For finesse offense to succeed, finesse is needed

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State has a finesse offense, James Franklin admitted, and while it’s actually been that way for a while now and produced a lot of success, the coach knows the unit has to get tougher.

“I don’t think this is something that’s been the last two weeks,” Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “We’ve been this way — last year, when we won the Big 10 championship, and this year.”

The problem is that now teams have figured out ways to slow down Saquon Barkley and the running game, so some things that had been working well are no longer effective.

“We have been saying internally and externally that we want to be a more physical team up front,” Franklin said. “And when I say that, I’m not just talking about the offensive line. I’m talking about tight ends, I’m talking about all of it. I think it’s something that we can do a better job of and need to do a better job of to take that next step as a program.”

One major problem with wanting to become a more hard-nosed football team is that offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s run-pass option system is actually designed to operate more like a finesse outfit than a power unit. Hence, the lack of a fullback and never having the quarterback line up under center.

So the Nittany Lions have a dilemma. They can continue with the status quo, remain more of a finesse offense and succeed against most teams, yet still struggle against powerful defenses.

Or, they can tinker heavily with something that has worked very well from a point production standpoint and risk taking steps backward in other areas.

“It’s not going to happen overnight” Franklin said of becoming a more hard-nosed team. “We’ve got to keep stressing it on both sides of the ball. We’ve got some injuries that have factored into that, as well. But we need to be able to create space on offense, and we need to be more physical and strike our keys, and one-on-one matchups defensively.

“So it’s not something that’s going to change overnight. We have done some really, really good things this year, but we need to do it more consistently, and we need to do it in every circumstance.”

It’s obvious opposing defenses are loading up to stop Barkley, who has been held under 100 yards in six of nine games. And while there might be legitimate Xs and Os reasons for that, it doesn’t change the fact that a great running back is being held in check.

When the subject comes up, Penn State personnel always talk about what the defense is doing. But Franklin was asked what he would tell people who believe that the onus should be on the offensive coaches to make the proper adjustments to still run well.

“We can get into situations where we’re going to hand the ball off just to hand the ball off to Saquon Barkley,” Franklin said. “That’s not who are or what with we want to be offensively. We’re a spread RPO offense. And if you decide to overload the box based on numbers, we’re going to throw. And there’s a lot of offenses across the country that do it that way and are successful.

“This formula had worked pretty good for us for the last year. We’ve been winning games. And we lost the last two, so obviously it’s easy now to critique it. But we want to get better at running the ball. We want to get better at protecting the quarterback. But we’ve had one of the more explosive offenses in the country in terms of yards, in terms of points, in the last year. So I get it.”

Franklin went on to say Barkley might be “the best football player I’ve ever been around.”

“He’s able to be explosive in so many different ways, and that’s what we want to do,” the coach said. “We want to get the ball into his hands in a lot of different ways, and I think that gives us the best opportunity to be successful.”

As for being called a finesse offense, lineman Steven Gonzalez, who’s 6-foot-4 and 341 pounds, didn’t take exception to that label from his coach.

“Don’t really take any meaning to it,” Gonzalez said. “We do a lot of finesse things. We do run-pass options, things like that, nice little dress-up schemes to make the defenses see other things. But at the end of the day it just comes down to the grit and physicality of the game, and that’s what us as an offensive line we pride ourselves on.”