A single play breakdown can be a risky exercise. It can oversimplify things and make broad extrapolations that are unfair to the players or coaching. Football is too complex to break down one play and conclude something like "this is why our running is awful" or "this is why [player x] sucks!" or "this play is emblematic of the season." Football is a game of broad strategies and schemes: a play is just a situation where some things go right or wrong.
I feel a breakdown of a single play is warranted this week in spite of my misgivings. It was a play I found so stunning that I needed to review it just to make sure I had not missed something.
All image captures attributed to BTN.
Situation: PSU up 20-12 early in the 4th. Penn State is rolling, completing three consecutive long passes to move from the PSU 10 to the Purdue 23. Penn State lines up in an unbalanced I-formation loaded on the strong side of the field. WRs Bill Belton and Justin Brown are out wide, TBs Joe Suhey and Silas Redd are lined up behind QB Matt McGloin.
McGloin fakes the play action handoff to Redd. The line is holding up Purdue’s defense and the two defensive backs lined up with Brown and Belton are dropping back a bit into soft coverage.
McGloin has dropped back and Belton begins to run an out pattern on the 20. This is where a quick plant and throw by McGloin to the outside of Belton would have been beautiful. If Belton sheds the oncoming tackler and picks up a downfield block by Brown this could have been a first down. At the very least it would have been a nice 3 yard gain. Perhaps this was the original intent of the playcall, but McGloin holds on to the ball. We’ve harped on McGloin’s tendency to throw deep, but it may be as much a result of indecisiveness than a desire to pick up big chunks of yards.
1.5 seconds later the opportunity is gone. While there are eight Nittany Lions in pass protection Belton has cut upfield and Brown is running a post pattern between four Purdue defensive backs. McGloin has no underneath options and he is ten yards behind the line of scrimmage. The wisest thing would have been for McGloin to scramble long enough for someone to get open or just throw the ball away. Instead McGloin attempts to connect with Belton.
Bill Belton is well covered by Purdue's Josh Johnson. To make things worse, Belton jumps a bit early, forcing him to make a mid-air correction that leads to this:
Yes, the booting of the ball in the air is unfortunate, but Belton is so isolated that Purdue’s has all day to make the interception and run thirty yards downfield before encountering a Nittany Lion player.
I bring this play up not to excoriate McGloin or the receivers. I think McGloin and the offense had a decent game up to then. My concern is the playcall itself, and the decision to commit to a passing play that offered far, far more risk than reward.
We all criticize Penn State for conservative playcalling, but in this instance going conservative was the right move. With an eight-point lead in the 4th quarter on the 23 yard line, the main goal should be to protect the ball and get two scores up on the Boilermakers. Penn State had been running well all day, but even if the Lions run three plays up the middle for no gain they still have kicker Anthony Fera in a good position to get to an eleven point lead.
Instead, the offensive coaching staff runs a play where there are only two receiving options for Matt McGloin AND asks him to either make a quick throw off play action (something I have rarely seen him do) or connect on a deep throw. Why force the game into McGloin’s hands at this point in the game? Why force it on Bill Belton, a freshman with one career reception? It was an astonishing decision to go with this playcall. Still, it's just one play. All we learn is McGloin is McGloin when it comes to quarterbacking and Jay is Jay is when it comes to playcalling. So why break it down?
I refer to a comment from The Underdog’s in this week's Roundtable:
When we had the ball with a chance to go up two scores in the 4th, we needed a dose of Joe, the guy who has won more bowl games than any other human being to ever roam the earth (even Hay-zeus!), and we got a double dose of Jay. Going for the kill shot, with the toe on the trigger. Nevermind where it's aimed. We've got a shotgun and it's gonna get fired dammit.
Remember that JoePa isn’t on the sidelines anymore arguing with McQueary, he’s up in the booth with the offensive coordinators. While Galen Hall and Jay Paterno are splitting the playcalling duties, Joe Paterno has mentioned in press conferences that he's "passing along slips of paper" when he disagrees with a call.
If there was ever a playcall that JoePa would disagree with it would be this one. Given one hundred chances to call a play in that instance, Joe Paterno would go conservative one hundred times. McGloin is McGloin and Jay is Jay, but where is Joe in this situation? Where was the slip of paper with “RUN OFF TACKLE” or “CONSERVATIVE” or "NO!” written on it? Why didn't he say anything?
That is what astounds me about this play. To me, this one single play indicates that Joe is not participating in game day coaching, at least not on every play. A head coach may delegate every single play call in the game, but that does not absolve him of coaching the game. That is his fundamental responsibility as a head coach, and this was a clear situation where Joe would make a different playcall as coach. He didn't. Where was he?