Seeking explosive identity, Lions' offense produces enough to secure win
To James Franklin and his coaching staff, the Nittany Lions’ offensive equation Saturday night against Michigan was a simple one.
Connect on explosive plays to win. Don’t, against Wolverines’ defensive coordinator Don Brown and his philosophy, and you’ll lose.
“It really comes down to explosive plays against that defense,” Franklin said. “You have to hit explosive plays. He is going to overload you in the box and put his defensive backs on islands and you have to win. We missed some tonight, but we won enough of them and that was really the difference in the game.”
To be specific, Penn State produced nine explosive plays on the evening, three of which went for touchdowns through the course of the game.
The first, a 37-yard completion from Sean Clifford to Jahan Dotson along Penn State’s sideline, helped move the Nittany Lions into the red zone on their second possession of the evening. The second, also against the Wolverines’ man coverage, happened the very next play. Hooking up with tight end Pat Freiermuth in the end zone, the 17-yard strike cemented the success of a strategy that Penn State had settled on earlier in the week.
“We talked about, we had to beat them in man, and then we had to attack them vertically when they go into their zone coverages. And I think that overall, we did a good job of it,” Clifford said. “We left some points on the board, but overall, I'm happy with where we're at.”
The Nittany Lions weren’t done.
Propelled into excellent field position by a 44-yard carry for Ricky Slade late in the first quarter, Penn State took advantage of the red zone opportunity that ensued. Needing five plays in the red zone, the Nittany Lions eventually cashed in to take a 14-0 lead on Clifford’s second-and-goal, 2-yard touchdown run.
Near the midpoint of the second quarter, Penn State’s electric redshirt sophomore receiver, K.J. Hamler, got into the action.
Again working with excellent field position, this time starting from Michigan’s 49-yard line at the 9:43 mark in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions pushed ahead with an 18-yard completion to Hamler and, just three plays later, a 25-yard touchdown back to his number.
“I think the approach was to win your 1/11th. Win your one-on-one matchup at all times, from the linemen to the running backs to the receivers on our offense,” Hamler said. “We knew that they were a tough team. The (defensive backs) are very good, The whole team was very good, we just knew that we had to execute better and we knew we had to give everything we had.”
Hamler would do so one more time Saturday night, in a play that proved to be the final score’s difference-maker.
Breaking free from Michigan’s secondary - a play that Michigan head coach later described as a miscommunicated defense - Hamler walked into the end zone to cap a 53-yard score.
On a night when explosive plays were deemed essential to securing a win, and at first were plentiful before falling off, the Nittany Lions satisfied the ingredients necessary to earn a win.
“We didn’t play I would say our best in all three phases tonight, but we played well enough to win the game. We played really good complementary football. We made plays when it was needed. We made big plays on defense when it was needed. We made big plays on offense when it was needed. And the same thing on special teams,” Franklin said. “We will critique the heck out of this, find a way to get better.
“We were able to win the field position battle, we were able to win the turnover battle, we were able to win the penalty battle, and we won the explosive plays battle by a very small margin. So just a bunch of good stuff. No doubt that we have to get better, we all do, but great win and I couldn’t be more proud of our team, I couldn’t be more proud of our program.”