Craig Has The Scout - Penn State 2023
This is the intro I have to write so that you know that Craig Has The Scout is not Robert Has The Scout. You probably know that by now but there might be a new reader some day and if there is, they'd need to know that this is Craig Has The Scout.
Here is Craig Has The Scout:
Who: Penn State Nittany Lions
When: 11:00 am - September 16th, 2023
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: James Franklin. Franklin is 51 years old and somehow been coaching at Penn State for what feels like 19 years. He took over in 2014 rebuilding the roster following the JoePa scandals, and has been a recruiting stud with questionable coaching. Franklin has always had elite talent at Penn State (Micah Parsons and Saquon Barkley for example) but has struggled to put together the depth needed to be a title contender. He finally has the depth and talent, so it is time to see if he has the coaching chops to get his team there. He's historically been good for a win he didn't deserve and a head scratching loss.
Offensive Style: Run first Spread Option. Mike Yurcich historically runs a fun and explosive offense. Yurcich prefers 11 personnel, and will move the skill position players to create mismatches on the perimeter. Yurcich will use multiple formations with the same personnel so eye discipline is key. Yurcich is a committed OC, and will ride a gameplan until proven completely ineffective.
Defensive Style: 4-3 Cover 3 blitzing scheme. Manny Diaz has been around the block as a defensive coordinator. In fact, this is the second time Illinois has faced off against him. He was the DC for Louisiana Tech in 2014. Diaz has historically been known as an aggressive blitzer. His blitz rate is around 30% of snaps, and he'll move between a 4-3 and 4-2-5 look. Diaz brings pressure from all over the field, and looks to sow confusion. I expect Illinois will see less blitzing than the norm as the Penn State corners should be able to lock down the Illini edge receivers and allows the underneath defenders to contain Williams.
Specialists: Penn State currently has one of the worst ranked Special Teams units in the country, driven primarily by their poor place-kicking. Penn State swapped kickers in the middle of the West Virginia game, and have a 25 yard FG to their credit.
2023 Penn State at a Glance:
2023 Record: 2-0, 0-0
Rushing Offense: 230.5 ypg
Passing Offense: 279.0 ypg
Total Offense: 509.5 ypg
Scoring Offense: 50.5 ppg
Rushing Defense: 114.0 ypg
Pass Defense: 110.0 ypg
Total Defense: 224.0 ypg
Scoring Defense: 11.0 ppg
Turnover Margin: 0
Three Things to Watch
Penn State 3rd down conversions. The Nittany Lions have been very efficienton offense this season, and Illinois will need to get them off the field to stay in the game.
Penn State run:pass ratio. Yurcich will try to reduce the pressure on Allar by running the ball early in the game. If Penn State has success running early, they will ride the backs all game. Illinois needs to make Allar throw to win the game.
Penalties. The Illini cannot give extra opportunities in a game where they are playing with a talent disadvantage. Keeping drives alive via penalties should not be on the dance card.
Scouting Review - Offense
The Penn State offense hasn't had a top flight challenge in their first two home games. They now hit the road for the first time. Penn State has seen a solid challenge at home though against West Virginia. This allowed Penn State to get Drew Allar some work against a bona fide opponent. That was followed by a tune-up against Delaware.
Allar is the highest rated QB recruit at Penn State since Christian Hackenburg and couldn't win the job last year over Sean Clifford. Mike Yurcich has brought Allar along slowly. He has thrown almost as many passes this year as he did all of last season. The plan to bring on Allar is working, Allar has completed 78.2 percent of his passes for 529 yards, 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. If Allar struggles, he can lean on a pair of talented sophomore RBs in Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton.
The Penn State run game is averaging almost 5 ypc. They were held to 35 carries and 146 yards against West Virginia. The game created a bit of concern with Penn State watchers about the OL ability to hold up in the run game. So, gainst Delaware they committed to the run game with 60 carries and 315 yards. Illinois will see a stead diet of run from the Nittany Lions as they get the run game fully on track. Phil Trautwein was brought in three years ago from Boston College to fix the Penn State running game. Four years in, and Trautwein finally has the talent and depth they envisioned. The OL returns 4 OL from last year, and the highest rated OL on draft boards in Olu Fashanu.
Against Delaware, Penn State established the running game early and set the tempo and rhythm of the game. Once they had established the run game, they started with the play-action passing attack in the 2nd quarter. Allar picked apart the Blue Hens, but it was more scheme vs. talent. The Penn State wide-outs are the weakest position group for the Nittany Lions and one where the Illini can match up. The same safety and linebacker routes Kansas used will be put into play by Yurcich.
As the offensive line has gelled over the last year, Penn State has leaned heavily into gap-blocking schemes. The basic play of their rushing attack is the counter, and they run it a fewe different ways. The first is the pure Counter-Trey popularized by Joe Gibbs in the 80s.
West Virginia bottled up the Nittany Lion run game pretty well for the majority of the game. The West Virginia defense caused the backs to get frustrated and rush the runs. Illinois needs to do the same. The more common version of this involves a motion of the H-back into the formation first.
Tyler Warren is the H-back, and he is a very effective blocker.
Penn State has a fantastic counter to teams overloading the counter. Here is a play-action look to a WR screen.
The STAR safety stayed home and sniffed this play out. Illinois struggled in pass defense against similar routes from Kansas.
The Nittany Lions also run the Power-O play.
The nose was worked on this play, and this is the exact play Calvin Avery was great at defending last year. Daxon will need to hold the point of attack. The Nittany Lions have a play-action counter on this play as well.
The Illini LBs need to keep their discipline.
Yurcich was been adding a straight Duo play this year. The Duo is essentially a Power blocking scheme without the pulling guard. The Nittany Lions ran it here out of a heavy formation.
Randolph and Newton are going to be taking on the Penn State tackles on down blocks in this scheme. If Illinois stays read and react against this play, the Nittany Lions will find creases to run behind.
As with all the other run plays, Penn State is has a play-action counterpart to this.
This is out of the heavy formation again. The Nittany Lions are running a Levels concept straight out of the West Coast offense playbook. The play is a zone buster, but the receiver on the back side will have the advantage over a man defender.
The other main passing routes from Penn State have all been designed to get the ball out of Allar's hands quickly, and with a single read. Penn State has went heavy on the WR screen game so far this season. Here is a bubble screen out of an empty set.
Allar has a second read on the slant, but locked into the bubble on the snap. Here is another screen used by the Nittany Lions.
An aggressive Illini defensive line will make them susceptible to this play. Illinois LBs struggled in pass defense against Kansas, and the Nittany Lions will utilize opportunities to do the same.
The levels concept is built into the base passing offense of the Nittany Lions. Allar had great protection that allowed his receivers to come open on this play.
The passing offense of Penn State is still rooted in the West Coast offense from Franklin's time with Ralph Friedgen. A great deal of Franklin's offense is pretty blase. The WRs for Penn State are led by Dante Cephus, a Kent State transfer. Of all the weapons on offense, the WR are the weakest position group.
As mentioned before, Yurcich is a man committed to a gameplan. If Illinois can hold the line through his initial script and are still in the game, Yurcich will try to bludgeon them with more of the same. Penn State is committed to winning the game in the trenches, and Illinois will need to hold up against the assault.
Scouting Review - Defense
Upon the hiring of any new defensive coordinator, the coach will discuss the new aggressive, attacking scheme. In the case of Manny Diaz, that is pretty accurate. Diaz has been running high level defenses for close to two decades, and in that time has rarely varied from a blitzing scheme.
In his early years, he utilized mainly zone coverage and a Cover 3 backend shell. During his time at Penn State, he is running more press-man coverage with a Cover 1 backend. The press-man Cover 1 was a scheme Walters used last year to great effect.
The DEs for Penn State are both being touted as All-Americans, similar to Newton and Randolph. Against West Virginia, you would not have known it. The Mountaineer OL was aggressive and physical with the Nittany Lions and held up well. The strength of the Penn State defense the last few years has been the secondary, and they are rounding into form now.
The real strength of the Nittany Lions defense is the linebacking corps. Abdul Carter is the latest Penn State stud in the linebacking corps, and will present challenges to the Illini OL.
Manny Diaz will move between a 4-3 and 4-2-5 alignment. Similar to Kansas last week, the 4-3 will kick out the SLB to the perimeter giving a 4-2-5 appearance. Iowa uses this often. The base defense looks like this.
In this instance, the Nittany Lions dropped into a Cover 2 shell. The LBs and corners settled into a 5-across zone. The thing that catches my eye on this play is the intensity the DL is rushing. The LBs sit tight for a QB scramble which opened up the lane West Virginia exploited.
Manny Diaz loves the corner blitz, hit has been a staple of his since he became a DC. Diaz likes to bring the CB from the short side of the field to get the pressure in the backfield asap.
The CB blitzing seemed to be #3 Johnny Dixon everytime the Nittany Lions used it. In the West Virginia game he swatted down a pass as well.
Diaz will also bring a safety blitz. When he blitzes the safety, he utilizes Jaylen Reed. Reed is the most athletic member of the secondary.
The LB gets the sack on the green dog blitz. The key for Diaz is overloading the right side of the offensive line. The safety pulls the RT along with the RB chip. The LG is taken by the DE, leaving the ILB on the edge unblocked and he get the sack with when the QB steps up. Altmyer with pressure will pull his eyes down.
Diaz will bring a series of LB blitzes as well.
Diaz has a bevy of blitz looks. His secondary at Penn State is typically in press man coverage with a single high safety. The Illini will need to win one-on-one battles along the sidelines to beat these looks. The other thing Diaz will add, is line stunts with the blitz.
The Illini OL struggled passing off the end-tackle stunts earlier in the year. The addition of the blitz package will create a nuisance for the Illini.
Diaz is an experienced DC, and has one of the most talented defenses in college football. The Illini offense needs to keep it simple and create one-on-one matchups it can win.
What does it mean?
James Franklin has recruited incredibly well over the years at Penn State, but it wasn't until the past few he finally got his lines in order. The OL coach was brought in from Boston College to upgrade the unit, and it has all finally come together. The DL is elite this year, buoyed by transfer Chop Robinson from Maryland. He is the pass rushing force on the D, while the interior tackles are experienced.
Through two weeks, Illinois has looked outclassed on both lines, and they haven't faced anything resembling what Penn State brings to the table. Illinois will need to modify the approach to contain the dominance Penn State has in the trenches.
The skill talent is a tough matchup for Illinois. The Nittany Lions will spend most of the game trying to isolate their two stud RBs against the Illinois ILBs. The Illini need to disrupt Penn State at the point of attack to slow the offense.
Penn State has a decided talent advantage, and a stronger group in the trenches. Illinois will need to change the game and dictate pace and tempo in order to win. The early read on the Illini makes that a tall task.
For Illinois to Win:
The Illini need to make this a fight in a phone booth. The barge package is famous, but is based on the idea to get physical and negate the speed advantage of Penn State. West Virginia showed that it can be effective against Penn State. The West Virginia offensive line showed well against Penn State and negated the two All-Conference DEs. A physical and established run game will help with the pass pro woes as well.
To make sure they can run, the Illini defense has to keep the game close and not fall behind early. The DL needs to be disruptive and the ILBs need to hold up in pass pro against the Penn State backs.
In addition, Illinois cannot turn the ball over, and give Altmyer clear throwing lanes. Penn State is running a great deal of press man coverage with the blitz scheme. If Altmyer has time to set and fire he should have open targets with the big bodied receivers on the outside. It's on the offense to execute.
The crowd can help too. This is the first road test for the Nittany Lions, and an enthusiastic crowd will help rattle the young Penn State offense. Robert recently discussed the challenge Illinois has had on the road in the first test of the season. Ideally Illinois creates a challenge for a young Nittany Lions squad.
For Penn State to Win:
Penn State needs to limit the challenges for Drew Allar. Allar has a habit of locking in on his first read, so the Nittany Lions need to give him time and prevent the Illini confusing him with pressure. An effective running game will keep the Illini DL in a read and react mode so the Nittany Lions will lean into it.
Finally, the Nittany Lions need to continue their effectiveness on 3rd down. They are smoking so far this season and the Illini are dreadful.
I was afraid of what Kansas might do with the misdirection and confusion they create. If Illinois were to fall behind, the Jayhawks offensive explosion would be a hard thing to counter. That Kansas offense is 21st in SP+. Penn State enters this game 12th. While 15 points is a big number, Kansas would have cleared it if the defense hadn't fallen down. Penn State has the 4th best defense, and I don't expect them to fall apart.
The question then becomes whether or not Penn State will get a lead, then sit on the ball. After the 9-OT game I believe Franklin will be out to prove a point. I'll take Penn State to cover easily.
Craig YTD Against the Spread: