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New offensive look sparking Lions

PSU football commentary

The Associated Press PSU QB Sean Clifford breaks away from the Ball State defense.

UNIVERSITY PARK — On one hand, James Franklin thought the 105,323 in attendance would blow the clouds out of the Beaver Stadium sky after Sean Clifford’s quarterback sneak gave the Nittany Lions an early two-score lead against Ball State.

For the first time since the days of Christian Hackenberg, five offensive coordinators ago, Penn State has moved away from being exclusively in the shotgun formation.

New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich showed the under-center formation publicly in the spring, and the Lions ran a few plays last week at Wisconsin.

They expanded that package Saturday, showing it on the game’s very first play and then turning to Clifford for a hurry-up sneak that produced a 1-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead that the Lions steadily expanded into a 44-13 victory.

“It was awesome,” Franklin said, tongue in cheek. “I don’t know if you guys saw when we did it, the clouds parted, with the sunshine, and the whole stadium was so happy. When we ran the quarterback sneak from under center, I thought the stadium would erupt, but everybody’s moved on.”

Maybe so, but it’s hard to minimize the change in philosophy. It gave the offense some needed flexibility and more unpredictability as Yurcich combined a bevy of up-tempo, no-huddle and shotgun looks that spread the field and exploited Penn State’s wealth of skill players.

Franklin a bit defensively attempted to downplay the topic, saying, “We’ve won a lot of football games from the shotgun; we will win a lot of football games under center (and) from the shotgun in the future,” but no less an authority than Clifford believes the under-center option is a definite asset, especially helping the play-action game.

“For sure,” Clifford said after completing 21-of-29 for 230 yards and rushing 11 times for 66 more. “You have a lot of linebackers moving up. It’s just a different look when the running backs hit the holes so much harder. We’ll continue to stay under center. The opportunities are endless. You can drop back or go straight power. We’re excited about continuing that. I feel really comfortable under center.”

Before anybody thinks the new/old scheme will bring back the Single-Wing, Saturday should reassure that won’t be the case.

Ten different Lions caught passes — nine in the first half alone as the Lions build a 24-6 lead. In addition to Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington looking like their standout selves, Yurcich’s offense produced eight receptions to the running backs and tight ends.

“A lot of stuff going on,” Clifford said. “It’s good we get a lot of personnel in. We showed a lot of different looks, and that’s what Coach Yurcich is all about. He’s not going to run a lot of inside zone and RPOs. He’s going to be the innovative coach that he is. You’re not going to see the same plays over and over.”

“I thought Mike called a really good game that put Sean in advantageous situations,” Franklin said. “We were more balanced.”

It helped that the offense rolled up 31 first downs — 20 more than it collected at Wisconsin. That contributed to 28 more plays (79-51) and many more touches by the playmakers.

“You guys are going to see more different formations and things these next couple weeks,” running back Noah Cain, who rushed 20 times for 69 yards and caught three passes, said. “There’s a whole lot more.”

A point of emphasis over the past week was a quicker start. The Lions were held scoreless and checked to one first down in the first half at Camp Randall.

“We started fast, and that was huge,” Clifford said.

The defense was not to be outdone. Jesse Luketa scored on a Pick-6, and the defense grabbed two interceptions. The Nits’ third team allowed a touchdown with six minutes remaining, just the second TD the unit has yielded this season.

Franklin called it “championship-level defense” after the Wisconsin game, and that dominance continued.

“I’m proud of the way we’re playing,” safety Jonathan Sutherland said.

Auburn will provide more of a test this Saturday, but so far, the Nittany Lions have done a good job putting 2020 in their rear-view mirror.

Rudel can be reached at nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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