany Lions have run the ball 41 times and passed 30 times per game the past three games. Penn State was outgained in passing yards by its opponents in all three games — something that happened only against Indiana and Illinois last season.
Some of the reasons for fewer passes are obvious. Against Minnesota, for instance, O’Brien said the strong winds led him to stress the rushing game.
Hackenberg, of course, is a freshman quarterback. Early this season, O’Brien talked about limiting some of the playbook until Hackenberg was comfortable. He spoke Tuesday of having increasing confidence in Hackenberg, saying some of the lessons he still needed to learn were simpler, like knowing when to add some extra touch to short passes.
“I’ve got a lot of belief in this kid, and I think he’s going to be better and better,” O’Brien said.” We need him to be better against Purdue.”
Another main difference is time of possession. Penn State has won and lost games in which possession times have fluctuated wildly to either side, but in the past three games, it has not controlled the ball the majority of time, averaging 28:40 of possession per game.
Its offense last year had the ball an average of 32:30 per game. Running a play about every 24 seconds (about the same rate it did last year), Penn State is averaging about 10 fewer plays per game in the past three games with its lesser time of possession.
Because of this, Penn State has needed to capitalize on opportunities and limit mistakes. It has not been doing so. The Nittany Lions scored a touchdown when they were in the red zone 62 percent of the time last season. In the past three games, they’ve scored a touchdown 42 percent of the time.
“I’m just very frustrated when we don’t score touchdowns,” O’Brien said.
Diagnosing a problem with the offense is one challenge. The greater one is solving it with three games left. To describe, in part, how he plans to improve the offense, O’Brien used one his favorite phrases.
“I have to coach better,” he said.
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.