These boys are back in town [Eric Upchurch]

Fee Fi Foe Film: Penn State Defense 2018 Comment Count

Seth November 2nd, 2018 at 10:18 AM

Previously: The Offense

Resources: My charting, PSU game notes, PSU roster, Bill C profile, CFBstats

In 2016 a banged up, still-forming Penn State team came to Ann Arbor starting a too-small DT, a too-small CB, and whatever they could scrounge up at linebacker, which turned out to be a guy who looked like a tight end, a walk-on they found on the wrestling team, and a safety who converted to 4-3 under SAM that week. Last year none of them were full-time starters (the TE-shaped man and the safety platooned at SAM). Now they are again.

Penn State's defense graduated a lot of guys and is hanging in there thanks to a 15th-ranked pass defense to S&P+. And finally, for once, the stats accurately describe the team you see on film. They have found some decent pieces among the new guys, but since their only true linebacker is a redshirt freshman (and not ready for extended play) they are having to play the linebackers hyper-aggressively against the run. In due course their safeties are substantially more chill. That results in the 54th run defense but the 19th in stuff rate--either they'll get you down after 1 or 2 yards, or you'll get 11 or 12 beneath the shell. Their pass defense has been helped by rain and comically bad quarterbacking (especially Nate Stanley last week), but Bill C thinks they've got terrible turnover luck and that evens things out. After watching a few games and charting the dumbest one, I think the defense has the same profile as the offense: linebackers chasing things that don't exist, and nobody can catch a dang ball.

The Film: Heh. I went with Iowa. Yeah the one in the rain last week with Nate Stanley throwing everything to Tacopants and Nachoshorts. The one where the punter threw a touchdown pass to a lineman, and Iowa threw an interception near the endzone because Fant didn't think he had to play football that moment. At one point Iowa's center snapped it into Stanley's balls when he wasn't expecting it, and that doesn't make the top three worst snaps in the game. I did this because the rest of their Big Ten competition so far has been Ohio State, Michigan State, and Indiana. Plus I only got to listen to this game on the radio last Saturday and needed a reason to watch it. Also they have functional tight ends. Most of the time.

The diagram:


PDF Version, full-size version (or click on the image)

So a week before this the backup DE Shaka Toney was PFF's player of the week. He's a slippery pass rusher but the guys he's behind deserve to be ahead of him. DE Shareef Miller belongs on the weakside but they're using more wide fronts now that let him play like an MSU DE or dive inside. The reason Miller's out there is sophomore DE Yetur Gross-Matos, a top-200 player last year, has bulked up and exploded, leading the team with 12.5 TFLs and 6 sacks. It's graduation day.

On the inside are a couple of light DTs with good rip moves. This makes 3T Kevin Givens a true dangerman in a future Dwumfour way—he is not a nose. NT Robert Windsor is another Dwumfourish character but that's less forgivable where he plays. Windsor is either moving guys backwards or getting blown down five yards—I came close to both cyan'ing and starring him in the course of this scout. Their shared backup Fred Hansard is out for the season after a play that should keep us the solidly second-most hated team in Michigan to PSU fans. That hurts: NT Antonio Shelton is big but plays high, and true freshman blue chip (74th in the 247 composite) DT PJ Mustipher is not quite ready.

The outside linebackers are the pair who used to platoon the hybrid spot. SAM Cam Brown is still a most unusual dude who can match a Gentry for height and speed and struggles in tackling. Former safety/WLB Koa Farmer bulked up to play inside but that just removed his speed and subjected him to blocks he was never meant to handle. MLB Jan Johnson is a former walk-on they borrowed from the wrestling team way back during Linebackergeddon'15. He's starting after an offseason of trying to slip Manny Bowen back onto the team without the serious academic people noticing (Narrator: They did.), and toying with whether their 5-star WDE prospect might be a secret Mike (Narrator: He wasn't.). The latter is nominal SAM Micah Parsons, this year's #7 overall prospect to 247, who this year more or less a Mario Ojemudia-in-high-school-style defensive tackle on passing downs. Fellow edge specialist DE/OLB Shane Simmons also rotates in on pass rush packages. Freshman MLB Ellis Brooks was a low 4-star and gets some run but hasn't played enough yet for me to get a read on him. Also he's behind all of that.

[after THE JUMP: the good part]

The secondary has a Dude and some guys. The dude is CB Amani Oruwariye, who will get his in the Dangerman section below. Not-really 5-10 CB John Reid has played a lot of football (and has another year of eligibility after taking a medshirt last season) and started over both Oruwariye and 2018 6th rounder Christian Campbell in 2016 because reasons. On film he's not good enough to explain that decision, but he's well beyond adequate—Blake Countess is the comp that comes to mind.

The backup DBs are hidden until they can't be--Iowa spent its final drive attacking backup CB Tariq Castro-Fields with middling success. Tiny nickel Donovan Johnson is only used on passing downs when one of the top three corners is off the field, and always at nickel. Their normal nickel package puts Castro-Fields outside and Reid in the slot.

The safeties are new but not that new since they're a redshirt junior and redshirt senior. SS Garret Taylor is boring except for the occasional bad angle and bad tackle, but he's a top-250 athlete who was making life difficult on the tight ends. FS Nick Scott, a Michigan running back prospect from long ago, is more eventful. They've been solid against every comer except the one built to kill your safeties with demonic slot receivers, says PFF:

Save for the Ohio State game, the coverage for the Nittany Lions has also been stellar in all but one game this season as well. Brent Pry’s defense has not posted a grade below 74.0 except against Ohio State. The safety duo of Nick Scott and Garrett Taylor have allowed a combined nine receptions for 92 yards and Taylor has chipped in two interceptions. Scott’s passer rating of 50.8 when targeted is only bested by Taylor’s of 21.2.

Base Set: I can't decide if they're officially not a 4-3 under anymore.


They aligned in an Even (wide) or Over (like Michigan does) far more often, but they also slant a ton to get back to those under gap assignments. It reminds me of the 2015 strategy. And Under is still over 25% of their snaps. So "Multiple" it is.

Situation 4-3 Nickel 3-3-5 1-high 2-high 3 4 5 6+
Normal Downs 43 8 2 11 43 1 37 8 7
Passing Downs 14 6 15 5 31 - 29 5 -
Total 65% 9% 26% 18% 82% 1% 76% 15% 8%

Also there was one true 3-4 one time. It's filed with the 3-3-5s. I didn't file the goal line stand or the defense against the fake field goal where the punter threw a TD to a defensive tackle (otherwise known as an "Iowa" but you should see it anyway:

They keep two safeties back most plays and don't mind playing Oruwariye like an outside linebacker. Their splits were virtually identical to Michigan State's.

Man or zone coverage: They've switched to more of a true Cover 2 this year to better fit their personnel. The linebackers are going to be sucking up against any and all run action so the safeties have to take on most of the #2 receiver coverage. But the real stress in a Cover 2 is on the cornerbacks, and I think that's why they went this route. Oruwariye is their best defender and a master at breaking on your passes to a guy who appears open underneath him. Reid is their most experienced guy.

Pressure: GERG or GREG: Pretty GERG, with a caveat:


They bring four on almost every down. On passing downs they run a bunch of different stunts. Blitzes are either the SAM off the edge, or an exotic:

They generally trust the pass rushers to get through, and when they're all on the field together that's usually true. It wasn't a slaughter versus Iowa but I had plenty of clips.

The caveat is they bring their linebackers screaming down on anything that looks like a run.

I charted this and wondered if I should stop. The tally for 35 runs (not counting draws), play-actions and RPOs was 22 hard bites, 6 medium bites, and 7 no dice, and those mostly accumulated near the end of the game. The above reaction, especially to anything under center, was the norm. They get away with it by attacking so hard it feels like a blitz and the quarterback gets sped up, and those cover 2 DBs are expecting it and break. It may not be a tenable way to play--Ohio State certainly found the middle appetizing enough to feast on screens all day.

Dangerman: I was really hoping this was PFF overrating a guy because they've been a little bonkers this year, but nope: Cornerback Amani Oruwariye is the best cornerback in the conference. Oddly he wasn't technically a starter last year, but he was their highest-rated back seven defender and All-B1G 2nd team, and out there enough I consider him a returning starter. In the first eight weeks of this season he played himself into the 1st round to PFF:


Week 3 Draft Board rank: 27th (no change)

Oruwariye has seen 54 targets this season, fourth-most in the FBS and has broken up eight passes and intercepted two more.

That's ahead of anyone on Michigan's defense, FYI, and if anything it sells him short because half of those broken up passes were balls he should have intercepted against Michigan State. That is a signature move. He is #21 below, and will disappear off your screen then reappear with the minimal number of frames.

A 6-2 athlete who can tackle and break in Cover 2 better than a lot of pros is a problem the likes of which we haven't faced this year, and we're too sick and twisted to have any remorse for the opponents Michigan's done that to. I suggest we stick to Reid's size.

Of the many defensive ends I shouldn't have been surprised my favorite would be Yetur Gross-Matos not the preseason all-conference candidate. Iowa has a decent left tackle (especially for this conference) and you wouldn't know it from his day against YGM:

#99 the DE on the top of the line

That's on a (clock-hurried) 2nd down. You should see him when they give him a wide 9 and he really peels his ears back:

#99 the DE on the bottom of the D line


Finally I think we've found a team Michigan matches up well against. Not the tight ends: Penn State is the one team not in the NFL that seems actually built to stop you from killing them with fleet-footed giants and Iowa's stellar pair had an awful day. I mean running Higdon down the hash marks.

The defensive ends are athletic freaks but young, and might not yet be fully prepared for a complete option game. The linebackers scream into their gaps at any run action but Harbaugh has successfully punished that kind of behavior all season. Teams with good middle linebackers have kept Michigan's run game in check, and that's the one thing Penn State is sorely lacking. Meanwhile those DTs are good at penetration but Iowa managed to put them on skates more than a few times.

Ignore the linebacker who gets a face full of fullback for a second and watch #54 the nose tackle lined up on the hashmark:

He's not a cyan candidate because of the pass rush he offers but give Michigan's offensive line a nose tackle they can double to the 1st down marker and a walk-on linebacker (#36 above) and we could be in business.

On the other hand, we don't want anything to do with that pass rush. It's not just the three defensive ends who terrorized Ohio State's edge protection--the interior pass rush generates a lot of forced throws and bounces into the afore mentioned hellscreamers.

Finally this probably can't happen again but you tuned in for Iowa-Penn State clips; you should get something to make the hairy sweatshirt ad worth it.



November 2nd, 2018 at 10:36 AM ^


PSU fan here. Well, sort of. It's complicated. I'm a native Pennsylvanian in any case, so I watch a lot of PSU.

Anyway, Seth, I wish I could go back and make you change your picture for this defense. I agree with pretty much everything EXCEPT

1) I can't believe you gave Kevin Givens the coveted Dangerman. Kevin Givens is really good at jumping gaps. He's also too small and plays with no leverage. If he jumps the wrong gap, he gets blown away. 

2) Jan Johnson does not deserve the blue circle of despair. Jan Johnson is actually an amazingly competent middle linebacker considering his origins. I would give blue circles of despair to BOTH Farmer and Brown, but not to Johnson. Watch Saturday. I guarantee Johnson will be the most competent PSU linebacker on the field. I love Jan Johnson.

3) You must like Garrett Taylor a whole lot more than I do! I consider him trash against the run. He is less than fond of tackling, to put it mildly. Good instincts, though.


Also, John Reid did NOT start over anyone last year. He was out for the season with an injury. PSU's starting cornerbacks in 2017 were Oruwariye and Grant Haley.


November 2nd, 2018 at 11:00 AM ^

Thanks! I'll make some corrections but I'm sticking by my analysis of the LBs, particularly Johnson. They're having him charge at any run action because his reads are too slow--when he's asked to do something complicated he gets caught in the wash, and when a lineman got to him he got blocked. I've certainly seen worse linebackers but to my eyes that was the spot Penn State was trying to cover up by playing unsound.

I thought Reid wasn't hurt until later last year (he was on my 2017 chart) but you're correct and I'll fix that. It was Christian Campbell who started all last year over Oruwariye, who was credited on PSU's website with zero starts last year.

Space Coyote

November 2nd, 2018 at 11:49 AM ^

I have a different way of looking at it, they are charging the MIKE because of the undersized front. I really think their run defense is designed around the fact that they cannot hold up at DT enough to be a read and react defense, they need to shoot gaps and form a wall. Read/react puts OL in LB's laps down field, essentially.

So the result is similar to what you said, but my interpretation based on limited film is that they are getting to that result as more a function of DT play than MIKE play. My two cents.

Like you said (and the PSU fan said), the key here for Michigan is really latching and driving that DL. PSU is very undersized. But Michigan's OL has tended to have more issues with these sorts of fronts, that shoot gaps and crash the LOS. They aren't the type of OL that just pins and opens holes, so they have to meet these slants and run blitzes with aggression much better than they did earlier in the season. If they can, they can get a lot of success on the ground for the reasons you said. Otherwise, like you also noted, it might be a long day up front running into a wall because PSU was able to get their head in the gap and create a pile of bodies.

The other concern I have, that plays into PSU's hands, is that Michigan generally struggles to attack that middle intermediate part of the field that is available through the air because of the way the LBs crash in the run but safeties play deep. Will be an interesting match up overall, and will really show just how much Michigan has or hasn't improved overall.


November 2nd, 2018 at 11:59 AM ^

I don't think it's either/or.  They have slight DTs and a project at MIKE so the straightfoward solution to both problems is the same.

Now that we can actually run it, do you think outside zone will be effective against their style?  I remember young Mo Hurst getting burned by Indiana's outside zone for being too aggressive, so it bodes well if a similar principle works here.

Unless Harbs flipped a switch in his head in the last couple weeks, I don't trust Shea to punish the LBs by hitting the middle of the field.


November 2nd, 2018 at 12:54 PM ^

Sadly (as a PSU fan), I agree with your "both/and" assessment over the "either/or". 

If you're curious what happens when PSU does NOT launch all 3 LBs at their primary gaps given even a hint of run action, watch the Indiana tape.  There you'll find 268 sack adjusted rush yards for the Hoosiers.  

As far as OZ...I'd stick with your power / man / IZ stuff over the OZ.  We're light in the pants, and eat a lot of blocks.  If you're determined to run OZ, instruct Higdon to look for the cut back, because our scud missile LBs will have launched themselves aggressively toward the playside, and over run the cut back.  Also because our DEs (on your TEs) is likely to be a positive for PSU.

In short, I endorse Seth's conclusions.  Ham blast us in the face, between the tackles.  You probably won't even need play action.  But if you want to score oodles of points, I'm certain it'll be there whenever you decide to use it.  



November 2nd, 2018 at 5:33 PM ^

You're probably right about Jan, but, I'm biased. He's a Pennsylvania hero who even took down Adam Coon one time. Or maybe it was a reversal. It was awesome, either way.

As for 2017, it says it all about Christian Campbell that I had actually forgotten him at all. He wasn't bad, but, man, was he ever forgettable. I guess there are worse ways to play CB.


November 2nd, 2018 at 10:39 AM ^

you should get something to make the hairy sweatshirt ad worth it.

About fucking time. I hate that thing.

MGoBlog is only a half a step above a porn site in my family's eyes because of all of the sketchy dating site ads, and that thing only makes it worse.  "Just what kind of sick web sites have you been hanging out on??"


November 2nd, 2018 at 10:55 AM ^

If Higdon gets to 100 yards, I think UM will be tough to beat. 

I think he gets that and as a team UM will have at least 180 on the ground.

Does UM's O-line grade out better than Iowa?

Reggie Dunlop

November 2nd, 2018 at 12:08 PM ^

    "Does UM's O-line grade out better than Iowa?"

More fun with numbers! I got lost in S&P+ again and did too much research. But Penn State's defense (or their opponents' offensive production) has pretty much been in lock-step with their opponents' S&P+ offensive rankings this season.

PSU has played some bad passing offenses. Kent State, Illinois and Pitt are all ranked in the 100s (out of 130). They were held to 180, 166 & 55 yards respectively. Iowa threw for 215 with their #43 passing offense. Everybody else topped 270 yards passing (Indiana #66, MSU #57, OSU #8 & App St. #44). If you have a decent-to-good passing offense, you can rack up pass yards on Penn State.

Michigan has the #15 pass offense according to S&P+.

Same goes for rushing offenses. Kent St., Iowa, MSU are all ranked in the 100s. Ohio State is right there at #99. They all rushed for 41, 135, 123 & 119 respectively. Not terrible. Not great. App State is incrementally better at #88 and ran for an incrementally better 159.

On the other hand, Illinois's #14 rushing attack put up 245 yards. Indiana (#50) hit 224. Pitt's actually good at running the ball (#12) and they ran for 245 yards despite having no passing game whatsoever. It seems if you can run the ball, you can rack up yards on PSU's defense.

Michigan has the #11 rushing offense according to S&P+.


Conclusion: We have the best run game and second best pass offense that PSU has seen to date - by far the most balanced attack. Don't turn it over. If 8 games is any kind of sample size, it appears we will be able to march the football.


November 2nd, 2018 at 11:27 AM ^

This will definitely be our biggest test to date.   I'm hoping we find out that Runyan and JBB are for real.   I don't buy the 10 point favorites until we're up by 20.

snarling wolverine

November 2nd, 2018 at 11:39 AM ^

 Not the tight ends: Penn State is the one team not in the NFL that seems actually built to stop you from killing them with fleet-footed giants and Iowa's stellar pair had an awful day.

I don't know; it seemed to me like they were frequently open but Stanley just could not hit them.


November 2nd, 2018 at 11:57 AM ^

If I'm Harbaugh I try the play in that last gif to see if PSU will fuck up again. Maybe on a second and short where you feel confident you can pick up the first down if it doesn't work.