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How Penn State’s all-or-nothing, walk-off touchdown vs. Iowa worked

PSU used its all-world running back as just a blocker, and that was the right choice.

Here’s the play that lifted No. 4 Penn State over Iowa on Saturday, a 7-yard touchdown pass from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson as time expired:

If Penn State goes on to win the Big Ten and play in the Playoff this year, it’ll go down as one of the great plays in school history. If not, it’ll still be memorable. For the time being, it’s the reason Penn State is 4-0 and still a top-five team.

On the decisive play, Penn State did something pretty bold.

It kept running back Saquon Barkley, who had 305 total yards so far, in to block.

That turned out to be a good decision. The Hawkeyes blitzed six guys, determined that the best way to stop Penn State was just to put McSorley on the ground. It’s possible that one linebacker only blitzed because Barkley wasn’t running a route. That would’ve been a good matchup for Penn State if Barkley had been, though, and engaging him carried the risk that Barkley could’ve just run past him and been free.

Because Barkley stayed home with five linemen, Penn State had six blockers to match the blitzers. McSorley had all the time he needed. He had four receivers running routes against five defenders, a numbers disadvantage. But PSU got over that.

The Nittany Lions lined up in a tight set.

They used 11 personnel: one running back (Barkley) and one tight end (Mike Gesicki). The tight end was lined up like an H-back, which probably gave Iowa some pause that he’d be used as a blocker on a running play or a shovel pass. Running on the game-and-7 would’ve been bold, but Barkley’s the best offensive player in the country.

The Lions’ formation:

The tight set wasn’t deceiving. Penn State worked the middle.

Gesicki was the only Penn State route-runner on the play who didn’t wind up somewhere over the middle. He ran a little out pattern to the sideline, which dragged two defenders over there with him. McSorley threw right past one of them:

That linebacker in the circle was instantly useless to Iowa’s defense. Penn State likely never intended to throw to Gesicki, but he’d gotten that guy away from traffic.

Suddenly, Penn State had a three-on-three over the middle.

Slot receiver DaeSean Hamilton (No. 5) ran a switch pattern with outside receiver DeAndre Thompkins (No. 3). The idea there is to create some chaos, not unlike a pick in basketball. Maybe someone gets free for a split-second, and McSorley can hit him.

Thompkins ran a crossing route just short of the goal line. That kept the defender on him a little bit south of Hamilton and Johnson (No. 84), the eventual touchdown-catcher.

By the end, Penn State had really condensed things.

Both Hamilton and Johnson had outrun the guys who were covering them. Johnson did that with a nice route, faking outside and then cutting inward. They did such good work that if Johnson had wanted to, he could’ve just let McSorley’s bullet pass go by him, and Hamilton could’ve caught it himself.

McSorley still had to make a difficult throw. Iowa DB Amani Hooker (No. 27), who’d been covering the shallower-crossing Thompkins, got pretty high up in the air and almost knocked the ball down in traffic.

But Penn State’s routes created a window over the middle, and McSorley made sure he didn’t miss it while it was open.

Barkley was crucial, even without touching the ball.

If he’d missed on a blitzing linebacker, McSorley wouldn’t have had the time for his receivers’ routes to develop. If Gesicki hadn’t pulled a linebacker out of the middle, McSorley wouldn’t have had a throwing lane. And if Johnson and Hamilton hadn’t run sharp routes, none of it would’ve mattered anyway.

This was a puzzle. All the pieces fit together just right.