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PSU offense moves into fast lane

| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) makes a call at the line of scrimmage against Syracuse during last week's game. The Nittany Lions' average possession in its up-tempo offense averaged 1 minute, 48 seconds against the Orange.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State running back Zach Zwinak

UNIVERSITY PARK — On-field temperatures reached triple digits, an 18-year-old freshman was at quarterback, Penn State was the designated “away” team in a foreign stadium, and the Nittany Lions held a lead for most of the game.

Penn State must also, the thinking goes, perpetually be aware of depth issues.

All circumstances that would figure to point to a methodical, clock-chewing, deliberate style of offense, right?

Wrong. Not coach Bill O'Brien and not this team. But they're just following a national trend: Time of possession doesn't mean what it used to.

Not long ago, teams took pride in holding onto the ball as long as possible. Now the emphasis has shifted to scoring as quickly as possible.

When Penn State opens its home schedule against Eastern Michigan at noon Saturday, expect the Lions to use at least some of their so-called “NASCAR” package that eschews huddles.

“That's definitely a huge part of our offense,” tackle Garry Gilliam said. “We've gotten used to it, and we're hoping that it's a major advantage and we can wear teams down.”

Such talk would have been viewed as blasphemy in Woody Hayes' Big Ten — or even here, where Joe Paterno developed a reputation for decades as a conservative coach.

But in his later years, Paterno trended the other way. So did the Big Ten. Long-mediocre Purdue won a Big Ten title after hiring spread-offense guru Joe Tiller in 1996, and Northwestern's Randy Walker kept the perpetual doormat Wildcats competitive by using a quick-on-its-feet attack during the early part of the past decade.

In 2005, Paterno sent assistants to Austin, Texas, for a lesson in the Longhorns' offense that Vince Young ran. The Lions' Michael Robinson went on to win Big Ten offensive player of the year.

A fast-moving, no-huddle offense might have been seen as a gimmick as recently as the 1990s — something reserved for, say, the Western Athletic Conference. Today, mainstream, national championship-contending programs such as Oregon and Oklahoma State carry the flag.

“We don't look at time of possession,” O'Brien said. “We look at scoring one more point.”

Penn State had an average time of possession of 31:21 last season. During last Saturday's 23-17 win against Syracuse, the Lions had 30:45 of possession.

More telling is that they averaged 1:48 per possession.

“We talked about it all summer … being able to play fast and wear down other teams,” center Ty Howle said. “At the same time, it doesn't matter how many plays you can run if you're not picking up first downs or scoring.”

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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