A Look At The Play Charts

An illustration of how a close examination of the play sheets and other statistics, and looking at film, allows one to gain a better perspective of how Penn State's Capital One Bowl game verses Auburn played out.

College football teams chart plays during football games. They keep track of all sorts of things that are going on during a game including types of formations, passing data, running play data, down and distance calls, and many, many other things. They do this to make certain they are not getting stuck in a rut with their play calling.
In other words, the name of the game is to not get predictable. Charting plays, and watching film after the game, can help the staff determine what went right and, conversely, what went wrong. I will attempt to illustrate for you how a close examination of the play sheets and other statistics, and looking at film, allows one to gain a better perspective of how Penn State's bowl game with Auburn played out.
Let's proceed.
Penn State is no different than other programs and will chart plays during games. How many of us have seen the third string QB shown on the TV screen carrying the clip board? The reason for the clip board is that the back up QB's are helping to chart the play call sheet.
Most college programs keep one or more coaches up in the booth to get a wide angle perspective on the game. They will get information from those coaches to help decide which plays to call. But teams also like to make sure they aren't calling the same plays from the same formations all the time, or doing anything that can be predictable for that matter. That's where charting comes into play.
So what would those charts look like?
Well, I have tried to put together some sample data from the Auburn game. This would be a small sample of what the staff has at their disposal, but it will give you an idea of what they keep track of. So without further explanation, let's take a look at some data from that recent bowl game with Auburn.
If you saw a boxscore of that bowl game with Auburn, this is what you would have seen.  The following team stats reported:
First downs  15
Rushes       36 for 170 yards
Passes       10 for 27, 1 interception, 98 yards
Totals       63 plays for 268 yards
Time of Possession   27:49
For perspective, Auburn had 67 offensive plays for 278 total yards. Not much difference in numbers of plays or yards gained. In fact, Penn State had more yards per play than did Auburn, 4.3 per play for PSU and 4.1 per play for Auburn.
Here are the individual rushing stats:
Larry Johnson  20-72
Zack Mills      9-56
Mike Robinson   5-30
Gerald Smith    1-10
Paul Jefferson  1- 2
The individual passing stats:
Zack Mills     8-24-1-67
Mike Robinson  2- 3-0-31
The individual receiving stats:
Tony Johnson     2-54
Matt Kranchick   2-15
Larry Johnson    2- 8
Mike Robinson    2- 7
Sean McHugh      1- 8
Casey Williams   1- 6

I gave you the individual stats, but at this point in the discussion, I'm more concerned with the team stats. They show that PSU had 36 rushing attempts and 27 passing attempts, but that is not entirely accurate. At Penn State they call the boxscore you see in the newspaper "quickie stats". That sort of tells you that this is merely a starting point when looking at how the game was played.
The rushing attempts and passing attempts in the boxscore are outcome-based stats, they are not exactly descriptive of what Penn State attempted to do that day. To further explain what I am trying to convey, suppose Penn State attempts to throw the ball but Zack Mills is flushed from the pocket and scrambles out of bounds. That goes down in the boxscore as a rushing attempt when in reality Penn State was trying to throw the ball on that play.
At the Penn State website for athletics at gopsusports.com you can find some of the stats kept by the football staff assistants during the game. These stats are available to the media almost instantly after each game. These stats are very valuable to the staff in helping them assess the quality of the game planning and the execution of the game plan itself.
For instance, they keep what they call a drive chart and log these drives for both teams. Here is some sample data from the drive charts they keep.  These are the lines for two of Penn State's scoring drives against Auburn:
PSU  1st A15 13:33  Fumble  A04  10:26 *FIELD GOAL  6-11  03:07
PSU  2nd A43 03:41  Punt    A10  01:44 *FIELD GOAL  8-33  01:57

If you closely examine the first line you'll read from left to right that on Penn State's first drive against Auburn that the Nittany Lions started at the Auburn 15 yard line with 13:33 remaining in the first quarter, they got the ball when Auburn fumbled, the drive ended at the Auburn 4 yard line at the 10:26 mark with a successful field goal, PSU ran 6 plays for 11 total yards and that 3 minutes and 7 seconds elapsed off the clock during this particular drive.
The Penn State website illustrates the drive data in two different formats. The first shows all of Auburn's drives listed together and then all of Penn State's drives listed separately. The second format shows the drives in chronological sequence - the first Auburn drive, then the first Penn State drive, then the second Auburn drive, then the second Penn State drive...etc.
The website goes on to show the individual defensive stats and then the "quickie stats", or boxscore. After that they show a player participation sheet before going on to show you what is known as the "Play Sheets". This is where they hand out a running play list for the entire game.
The Play Sheet gives you, from left to right, the down and distance, the spot on the field, the player and type of play (rush or pass), and the number of yards gained or lost. Penalties are also listed.
The Penn State website then gives you something I find of great value, the Play Breakdown Summary. This summary gives you the play breakdown as measured against the down and distance situations that arise in any given game. This chart will tell you how many run plays were made (not called) for any given down and distance situation.
These stats will typically not match up with those found in the box score for a variety of reasons, some of which I'll get into later. For instance, the box score says we threw 27 passes, but the play breakdown summary says 29. Well, the difference arises because the play breakdown summary is looking more at the "called plays" than "executed plays", and there is a difference.
The difference is in the sacks taken which result in run plays being counted in the boxscore but stay as pass plays in the play breakdown summary. However, even these stats can be subject to interpretation. For instance, I count only 32 true run plays of the 63 plays we had in the game, and even one of those was really a pass play where Mills scrambled downfield (this play occurred on the first play of our final drive).
Here is some sample data from Penn State's Play Breakdown Summary as detailed by the Penn State Football Staff:
Down                  Run Pass  Total

1ST DOWN.............  15   11     26
2ND DOWN-SHORT.......   2    1      3
2ND DOWN-MIDDLE......   2    1      3
2ND DOWN-LONG........   8    9     17
3RD DOWN-SHORT.......   2    0      2
3RD DOWN-MIDDLE......   4    0      4
3RD DOWN-LONG........   1    7      8
4TH DOWN.............   0    0      0

OVERALL..............  34   29     63
Penn State's website closes out the stats by listing each of the plays by down and distance. In essence, they take the chart above and break it down. For instance, on 2nd and long situations shown above you can see that Penn State had 8 run plays and 9 pass plays. Penn State will go so far as to actually break down where the plays went.
For instance, here is the data from the 2nd and long pass plays.

2-17   P30 #11    34
2-8    A10 #11
2-11   P38 #11
2-10   A37 #11    20
2-10   A43 #24
2-10   P35 #39
2-10   P20 #93     6
2-15   P13 #    SACK
2-10   A17 # 
The first line above tells you that on a 2nd and 17 to go situation from the Penn State 30 yard line Penn State threw a pass to #11, Tony Johnson, and that the pass was completed for 34 yards. The second line has no yards gained, so you know that pass fell incomplete. Some of the pass plays they don't list an intended target, and that is because the QB's intended target is impossible to ascertain given the way the play unfolded.
The run play summary is crystal clear and easy to figure out. The summary shows you who ran the ball. These are fairly straight forward stats.
The pass summary isn't quite that easy. The summary shows you where the passes went in the game, but it doesn't tell you what they were attempting to accomplish.
For instance, suppose Penn State calls a play where Mills has three options, a deep route 20+ yards downfield, a medium route ten yards downfield, and a short route 5 yards downfield. Suppose the blocking breaks down quickly and he is forced to take the short bail out route.  The summary will show a pass thrown 5 yards downfield, but it won't show the intended desire to get the ball 20+ yards downfield.
If you look at the summary you can see that Penn State threw passes to the following receivers:
#42 Sean McHugh     - 1
#19 Gerald Smith    - 1
#93 Casey Williams  - 1
#39 Paul Jefferson  - 2
#12 Mike Robinson   - 2
#5 Larry Johnson    - 3
#88 Matt Kranchik   - 3
#11 Tony Johnson    - 5
#24 Bryant Johnson  - 5
Unknown             - 6

I personally tabulated other stats from this game in an effort to shows trends. Here are some of the stats I charted from the game.
Called run plays  32
Called pass plays 31 (scrambles and sacks included)
Of the 32 run plays:
First  down   15
Second down   11
Third  down    6
From center   26
From shotgun   6
run plays that went right 13
run plays that went left  15
run plays up the middle    4
option plays 8 (spread option 6, scissor option 2)
flanker reverse 1
QB draw      5
QB sneak     1
FB dive      1
delay/draw   5
other       11
Of the 31 called pass plays:
First  down......... 11
Second down......... 11
Third  down......... 10
Plays where blocking failed.... 7 to 9 (judgment call)
Coverage sacks................. unknown
designed rollouts 3
passes thrown 10 yards or less..... 15
between 10 and 20 yards............  5
over 20 yards......................  6
unknown............................  5
Note - some of the shorter passes were bail out passes, dump offs to the backs. These plays are often intended to go farther downfield.
From shotgun................. 16
From QB under center......... 15
Out patterns................... 8
Screen passes.................. 2
Post/seam...................... 1
Deep post...................... 1
stop route to TE over middle... 1
Fade........................... 2
Crossing routes................ 2
Square in...................... 2
shuffle pass................... 2
Flanker screen................. 1
Stop routes.................... 1
Dump offs...................... 2
Unknown........................ 6
Formations used by Penn State:
Power I / 2 WR / 1 TE............... 21 times used
Shotgun / 1 back /3 WR.............. 15 times used
I / 3 WR............................ 10 times used
Shotgun / split backs / 2 WR........  7 times used
Power I / 1 WR / 2 TE...............  6 times used
Offset Power I / 2 WR / 1 TE........  3 times used (this is the "h" back set)
Full house (2 TE, 2 FB, 1 TB).......  1 time used
Auburn Defense:
- Auburn had 8 men in the box only 11 times against 63 offensive plays
- Auburn ran 2 safety blitzes
- Auburn ran 4 LB blitzes
- Auburn was in a standard 4-3 almost the entire game and switched to an unbalanced 4-3 less than ten times during the game
- Auburn used a 6 man front only once the entire game not counting our two 3rd and very short situations.
- Auburn played mainly a two deep zone when we were using 2 wideouts
- Auburn went to a one deep zone when Penn State used three wideouts
- On Penn State run plays the AU safeties, particularly #5, played incredibly well
- Auburn corners did not stay blocked in this game
- Auburn defensive line caused numerous broken plays
Some important hidden stats for this game are:
Auburn - 32:11 in time of possession
PSU    - 27:49 in time of possession
Auburn - 7 of 16 third down conversions
PSU    - 3 of 14 third down conversions
A quick perusal of the drive summary data shows that Penn State had twelve possessions in the game. If you remove the final possession of the first half because it was for one play only, you realistically get 11 possessions for Penn State. A quick look at the chart shows that Penn State had four realistic chances to put points on the board in this defensive struggle of a game. Three ended in field goals made and one in a missed field goal attempt.
For comparison's sake, prior to the end of the game hurry up offense, Auburn had four scoring chances of their own. They had a field goal attempt blocked, scored a TD, were stopped on downs, and scored a late TD.
The above is the whole game in essence. Auburn scored when they had the chances and Penn State didn't.
The drive summary data will almost always tell you where to look to find out just how a team loses a game. If you look at the four good chances Penn State had deep into Auburn territory, here is what happened:
Penn State's first chance:
Penn State had a first and goal from the four within minutes of the start of the game. The drive stalls when a pass into the end zone falls incomplete and is sandwiched by two QB draw plays that are stopped for no gain. The Auburn safeties make both run stops with sure tackles.
Penn State's second chance:
The next time Penn State gets close, they get all the way to the Auburn 17 yard line where they proceed to become their own worst enemy. A pass is completed for no gain, then an incomplete pass, then back to back false starts back them up 10 yards to the Auburn 27. A screen pass goes 11 yards on 3rd down before they miss a 33 yard field goal attempt.
Penn State had an excellent opportunity here to get seven points and they squandered it in a variety of ways. Firstly, had their been no false starts the 11 yard gain on the screen pass may have been enough to get a first down at the six yard line. There is no guarantee that such a play would have worked had we needed only ten yards instead of twenty, but you never know.
Also, I doubt many Penn State fans noticed this, but on the first false start Penn State was about to run a play they had installed just for this game - a half back pass from Larry Johnson to Tony Johnson. If you watch the replay closely you can see it developing. I saw it live at the game and can tell you for a fact that Tony Johnson was wide open in the end zone. Larry was going to throw the ball to him. Both safeties had bitten on the play and Tony was open in the end zone for an easy score, but the false start killed the play. An opportunity lost.
Penn State's third chance:
Near the end of the half Penn State gets to the Auburn 12 yard line where they net two yards on a broken play before throwing two passes incomplete in the end zone. One of those two passes was a barely missed fade route to Tony Johnson. PSU did get three points here, but came oh so close to getting seven. That's the difference in games like this.
Penn State's fourth chance:
Penn State got down to the Auburn 11 yard where they faced a 2nd and 2 yards to go situation. On the next play, Larry Johnson is tackled for a loss when the defensive tackle comes in almost unblocked. The following play Michael Robinson is tackled for another loss when the safety and one outside LB easily shed blocks and tackle him.
There were no fancy schemes employed by the Auburn defense on these drives. Just your basic 4-3 with an occasional shift and blitz mixed in. Nothing fancy. Just hard-nosed football.
Auburn had four chances too. Twice PSU stopped them, twice they scored. In my opinion, there were four key plays in this game when Auburn had the ball.
On Auburn's first touchdown drive they faced a 3rd and 7 play from our 16 yard line and their QB converted the play with an 11 yard scramble to the Penn State 5 yard line. Then after Penn State held their ground, the Tigers faced a fourth and goal at the one yard line which they converted.
The third key play in the game for Auburn was a punt that they had come down at PSU's 1-foot line. That punt placed Penn State in serious jeopardy and the end result was that when Auburn got the ball back they were on PSU's 40 yard line and going downhill. The field position battle had been in Penn State's favor all day long until that back-breaking play.
The final key play for the Tigers was their 17 yard touchdown run.
Most of the key plays against PSU when PSU had the ball were described above, but there were two other considerations in this game that went badly for the Nittany Lions. You wouldn't see them on the play charts, but film would bring this out.
Penn State QB Zack Mills has proven to be a deadly accurate passer in the two years we have known him. The only exception to that would be the fourth quarter against Virginia last year. Yet, there have been lingering rumors that Zack's shoulder has been hurt this year. There were plays against La. Tech, Wisconsin, and Northwestern where you can easily see that he was hurt. What none of us fans know is just how badly he was hurt.
In this game there are at least six passes, maybe seven depending on how you view his last pass attempted towards Matt Kranchik, that are wildly inaccurate. These are passes that are not hurried or rushed, just wild. That's not the Zack Mills we know. Yet it is what happened against Auburn. That played a part in this game.
The other thing I noticed was that our offensive line had trouble blocking the front four of Auburn. Not physically so much, but because of mental lapses. There are six or seven key plays, three of them in a row that occur immediately following Auburn's first score, where our offensive line fails it's assignments and allows defenders to come in either poorly blocked or unblocked.
The combination of the blocking failures and the inability of the QB's to throw accurately to open receivers had a major impact on Penn State's game plan. This was particularly acute on the drive that came right after Auburn had finally gotten on the board. The Tigers had momentum and their crowd was stacked at that end of the field where PSU had the ball. They were loud.
Penn State was trying to get the ball downfield more in this game than what it may appear is the case when you look at the play summaries. Some of the short passes are really just third options in a progression read. The scrambles and dump offs? Same thing at times.
When you combine the failure to execute on a play that was inserted for this game (which was set up and appeared as though it would have worked), some suspect blocking at critical times, wobbly passes...etc., that's how you lose a football game.
The thing to do from here is to just go back to the training room, work hard, get in the best shape you can in the off season and try to improve your game. I'm sure the players and coaches are doing just that too.
Can spring football get here soon enough?

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