Craig Has The Scout - Penn State 2020
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Who: Penn State Nittany Lions
When: 4:30 pm CST, December 19th, 2020
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, PA
Head Coach: James Franklin. Franklin has famously removed himself from his family this season. His wife and children are living in Florida while he coaches Penn State. He lost his OC from last year to Old Dominion, and through the first five games appears to have misplaced his defense. In those games, Penn State gave up 30 points every game. In the current three game winning streak they are holding opponents to an average of 16 ppg. The dramatic change has turned around the season for the Nittany Lions. It also underscores that Franklin has had considerable turnover in Happy Valley on offense. Every change results in a slow start integrating the new coaches.
Offensive Style: Spread option heavy on the RPOs. James Franklin is in his 7th year as head coach at Penn State. In that time, he is on his 4th OC. He started with John Donovan, with whom he had years of experience with, before firing him after the 2015 season. Joe Moorhead took over for the 2016-2017 seasons before taking over Mississippi State. Franklin promoted long-time assistant Ricky Rahne in 2018, only to have him leave for the Old Dominion job in the 2020 off-season. Franklin went out this offseason and poached the OC with the 3rd best scoring offense in the B1G last season, Kirk Ciarrocca from Minnesota. Ciarrocca has spent most of his career out East, and is older than any of the OCs Franklin has had at Penn State (like, still the oldest today, six years after Donovan was fired, he is still younger than Ciarrocca). Ciarrocca runs a pure spread option, and runs the highest percentage of RPOs in the B1G.
Defensive Style: 4-2-5 Cover 3. Brent Pry continues to call the defense in Happy Valley, but shares coordinator duties with Tim Banks. The base defense for the Nittany Lions would look familiar to Illini fans from the Beckman era as this is essentially the same D Banks ran at Illinois. The Nittany Lions employ a hybrid safety/linebacker (this could be called a 4-3) and use this personnel pretty much the whole game. The back end will switch between a single high safety look and a Cover 2 back end shell. They are running Cover 3 almost exclusively this season, whereas they used more Cover 2 historically.
Specialists: Penn State has the best punt return game in the B1G, including a punt return for a TD last week against Michigan State. Jahan Dotson is an aggressive returner and the Nittany Lions will give him chances to flip field position for them.
Three Things to Watch
Turnover Margin. Penn State is one of the worst teams in turnover margin in the conference this season (-9). In any game Penn State has lost the turnover battle, they have lost the game this season.
Red Zone Conversions. Illinois and Penn State are two of the worst teams in the conference at converting red zone possessions into points. The Nittany Lions convert 45% of their chances into TDs and another 29% into FGs (74% overall). Illinois converts 42% of their chances into TDs, and another 25% into FGs. That places Penn State 110th nationally, while Illinois is 120th. They both rank in the bottom of the conference in preventing opponents from scoring as well. The team that breaks from historical trends holds a massive advantage.
Chase Brown Rushing Yards. When Illinois is able to get Brown going and he gains 100 yards rushing, the Illini are 2-0. When he doesn't, they are 0-5. With Rod Smith running the whole show, I expect Illinois to pick up the tempo and feed Brown more this week.
Scouting Review - Offense
Kirk Ciarrocca has the resume of a MAC or Ivy League lifer coach. Ciarrocca has deep East Coast roots, first as a player at Temple, then later as Joe Flacco's OC at Delaware. Ciarrocca has always employed big passing offenses as an OC. Ciarrocca was lured from Delaware by Greg Schiano in 2008 where he was the OC for a young, brash WR coach named PJ Fleck. Ciarrocca was fired by Schiano (a pass heavy OC with a run-centric HC is a bad fit), but had his career resurrected when the upstart WR coach turned into the HC at Western Michigan.
Ciarrocca put together some of the most potent offenses in the country as OC for Fleck, but the East Coast opportunity pulled him away from Minnesota to Penn State. Ciarrocca has modified his offense over the years to fit integrate the newest trends, and has become a proselytizer of the RPO offense.
Ciarrocca worked miracles at Minnesota. He turned a middling, no-dimension offense into a Top 5 explosive and efficient passing offense. Minnesota was lacking talent when he arrived, but Ciarrocca was able to develop players at Minnesota and the results were last year's Minnesota squad.
The talent level at Penn State is on par at the top end with Minnesota, and deeper. It has taken a while for the personnel to adjust to the scheme shift, but the results are starting to shape up. Ciarrocca runs a core of zone running schemes, both inside and outside, and the RPO game. He is balanced in his play calling for the run and pass, and keeps his play calling simple to allow his QB to play in his comfort zone. Ciarrocca does a nice job of mixing in misdirection and beater plays off this base set for big plays.
Ciarrocca has yet to fully understand how to integrate his TEs into the offense at Penn State, much to the chagrin of the fan base. It is a work in progress. His TE this year, Freiermuth, has caught more passes than his TEs in Minnesota the past two seasons, so he is attempting to change the scheme to fit personnel.
The other major challenge for Penn State this year was the change in OL coach. Matt Limegrover (Jerry Kill's OC) was let go in the offseason, allowing Ciarrocca to hire his choice of OL coaches. The hire was Phil Trautwein, the OL coach for Steve Addazio at Boston College the previous two seasons. Trautwein is very young, and it has taken a while for the OL to gel. The gel process has started though, and it is easy to see the improvement for the unit as the season has progressed.
The Penn State offense is predicated on establishing the inside zone run game, and they will bring a series of looks to create looks for the defense to react to. The basic look is a clean read option with a bubble option should the QB want it. The modern version of the triple option.
The read here is the weak side linebacker, but the QB Levis didn't really read this play. He was giving the entire way.
Here is the same play design, but the read in this case has moved to the DE. Levis in this case is reading the end and has the full triple option suite.
Although the DE made the tackle, that read option turned him into a statue.
Levis will be more than happy to ride the read deep when given the chance, and will force the read man to commit. He's better at the read option game than Clifford and is more willing to ride the read.
Should the Illini play this tight and shut down this version of the read option, the Nittany Lion offense will change the look. Ciarrocca will mix up his formation between 3x1 and 2x2. If the offense is stagnating, Ciarrocca will start moving to the 3x1 set. Out of the 3x1, they will motion the H back / TE and add another blocker in the scheme.
The TE is arc blocking the DE who is the read. The reaction of the DE dictates the block and the option. Here is another version of the same play.
Ciarrocca will start without the arc block, but will introduce it to open up the rushing attack.
The real killer attachment to this is the RPO action they run with the back side slant. This version is out of the 3x1 set again, and isolates the receiver with the LBs bumped to the trips.
Minnesota ran this play about 239 times against Illinois last year, and the look is particularly effective against 4-3 defensive fronts. This is the cleanest look I saw against Michigan State who is running essentially the same front as Illinois. If I were Ciarrocca, I run this play for the first four plays of the game.
I mentioned previously that Revis is the better read option QB, but Clifford is also dangerous with his legs. Here is the same RPO look as above, but Clifford keeps.
Clifford is a dangerous runner and likes to freelance at QB. He is a strong runner and will kill opposing defenses if they leave him unmarked.
The other run concept the Nittany Lions lean into is the outside zone. I'm not sure what exactly the center and play side guard are doing, it appears they started with a pin-pull block and ended with a question mark.
The Nittany Lions have some high level talent in the backfield and will use the RBs to attack scraping LBs in the outside run game. If the Illini LBs overplay the outside run, the QBs will keep and attack the middle. The main purpose of running this play though is to set up the play-action pass that comes with it. The play-action counter to this is a dagger play to opponents.
This is one of the shot plays that Ciarrocca will call and attack opponents with. The constant read looks will get the LBs and potentially safeties cheating. The twins receivers typically run dual posts and attack the safety for a big gain.
If the run game is starting to bog down, Ciarrocca has a new weapon in his arsenal this season. The Nittany Lions have started to use the quarterback run game to kickstart the offense. With the running talent of the QBs, it works well and is something Ciarrocca has enthusiastically embraced. The more impressive part of the gameplanning is that the Nittany Lions have incorporated a read option element out of this look.
The QB is following the counter blocking scheme. Penn State will run it with the back running with and against the counter block as seen here.
This is a dangerous play for the Illini defense. The power blocking of the counter gives an advantage at the point of attack. The speed of the backs is dangerous on attacking the edges. Illinois struggled maintaining contain last week, and Penn State will try to exploit that same issue this week.
The Illini will need to account for the QB in the run game all day Saturday. In previous years, Ciarrocca was loathe to run his QB, but the Nittany Lions have a pair of strong quarterbacks and he is taking advantage all season. The other run scheme they use is the QB draw.
Ciarrocca has used this less as the OL has gelled during the season. An overly aggressive pass rush though will have him bring it to low down the DL rush. The missing defensive starters will allow Penn State to create rushing opportunities on Saturday.
Most deep passing concepts from the Nittany Lions come from play-action passing. The outside zone play-action pass is the most devastating that they run. The other concept they run often is used to take free yards zone defenses provide. Here is the all-Hitches concept.
The defenders are bailing out on the snap, and the trips receivers all run a 5-yard hitch. The Nittany Lions have a numbers advantage and it is an easy catch. Here is the same route combination out of the twins look.
Tight coverage here probably prevents this from being completed. The throw is pitch and catch for Clifford. Keeping the passing game simple is a tenet of the Ciarrocca play-calling. As a result, both QBs have a 60% completion rate.
The other deep pass play concept the Nittany Lions run often is the mesh concept. The dual crossing routes are especially effective with a talented TE.
The route also opens up when the TE is illegally blocking downfield. Karma kept the pass from being completed.
Penn State will most likely take this game as a chance to have fun. The core offense will be the inside zone RPO, and I think they will have good success with it. The offense will take shots and probably mix in some fun play calls for the last game of the season. The improvements with the offensive line will provide a spark for the offense to keep moving.
Scouting Review - Defense
Brent Pry has been calling plays at Penn State for most of his time at Penn State. Pry has developed a reputation for stout and punishing defense that take advantage of the talent they have been able to recruit to Happy Valley. The defense has eliminated the "Star" position Banks preferred, but the responsibilities of the LB are the same. The core of the defense consistently brings 4 or 5 defenders, and they utilize the speed and athleticism of the DEs to generate a rush on passing teams. The pressure on the outside allows the DTs to play aggressively upfield, and they rely on the LBs to clean up any overpenetration.
The attacking scheme though relies on top flight talent, and Micah Parsons opting out at the beginning of the year showed some of the flaws in the play calling. The scheme is a high risk / high reward setup, and leaves the Nittany Lions susceptible to explosive plays. Penn State is among the worst in the league giving up 40+ yard pass plays. If the rush does not get home, the Cover 3 shell has serious gaps and opponents have taken advantage along the seams this year. Opponents love to run a series of slants before unleashing the deep seam routes.
In order to cut down on the explosive pass plays, the Nittany Lions are mixing pre-snap setups. They are using a mix of the two-high, then a one-high shell. It appears Pry has conceded that pure athleticism will not slow opponents so he has started mixing looks to slow opponent attacks.
The base defense is the 4-3 look with a Cover 3 back end shell. The Nittany Lions roll down a safety in standard run downs.
The Nittany Lion shell is easily seen in this look. The corners bail on the snap along with the safety moving to the deep middle.
When the Penn State defense is spread out, the shell is staying the same. The pre-snap read here is a Cover 2 shell, but the safety comes rolling down right at the snap.
The DL makes this defensive scheme work. When they are consistently getting pressure they are able to disrupt opposing rush offenses. The upfield pressure from the DEs will be of concern for the Illini and the outside zone they like to run.
The Penn State defense is a rush 4 or 5 defense, and they mix up the rush. The primary change is dropping the DE into coverage and blitzing a LB. Here is an example.
Any Illini fan from the Banks era should be familiar with the dropping DE. This is a look the Nittany Lions like to employ and mix up the defensive looks. The zone blitz allows the cornerback to blitz off the edge opposite the DE dropping. This allows an overload blitz and would get home against a pass play.
One facet of the Penn State defense is a defensive line that gets penetration. The defense turns the DEs loose upfield on every play, putting pressure on outside zone runs as well as getting consistent pressure in the pass rush. There are three aspects to the DL from the Nittany Lions. First is the defensive ends getting upfield.
Additionally, the Nittany Lions use the DTs to generate a pass rush and pressure opponents with penetration.
The Nittany Lions typically only use one DT with full pressure, while the other tends to occupy pass blockers.
Overall, they aggressively challenge opponents to stop the penetrating defense and use the linebacker corps to clean up run plays.
The Cover 3 defensive shell of the Nittany Lions requires the outside linebackers to cover a great deal of space along the sidelines. The corners bail quickly in pass coverage. Illinois has a chance to take advantage of the soft edges with quick hitters on the perimeter.
What does it mean?
Rod Smith has to find a way to get the Illini ready this weekend. Changes like this will result in an Illini team full of emotions, and it will be on the staff to harness that emotion. For the staff and players, this is basically a bowl game. The Illini staff and players know a major change is coming and this game allows the coaching staff to put some tape together, and the players to have one last run together.
The game for the Nittany Lions is a chance to build on the rhythm they built on last week. The offensive line has finally found its identity, and Ciarrocca is figuring out the play-calling with the talent he has available.
For Illinois to Win:
Penn State is going to mimic the Iowa and Northwestern defensive game plans. Attack the Illinois edge, and stay basic on defense. Illinois will need to win battles on the edges and break big plays with Brown and Epstein in the run game. Success will be higher if they utilize One in the scheme. Illinois MUST take care of the ball, a turnover battle will doom them.
The Illini on defense have to play disciplined football and stay engaged as a team. Teams that beat the Ciarrocca RPO attack are disciplined and get the Nittany Lions out of their standard downs. They become much more predictable after that.
More than anything else, Illinois needs to play with pride and something to prove.
For Penn State to Win:
Protect the ball. The Penn State offense is perfectly suited to attack the Illini 4-3 and move the ball using RPOs. The Penn State offensive line is still struggling in run blocking, but the pass blocking is quite good and will allow the Nittany Lions to attack the Illini pass defense which is struggling.
The Nittany Lion defense needs to slow the Illini edge rushing. The Illini have struggled passing, and have completed less than 50% of their passes on the season. The Nittany Lions need to force the Illini to complete passes to the sidelines.
The Cover 3 shell the Nittany Lions like to use provides some opportunities for the Illinois offense. The Flat zones along the sideline are soft due to the dropping corners in Cover 3, which should allow Illinois to attack with the outside zone read option. Additionally, the defense has been picked apart by teams with a strong receiver running slant patterns as the corners are slow to match patterns. If Rod Smith can get the Nittany Lions off-balance early, they should be able to score.
The Penn State offense is the worst type of matchup for the Lovie Smith defense. With Lindsey calling the defense, I'm genuinely curious what adjustment will be made to slow the RPO game. The LBs will be conflicted all game, and Ciarrocca will not be afraid to run the same play until the defense stops him. Penn State will probably stay more conservative than normal to prevent turnovers, but should be able to move the ball easily. I'll take Penn State to cover.
YTD Against the Spread: