LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tyler Warren started playing at Penn State in 2020. Nothing about that COVID-19-hindered season made sense to him.
“Really, like my first year of college football, it’s more like 2021 from a normality perspective,” the Nittany Lions’ third-year sophomore tight end said. “It was really its own thing.”
With ninth-ranked Penn State preparing to face seventh-ranked Utah in the Rose Bowl on Monday, the presence of both teams in a New Year’s Six game reflects just how strange the 2020 season was for two of the more steady programs in the sport.
The Nittany Lions went 4-5 that year, the only losing record in coach James Franklin’s nine seasons in charge.
The Utes went 3-2, with two games not played because of positives tests among players prior to their rescheduled opener. It marked the only time in the past five years Utah did not play for the Pac-12 title.
However, some of the lessons from that unprecedented season helped set the stage for future success. One example is the zone scheme that Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley was forced to introduce in his passing defense.
“That season did provide some adversity in the sense that we’re a man coverage team, and a lot of prep for that season, just because of COVID rules and regulations, we couldn’t press. We couldn’t do some things in practice that you normally do,” Scalley said.
That change gave Scalley added flexibility in how he has been able to use his secondary ever since, and that ability to mix coverages helped Utah finish second in the conference in yards passing allowed at 218.3 per game and third in pass efficiency this season.
“We learned a lot about what we liked about zone coverage, and so you take kind of what you were forced to do and you take the best of both worlds, who we are and kind of things that we liked from that season,” he said.
Conversely, Penn State was trying to install a new offensive system in 2020 under then-offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. Restrictions on meetings and workouts hindered the learning process for players, center Juice Scruggs said.
“It’s just hard to really install how you got to over Zoom,” Scruggs said. “It was just really hard to, like, get the chemistry and everything together off of a Zoom call. It’s just not the same as in-person.”
Mike Yurcich, who took over as offensive coordinator in 2021 when Ciarrocca was fired after one season, was dealing with the same issues while holding the same position at Texas.
“I think the hard part when you’re doing virtual (coaching) is evaluating how efficient the teaching is and how they’re grabbing the material,” Yurcich said. “Now, there’s ways to try to grab it and ask and make sure that they can spit it back. But to get on the field and see how it translates was the difficult part.”
Complicating matters, Yurcich noted, was that the reduction in face-to-face contact made it harder to figure out the best way to teach a specific player.
Some can pick up concepts from hearing a coach’s instructions. Others need to see it diagrammed on the board or from video clips. And then there are those who figure things out by doing them on the practice field.
“You couldn’t touch it and feel it,” he said.
There were other limitations. Warren didn’t have free use of the weight room as a freshman, so he focused on nutrition to develop his body. The typical adjustments to social life and the college classroom had to be delayed.
Even getting familiar with playing in the raucous environment of Beaver Stadium in front of 106,572 fans was on hold.
“Coming in, it was definitely weird,” Warren said. “It was different, so we got through that, but it’s good now.”