In one of the most important games of the season Saturday against Penn State, coach Steve Addazio made a questionable coaching decision that potentially cost the Owls the game.
Addazio benched redshirt-junior quarterback Mike Gerardi in the second quarter. Until that point, Gerardi had completed four passes for 51 yards and led the team to a touchdown on its first drive of the game. But the Nittany Lions’ defense tightened up after the Cherry and White offense’s fast start and the Owls were forced to punt on their next three possessions.
It was then that Addazio turned to redshirt-senior quarterback Chester Stewart on the Owls’ fifth drive of the game. The move was so confusing that there were questions about whether or not Gerardi had been injured.
Yes, the offense had been stopped on three straight possessions. Yes, Penn State had just tied the game with a touchdown of its own. But there was virtually nothing from Gerardi’s performance until that point that warranted his benching. Addazio pointed to a lack of success in the run game as the reason for the switch.
“We thought if we struggled in the run game against that defensive front, we would go to [Stewart] and start to exercise some spread option,” Addazio said. “I still feel good about that. I think that was the right time to do that.”
But the offense crippled under Stewart. Stewart led the Owls into Nittany Lions’ territory on his first drive, which resulted in a 40-yard field goal by Owls’ junior placekicker Brandon McManus. However, following the field goal, the Cherry and White offense suffered four straight three-and-outs.
Despite Addazio’s intention to run the spread, Stewart’s inability to complete passes downfield rendered the passing game totally fruitless. It destroyed the offense’s ability to be multiple, which allowed Penn State to stack the box and continue to dominate against the run.
“We needed to be able to throw the ball to win that game,” Addazio said. “We needed to be able to get the ball down the field. We did not execute that. It didn’t happen.”
“I thought we were running the ball all right at first,” Gerardi said. “They started stacking the box a little more. It affects the game plan a little bit without the ability to have an effective play action. Ultimately, I think you have to do a better job throwing the ball.”
Perhaps it was the fact that Addazio has such a rich history of success of running the spread at Florida that he thought it would translate at Temple. Perhaps it was the fact that this is Addazio’s first year and he hasn’t witnessed Stewart’s play over the past few years that wasn’t good enough to earn him a starting role in his fifth year with the team. But Addazio’s idea to spread the field with Stewart is puzzling in hindsight.
“We weren’t converting first downs,” Addazio said. “We tried to throw the ball a little bit, to loosen that up a little bit. The power run game was not there at that point.”
But the run game wasn’t even given a chance in the second half. Pierce, who rushed for six touchdowns and nearly 300 yards in his first two games of the season, had only four rushes in the entire second half.
“I don’t care who gets the ball,” said a visibly emotional Pierce after the game. “As long as we can keep scoring I’m fine with it.”
Pierce added that he was the most disappointed he’s felt after a loss in his career, and I can’t help but feel that he wished he could’ve done more, but wasn’t given a chance. Addazio chose to center the offense around Stewart rather than his superstar running back.
“Early, I felt like we had some seams and room to run the ball a little bit, but towards the end I didn’t feel that that much,” Addazio said.
Gerardi came back into the game in the fourth quarter and threw two costly interceptions that allowed the Nittany Lions to come back and win, but I don’t think Penn State should have even been in position to come back in the first place. The Owls had four chances to add to their three-point lead with Stewart at quarterback and failed all four times.
“We should’ve had it,” Pierce said. “We had it and we gave it up.”
Moving forward, Addazio said that whichever quarterback can run the most balanced offense will start in the future. Addazio added that while the loss to Penn State was disappointing, he won’t let it define the season.
“As upset as we are, and with what we know we have to get corrected, it’s my job as the leader of this football team to keep this going positively,” Addazio said. “And that’s we’re gonna do.”