Craig has the Scout - Penn State 2018
Who: Penn State Nittany Lions
When: 8:00 pm - September 21st, 2018
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: James Franklin. It's hard to believe, but James Franklin was sitting on a big old question mark in 2016. He had fired his OC, and brought in Joe Moorhead to spearhead his offense. Moorhead's offense took a while to get going, then exploded on the scene, taking the Nittany Lions to the Rose Bowl. Moorhead moved to Mississippi State last season, and now Ricky Rahne takes over.
Offensive Style: Muddled. The aforementioned Ricky Rahne takes over the Joe Moorhead playbook. Rahne first worked with Franklin at Kansas State on Ron Prince's staff, then followed Franklin to Vanderbilt. He has been on the Franklin staff since, and is more a disciple of John Donovan than Joe Moorhead. Rahne has taken the playbook left by Moorhead, and is trying to recreate the magic Moorhead brought. Rahne has yet to fully capture the magic.
Defensive Style: Jim Pry and Tim Banks are the co-DCs for the Nittany Lions. The Defense is a true 4 man defensive front, running the Banks 2-5 back end, complete with a STAR. The defense blitzes less than when Banks was at Illinois, but the stunts are pretty similar. Pry was a coach at East Stroudsburg when Franklin played there, and has been on his staff since Vanderbilt, most as a co-DC. Banks was dumped by Cubit, and moved to Penn State. If I were a betting man, I would say that Banks calls most of the plays.
Specialists: DeAndre Thompkins and KJ Hamler are as dangerous a pair of returners as the Illini will see all season. Thompkins is the primary kick returner, and has taken one to the house this year already. Hamler does both kick and punt returns, and has returned a punt to the house already. McLaughlin should neutralize Thompkins, but the Illini coverage team will need to keep Blake Hayes' net punting at 41 ypp.
Three Things to Watch
Illinois pulling guards vs. the Penn State DEs. The Illini are going to need to create angles for the offensive line this week, pure reach zone blocks will be tough against the Nittany Lion defense. Illinois found some success against a similar DL last week running the counter, and Pitt had success using it against the Nittany Lions as well. The key is for the Illini guards to clear the lane for the backs.
Illini DEs vs. the read option. The Illini DEs did a poor job last week maintaining discipline on the read option, and Blake Barnett broke a couple of long runs against them because of it. McSorley will be looking to take similar advantage, and if he doesn't Miles Sanders will. The pair of McSorley and Sanders are averaging 150 yards per game, and for two of those they were barely operating.
The Illini receiving corps vs. the Nittany Lions secondary. MJ Rivers will need to have his hot read keys ready this week. The Nittany Lions will stunt extensively and blitz often. Rivers will need the receivers to create some separation to relieve the pressure.
Scouting Review - Offense
James Franklin was under fire after the 2015 season for a lackluster season. The team finished 7-6, and 4-4 in conference. Franklin was brought to Penn State to bring them out of the post JoePa sanctions doldrums, and after consecutive 7-6 seasons the fanbase was restless.
Franklin replaced offensive coordinator John Donovan (an assistant who had worked with Franklin all the way back to his Ralph Friedgen days) and replaced him with Joe Moorhead. Moorhead was fresh off three consecutive playoff appearances with Fordham. Moorhead moved to Fordham after UConn coach Randy Edsall moved to Maryland, and did not take Moorhead with him. Moorhead was demoted to quarterbacks coach by Paul Pasqualoni at UConn, and then bolted after a season. He had a great four year run at Fordham, making them New York's one true team.
Moorhead's offense struggled to gain traction in the first half of the season in 2016, then it caught fire. The result was a B1G championship and a Rose Bowl appearance. Moorhead was a wizard with the play sheet.
Moorhead parlayed that success into the Mississippi State gig this offseason, and Franklin went back to his own tree and hired Ricky Rahne. The question now is, is the magic in the playsheet or the man calling the shots.
The offense operates as a spread tempo offense. The quarterback is the lynchpin, and the reason the offense took so long to gel in 2016. All plays are based off of a concept, and then the plays are an extension of the concept. The play then is a series of reads by the skill players.
The offense doesn't do a lot of window dressing with formations (they primarily run three, a 3x1, a 2x2 and an empty backfield). Instead, the receivers option their routes based on defensive alignment varying the look of the same play.
The first concept that Penn State will run is an RPO read option inside zone. The Nittany Lions' OL will step to away from the read and utilize a strong point of attack between the guards, with the read on the DE. If the DE does not crash the run, it is a give. That example is here.
McSorley has two options after the dive. He can deep off the end, or throw a pass into the flat. McSorley is solid at reads, and like Barnett and Barrett before him is a dangerous enough runner to do some damage. Here is McSorley on the keep with a crashing DE.
Penn State will run this play about 40% of the game. The Nittany Lions have a strong stable of RBs, and may rotate in Tommy Stephens at QB (the better runner of the QBs) for a few series to run just this play.
The next wrinkle in the run game is the Dart play. This is reasonably unique in that the Nittany Lions will pull the strong side tackle across the formation and drive block the angles against the defensive front.
The Penn State front will utilize this look to take advantage of the defensive tackles and to eliminate risk of DL penetration. In this play, the 3 technique gets some penetration and the back cuts it back. The Illini LBs have struggle with this cross blocking action this season.
The next concept they run is a split zone RPO. The offense will make the run pass read prior to the snap, and they ran this with middling success against Appalachian State. The play utilizes the H back pulling across the formation and kicking out the end. The back will begin the play moving toward the H back before following the pulling blocker and cut up the B gap between the guard and tackle.
Appalachian State blew this play up by crashing the DE down hard and holding the point of attack.
Penn State runs a play action off of this action as well.
The route tree on this is two go routes and a 15 yard in route. McSorley went for it, but would have had the slot come wide open with more patience. Illinois has lost receivers in that intermediate zone this season.
Penn State will primarily use RPOs in the pass game, or a version of play action pass. This has been very successful against the Illini defense, and Penn State will use it well. When the Nittany Lions do run passes, they flood zones. They do it differently depending on formation and coverages. Against Cover 4, they run levels crossing the middle of the field, with one receiver running a crossing route at 5 yards, another coming the other direction at 10 yards, and typically a post deep. This isolates the slot on a linebacker normally. Against the Cover 1 and Cover 2 Illinois normally uses, they will run floods to a side.
Illinois will need to run press coverage on the edges to prevent this, and then have well above average safety coverage. Illinois can bottle this up for a large portion of the game, but eventually Penn State will break a deep ball over the top with the flood.
Trace McSorley is a top notch college quarterback. James Franklin has recruited very well at Penn State and surrounded McSorley with top flight skill talent. The Penn State offensive line is good not great, but with the mobility of McSorley have only allowed a sack per game. With the Illini defensive line struggling to generate pressure, the offensive line should give McSorley all the time he needs to generate big plays on Friday.
Scouting Review - Defense
Penn State runs a 4-2-5 defense. The Nittany Lions utilize the Safety/LB hybrid STAR in the system, but not the LEO Banks ran at Illinois. Against heavy formations, the Nittany Lions tend to walk the STAR and another safety tighter to the line of scrimmage presenting a 4-4 look to most opposing offenses. Against a 3 wide out look, the defense will be easily identified as a 4-2-5 with two high safeties.
The Nittany Lions decouple the defensive backfield from the front 6 in the game plan. The front 4 have a call, and the LBs will use run/pass keys that align to the front four. The back 5 then run a coverage that compliments the LBs.
The setup is working well for the Nittany Lions. They stunt the front four often, especially on passing downs. The Nittany Lions blitz packages usually involve overloading a side of the offensive blocking scheme
Illinois has struggled to consistently provide protection on passing downs, so expect to see this blitz often on Friday night.
Penn State leads the B1G in sacks with 13. Illinois has allowed the most in the conference. Penn State generates most of the pressure with line stunts.
Stunts have caused issues for the Illini OL, and the slide protection they utilize makes communication key. Penn State will mix up where the blitz is coming from, and stunt while matching a blitz to confuse the Illini blocking. This is a very effective way to tie up 7 blockers with 4-5 rushers as South Florida showed last weekend.
Penn State's defense is not the monster of 2017. As opposed to a top 5 unit of a year ago, Penn State merely has a top 20 defense this year. By contrast, South Florida has a top 60 defense. Illinois will move the ball, and the improvement Illinois has shown over the course of the year will mean they will score points. Without a total breakdown by the Nittany Lions though, Illinois will not consistently move the ball.
What does it mean?
So far, Penn State's offense is performing at nearly the same level as last season, and that is after losing Saquon Barkley. The offensive load has been spread over the entire offense, and they continue to score and move the ball. The offense is very erratic though, similar to last year. When they are in sync, they are explosive. When they get out of kilter, they struggle mightily.
The Penn State defense is a strong unit, but has seen a drop off from a year ago. Appalachian State moved the ball with ease, picking apart the zone. Pitt moved the ball, but struggled to score. The Illini offense is on par with Pitt's so I expect a similar outcome for the Illini offense.
For Illinois to Win:
The Illini need to slow down the Penn State pressure on MJ Rivers. Rivers needs some time to operate, and that means the OL needs to give him protection to get some reads in. Additionally, the OL will need to win man to man blocking at the point of attack against the Nittany Lion DL. If Illinois can do these two things, and create turnovers, they can win the game.
For Penn State to Win:
Penn State needs to stay within itself, and not take a page out of the South Florida playbook and kill themselves. Trace McSorley is a dangerous runner, and a more dangerous passer. If the Penn State OL can provide a clean pocket for McSorley, he will be able to pick apart the underneath coverages of the Illini.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions need to continually pressure Rivers and force him to make quick decisions. He tends to clam up a bit, and this paralyzes the Illini offense.
Four touchdowns is a ton of points. Illinois will be bringing back quite a few players from suspension, which should add some depth to the defense. Illinois can cover this if they keep Penn St. in the low 40s. I think they give up about 45 on Friday, and I think they will score on Penn State. I just don't think they will score into the 20s. I'll take Penn State to cover.
YTD Against the Spread: