Key to Offensive Success Is Spreading the Ball Around

Story posted September 23, 2011 in CommRadio, Sports by Aaron Hefelfinger

What happened to the Penn State offense of 2008 and 2009? In those seasons, they were ranked first and second in the Big Ten, respectively. What happened to the offense that was so exciting ESPN: The Magazine had to do a feature on it from the perspective of the football? Why has the offense fallen so drastically in just two seasons?

Let’s reel off a list of people who caught and touched the football those years: Deon Butler, Derrick Williams, Andrew Quarless, Evan Royster, and Jordan Norwood. That list contains arguably some of the best offensive players Penn State has had in at least the past decade, if not longer.

But I don’t think talent is the 2011 team’s problem -- they have talented receivers with NFL potential, namely Derek Moye and Justin Brown. If we accept that the problem is not talent, then what’s going on? Coach Joe Paterno, addressing the struggles of the offense in his post-game conference after the Temple game, claimed that he thought more players needed to get involved in the passing game.

He pulled back on that claim in his Tuesday press conference, stating that he talked to his staff and that the claim wasn’t accurate. Looking at the numbers, though, he is probably right. Derek Moye is projected to have 56 catches and Justin Brown is projected to have 40. Beyond that, though, things are a little bleak. The third leading receiver, Shawney Kersey, is projected to have 16 catches, half of what the third leading receiver (Justin Brown) had last year.

But not only is the ball being caught by fewer players, it’s being caught less in general. The 2011 team is averaging about 15 catches per game, whereas the 2010 edition snagged about 18 balls per game. Penn State is throwing the ball the same amount of times as last year (32 att. per game) but with fewer catches. It’s no wonder, then, that the 2011 edition of Penn State’s offense is struggling. The receivers need to step up. Although some may blame the offensive line instead, it’s just not an accurate criticism.

The offensive line of this team is not bad. They have had some mental miscues, sure, but nothing serious enough to completely sidetrack the offense. This is an offensive line that produced a 1000 yard rusher and was tenth in the nation in sacks allowed in 2010 (yes, really). The line is largely intact from last year, minus All-American Stefen Wisniewski. But even taking into account this season, they allowed zero sacks in this year’s Alabama game, which is a huge accomplishment considering the talent of their defense.

More than that, Penn State RB Silas Redd is averaging about 16 carries per game and 5.1 yards per carry this year. Those are good numbers, even taking into account the Alabama game, where he eked out 3.0 yards per carry because of Alabama’s defense stacking the box. I’ll say it again: the offensive line is not the problem. They have done an adequate job thus far, and will continue to do so for the rest of the season.

Since the offensive line is adequate and the running game is decent, the focus has to come back to the passing game. Joe’s initial assessment of Saturday’s Temple game was more correct than he could understand. More receivers do need the ball, and less have been getting it. If we’re still wondering where the “Spread HD” offense of 2008 and 2009 are, look no futher than the statistics for non-receiver catches. In 2008, non-receivers caught 71 balls for 874 yards. In 2009, non-receivers caught 102 balls for 1126 yards.

The improvement in catches between 2008 and 2009 was, more than likely, the development of Daryll Clark as a quarterback. The more experienced a quarterback is, the more they can see the field and know where they need to throw the ball. With true freshman starter Robert Bolden and first-time starter Matt McGloin in 2010, non-receivers saw the ball 60 times for about 541 yards.

There were many questions about how much this year’s team would improve offensively and defensively. There is no question the defense, now that it’s healthy, is much better than it was last year. But taking into account the aforementioned non-receiver catching statistics, the 2011 offense is projected to have no improvement. Non-receivers are projected to catch the ball 60 times for 273 yards, which is almost less than half the yards non-receivers had in 2010 with the same amount of catches.

In other words, the real reason this offense is struggling is because of the reason Coach Paterno stated: too few catches with less diversity in who actually catches the ball. If Penn State can stop overthrowing screen passes and getting the ball to the third and fourth options on a play, the offense will undoubtedly improve. The strategy of throwing to the amazing Derek Moye and pounding the ball with Silas Redd will work against inferior opponents, but to be honest, there aren’t many of those left.

Penn State has one of the hardest schedules in the country. If the passing game doesn’t learn how to start spreading the ball around, this season will be a rough one, and probably about the same record-wise as last season’s disappointing 7-6 campaign. It’s hard to have a “Spread HD” when the ball isn’t really being spread around. The larger point is that many critics have been assuming that Joe Paterno doesn’t know what’s going on and that the game has passed him by, but the statistics support what he has said. This team has a national championship caliber defense, and if it can start spreading the ball around, the sky is the limit.


Aaron Hefelfinger is a senior studying Telecommunications. If you wish to contact him, e-mail him at