Penn State revs up offense in 'NASCAR' mode
At times, a Penn State game can resemble a track meet these days.
It's not quite time to say goodbye to huddles and heavy-formation handoffs in Happy Valley, but when first-year coach Bill O'Brien wants to turn up the tempo, he goes ''NASCAR.''
''When you're in `NASCAR,' you can rip off quite a few plays very quickly,'' running backs coach Charles London said Thursday.
OK, NASCAR - which is actually the abbreviated name of the governing body for the country's stock car racing series - isn't exactly a new revelation. It's Penn State's version of an up-tempo, no-huddle offense which has become all the rage in college football.
But at Penn State (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten), it's a dramatic change of pace from the old-school ways of the late coach Joe Paterno, who tended to be less risky. He relied on the run and played for field position - a tried-and-true formula that worked for the Nittany Lions over the years, too.
The 2012 season, though, is one of change at Penn State. Going NASCAR is just another new wrinkle in the host of changes installed by the offensive-minded O'Brien with the surging Nittany Lions, who have won four straight heading into Saturday's night's tilt at Iowa.
''We're constantly on the same page, which is why it works,'' said quarterback Matt McGloin, the Big Ten's leading passer (249.8 yards per game). ''We're in really good shape as a football team.
''That's the reason why we're having some success with it.''
Especially two weeks ago after trailing Northwestern by 11 points entering the fourth quarter. The offense went into overdrive, scoring three touchdowns in the last 9:49 to storm past the Wildcats in a 39-28 victory. Penn State ran 99 plays on the afternoon, tying a school record initially set in 1966.
A former offensive coordinator in the NFL, O'Brien revamped the Penn State schemes off his old New England Patriots playbook. One of the biggest beneficiaries is 6-foot-3 tight end Kyle Carter (23 catches, 279 yards), Penn State's second-leading receiver and an athletic threat between the hashes.
Carter, a redshirt freshman, has a long way to go before he's as good as Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez, though his collegiate career is off to a promising start.
''I watch them a lot differently. Every time (Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady does a call or goes no-huddle, I understand what's going to happen,'' Carter said. ''And of course, I'm watching Gronk and Hernandez.''
At the least, Saturday night's game with Iowa (4-2, 2-0) may not be the grind-it-out slugfest that has marked previous meetings between the two schools. The high point - or low point for those who like points - was Iowa's 6-4 win at Beaver Stadium in 2004.
O'Brien wisely isn't tipping his hand about Saturday's playbook. Every game is different, he insists.
The NASCAR package can have between 10 and 30 plays. It all depends, O'Brien said Thursday, on the opponent; how well the team practices that week; and how much the offense can master while playing effectively in the no-huddle scheme.
''It's whatever it takes to win the game. Maybe it's 70 plays in a game, but you end up winning the game because maybe the defense held, but it was a little bit longer drive for the offense, whatever it may be,'' O'Brien said. ''But I think our offense has improved, and hopefully ... we can continue to improve.''
The Nittany Lions do have the tools to slow things down, too. The offensive line is improving every week and the running game has numerous options with fullback-like bruisers like Zack Zwinak and Michael Zordich and speedy Bill Belton, a sophomore who has been slowed by injury.
London said it was an adjustment at least for his running backs to get used to the pace in the offseason. The priorities don't sound that much different from the normal priorities for a running back, like being aware of down and distance, and the defensive pressures that might go with such situations.
''And then every day we're preaching ball security,'' London said. ''So if we protect the ball, we have a chance.''
And if that doesn't work, the Nittany Lions can always shift into NASCAR mode.
NOTES: O'Brien on his radio show Thursday night confirmed that left tackle Donovan Smith has a broken right hand. Smith has been playing with a large cast around the hand. ... O'Brien is 1-1 on the road.
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