109,626. That's how many people are here in State College, Pa., to see if Illinois can slow down Penn State's new Spread HD offense. The crowd—larger than the population of Erie or Berkeley or Green Bay—is sitting through this rainy, late-September night to watch 22 guys knock the snot out of one another. But no matter whose number is called in the Nittany Lions' grab-bag offense, all eyes will be on me, because everyone is here to watch football. And I am the football.
I have a confession to make. I've never seen the field—not in a real, live game anyway, and barely in practice. Every year, Penn State's equipment manager, Spider Caldwell, rips open large boxes containing 225 balls sent by Nike. The boxes don't come from Swoosh headquarters in Oregon. They don't even come from the Philippines, where all of us Nike 3005 balls are born.
Instead, they come from a company called the Big Game, in Frisco, Texas, which tattoos us with a metallic blue Nittany Lions logo before shipping us to our final destination.Spider takes us out of our boxes and rubs us with a wet towel, to remove a red, waxy film. Quarterback Daryll Clark doesn't like the red, waxy film.Neither do any of the receivers or running backs. Pretty much no one likes it, except when it rains, when unwaxed balls weigh more than a nose tackle.
After the rubdown,the team beats a lot of balls up in practice for a few weeks, until we're more brown than red and hardly slippery at all. Then and only then does Clark, a junior and the guy who decides which balls Penn State will use in a game, even think about which among us will be one of the chosen.
That's normal. But the forecast tonight called for rain, in which case normal flies out the window and each team supplies 16 balls instead of 12. The players tend to prefer newer ones that haven't been handled as much (like yours truly) and still have some red, waxy film. I passed Clark's test. Then the officials gave me a pregame inspection—the ref marked me and my buddies with a red Sharpie dash for identification—and now I'm ready to debut. In a Big Ten battle. Between ranked teams.
No wonder I'm sweating. Everyone probably assumes that it's just the drizzle on my pebbly cowhide. (Don't call me a pigskin. I am pure bovine. They stopped making us from pig parts decades ago.) But it's not the rain. I'm totally sweating. And the Spread HD isn't helping.
In case you haven't heard of the Spread HD, it's this new, maluho (that's Tagalog for fancy) offense that puts the ball in as many different hands as possible. It's the main reason the Nittany Lions are averaging 45 points a game and have yet to lose this year. You heard me: Penn State is winning with offense. If you're a football fan, you can't help but love the Spread HD. If you're a shy, slightly neurotic, germophobic rookie ball looking for the comfort that comes from knowing you'll be in the same two or three people's hands for the better part of the game, you loathe the Spread HD.
My first drive starts with 10:16 left in the first quarter and Penn State trailing Illinois 7-0, the first time Joe Paterno's gang has been behind all season. I see a familiar face approach me as I sit on our 27-yard line. It's Clark. I'm soothed by the signal-caller's presence. I'm further relaxed by the sight of two backs, one tight end and two receivers. This is normal. This is good. This is what Penn State football is supposed to look like. Clark hands me to tailback Evan Royster, who runs up the gut for three yards. Perhaps the Spread HD has been cancelled on account of rain.
As center A.Q. Shipley (seriously, that's his name) turns my laces toward the sky in preparation for second and seven, I realize that the Spread HD has in fact not been cancelled. Instead of two receivers, I now see five: two to the left, two to the right and, get this, one in the backfield. Even though the officials don't throw a flag, I'm 96% certain that it's illegal to have this many wideouts on the field at the same time. Even if it's within the rules, it can't be safe. But Shipley snaps me to Clark, and the guy in the backfield—do-everything senior Derrick Williams—flares out to the right.
Clark lets me go, and I float gently into Williams' hands. He tucks me under his right biceps, where I'm blanketed by a large tattoo that features praying hands and the names of his parents: Dwight and Brinda.
"When I put the ball there," Williams tells a reporter after the game, "it's part of my family." During the play, I am warm and fuzzy inside. Sadly, the warmth and fuzziness lasts for only four yards.
It's now third and three from the 34, and even though Clark's laminated, miniaturized Spread HD cheat sheet contains 120 plays (30 to 40 more than last year's offense had), none are currently being signaled in by the coaching staff. Confusion ensues. Timeout. After a sideline conference, Clark takes the snap from shotgun—the very name implies danger—and decides that even though Williams and fellow senior Deon Butler are among the four receivers on the field, it would be a good idea to fire me in the direction of a guy named Graham Zug. The slight sophomore from Amish country had one catch last year, and until recently he didn't even have a scholarship. This is how spread the Spread HD is.
Flying through the air, I'm a bit surprised that Zug is on the field. But then I remember the hamstring injury to senior wideout Jordan Norwood, who—besides being part Filipino (represent!) and Penn State's fifth-leading receiver all time—earned the alias Neo last season after a one-handed, physics-defying, Matrix-like touchdown catch while lying on his back. Needless to say, I would feel much more comfortable if I were hurtling toward Neo instead of Zug. Then again, if Zug drops me, it's fourth down, the kicker ball comes out, and I'm safe and sound on the sideline, wrapped up in one of Spider's warm, dry towels. Suddenly, I like Graham Zug.
On first and 10 from our 42 (I knew all along that Zug would convert), Shipley shotguns me to Clark for one of those trendy zone-read handoffs. You know 'em, the kind when the tailback lines up next to the quarterback—the kind that made Vince Young a lottery pick. If the defensive end locks in on the tailback, the QB keeps me; if the DE keys the QB, the tailback gets me. Either way, it's a last-second decision, which is why Royster calls it "the toughest exchange we have." As chic as this play may be, I have to say that it's really not a good fit for me. Audibles have been known to make me break out in hives. I get nauseous at the mere mention of the name Peyton Manning. Nevertheless, Clark hands me to Royster, and the former high school All-America lacrosse player (he turned down Hopkins) rumbles 12 yards. First down.
In case you're keeping score at home, that's only four plays, and already offensive coordinator Galen Hall (he decides if it's a run or pass, and calls the ground game) and QB coach Jay Paterno (he calls the passes) have my laces spinning. These people have gone two wides, five wides, four wides and three wides. They've gone shotgun twice, under center twice. Ran twice, passed twice. They've used a power run, a screen, a West Coast crossing route and a zone read. It's a spread offense all right, but it's unlike anything that's out there. It's not one of those 50-passes-per-game spread offenses like Texas Tech and Missouri operate. It's not one of those QB-runs-all-the-time spread offenses, like the one at West Virginia, or the one here at Penn State circa 2005. But some balls did see this coming.
Before last year's Alamo Bowl against Texas A&M, the Lions installed a few surprise plays for the Aggies designed around Clark, then a backup QB, which led to a telling exchange at practice.
Derrick Williams: "Hey, Coach, we bringin' back the spread?"
Jay Paterno: "This is beyond the spread. It's like the HD version of the spread."
Thank you, Galen and Jay. Thank you for creating my worst nightmare. I'm thrilled, Jay, that you were inspired by a Bill Russell book in which the Celtics legend talks about how, during Boston's dynasty years, he knew all five positions on the floor. I'm tickled that Galen decided to make all the skill positions interchangeable, so that defenses would have no earthly clue what's coming next. I'm overjoyed that Penn State actually has the personnel—a starting offense with a combined GPA of 2.9 in 11 different majors—to pull this hybrid HD nonsense off.
Good for you.
Bad for me.
First and 10 from the Illini 46. Shotgun. Three wides. Motion. (There's always motion. Did I mention that I suffer from motion sickness?) It's supposed to be an out pattern, right side to Williams, but after a play-fake to Royster, Clark rolls right on a naked bootleg and decides to keep me all to himself. I'm not sure this is such a good idea. Even though he weighs 231 pounds, Clark completes nearly two-thirds of his pass attempts. He should be throwing, not running. Fifteen yards later, I realize that the big man is surprisingly light on his feet. (As a freshman, he donned a white leisure suit and danced Rerun-style to the Sugarhill Gang, in front of the entire team.) If I didn't already have 20,000 raised pebbles on my skin, I'd have goose bumps.
That makes five plays and 42 yards in barely two minutes. As much as I don't like all these different people touching me—thank goodness most of them wear gloves—the Spread HD does get the job done very quickly. "Last year, we had these boring 10-minute drives," Shipley says. "Now, we go right down the field. It's fun." Easy for him to say. He doesn't have 219,252 eyeballs glued to his every move.
First and 10 again, from the Illini 31. Shotgun again. Three wides again.
More motion. (Are those grass stains, or am I turning green?) It's another zone read, only this time instead of handing me off, Clark airmails me to Butler—Penn State's second-leading receiver all time—for a 19-yard gain. Just 12 yards from the end zone, I sense that my suffering is nearly over.
After an 11-yard carry by Royster and an offsides penalty by Illinois, I'm two feet away from the end zone and (finally) Spider's warm, dry towel. For the first time this drive, I see a one-receiver set. I see two backs and two tight ends. I see old-school Penn State. And for the first time all night, I know just what's coming. I see a quarterback sneak. I'm positively giddy. Until I'm snapped, at which point it occurs to me that all 109,626 fans—and those 11 Illini coiled in the end zone—also know what's going to happen. The result? A dozen or so extra hands swatting at me, and roughly a ton of extra poundage landing right on top of me.
And a touchdown.
Come to think of it, I don't mind the Spread HD at all.