Fee Fi Foe Film: Penn State Offense

Submitted by Ace on October 20th, 2017 at 12:43 PM

Previously: Penn State Defense

Serendipitous moments in screencapping

Penn State needed every second on the clock to stave off Iowa's upset bid. The game never should've been that close, however. Iowa, as covered yesterday, couldn't muster any offense until their final two drives. PSU, meanwhile, marched up and down the field, gaining 579 yards on 5.8 per play. Turnovers and an inability to finish drives kept the Hawkeyes in it. Of their 13 drives, eight contained at least eight plays, but they essentially wasted five possessions. In order:

  • 11-play, 66-yard drive stalls inside the one, resulting in a 19-yard field goal
  • 10-play, 37-yard drive after getting set up with great field position results in missed field goal
  • after moving 39 yards in four plays near the end of the first half, Trace McSorley throws a pick while getting hit on the throw; Iowa scores a touchdown on the next play
  • 7-play, 55-yard drive stalls at the three, 21-yard field goal
  • 8-play, 39-yard drive ends with a McSorley sack/fumble

While some of this is bad luck, Penn State's issues converting yards to points were inextricably tied to a longstanding problem—poor blocking. Iowa finished with 11 TFLs, including four sacks, and only allowed two touchdowns on five red zone trips. Michigan has a much better defensive front (and defense in general) than the Hawkeyes. This game is far from unwinnable.

Personnel. Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:

On the Michigan side, Lavert Hill gained a star, and his cornerback counterpart David Long isn't too far off.

As for Penn State, they bring back much of last year's offense, though wideout Chris Godwin was a major loss. The offensive line continues to be the weak point; PSU has already tried three different starters at right tackle and made a mid-game switch against Iowa that didn't help matters.

Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread. PSU took all 99 snaps from the shotgun, including their goal-line package.

Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? PSU's base run play is split zone, and they'll also run quite a bit of outside zone—this is a basketball on grass outfit with few exceptions.

Hurry it up or grind it out? PSU is only 80th in adjusted pace despite being a no-huddle team. They get up to the line in a hurry, but use that time to survey the defense, check to the sideline, and adjust their play. McSorley was too casual about this a couple times, taking a delay of game on an early 4th and 2 and burning a timeout to avoid another on a 3rd and ten a short time later.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]

Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): McSorley is an effective runner on both scrambles and designed runs. His 4.3 yards per non-sack carry undersells his ability a bit given the offensive line's proclivity for allowing no-chance TFLs. He opens things up by making sound reads on read-options and RPOs. He had 13 carries for 71 yards in this game and those were about evenly split between read keepers and scrambles—he used his legs to get a couple critical late first downs when Iowa couldn't keep him in the pocket. He gets a 7.

Dangerman: Saquon Barkley, the best player in the country, needs no introduction. While Indiana and Northwestern have successfully limited him on the ground (yes, I'll be tearing into this OL in a moment, don't worry), he went bonkers against Iowa.

That's an 11-minute highlight reel from one game; it'd stand in nicely as a season highlight reel for a lot of backs. If you take the time to go through that, you'll see that Barkley has become the sun and the moon of this PSU offense now that Godwin isn't there to haul down 75% of 50-50 balls. Many of PSU's best plays were simple dumpoffs to Barkley that got him the ball in space against doomed defensive backs. He leads the team in receiving with 29 receptions on 32 targets for 395 yards; while his typical reception is close to the line of scrimmage, he does incredible work after the catch to average 13.6 YPC anyway.

Even more remarkably, he averages 6.4 yards per carry behind an offensive line that ranks 118th in stuff rate and 127th in power success rate. They're bad. It often doesn't matter. I pulled five straight plays from PSU's second-to-last drive, an eight-minute grind when they were up two points and trying to put the game away. Barkley is constantly put in awful situations, only to wizard his way to positive yardage: 

Even for Michigan's defense, corralling Barkley won't be easy. They won't get much of a breather from him, either. Barkley has 102 carries this season; no other PSU back has more than nine despite five of their six wins coming by multiple scores.

Trace McSorley makes Barkley's life a little easier because of his ability to execute Joe Moorhead's offense; they ran a lot of read-options and RPOs without McSorley missing anything obvious. He also mitigates some of the blocking problems with his mobility; he's at his most dangerous when he breaks the pocket, especially since PSU's receivers are very adept at the scramble drill:

Finally, tight end Mike Gesicki hasn't had the start to the season he imagined when he turned down the NFL draft for one more year at Penn State; while he's catching nearly 80% of the balls that come his way, he's only averaging 8.0 yards per reception. Gesicki was relegated to a safety outlet against Iowa, getting 25 yards on five catches with a long of seven—he wasn't targeted downfield. That's a major change from last year and one I don't expect to last; Gesicki is a huge target with excellent jump-ball skills. PSU's propensity for running split zone, which only asks the TE to seal off the backside of the play, has helped hide him as a blocker, which is good for PSU, since he's still not strong at all in that regard.

Zook Factor: Remember the world's saddest field goal?

We've got ourselves a Zook Factor.

HenneChart: Before we get to the chart, context is necessary. The lack of Godwin, Gesicki's ineffectiveness, poor pass protection, and Barkley's ability to turn zero yards into 15 seems to have changed PSU's approach. While Iowa's conservative defense surely factored in, PSU barely looked to throw the ball farther than 10-15 yards downfield—note the abnormally high volume of screens (or screen-like dumpoffs to Barkley behind the line).

Iowa 5 17+ (10) -- 5 (1) -- 2 6 5 3 66%

When given a clean pocket or a lane to escape, McSorley was excellent. As you can see by the pressure number, however, clean pockets were hard to come by. Keeping McSorley bottled up in the pocket is a huge priority; not only was Iowa able to hit home with pressure, but McSorley is only 6'0", and the Hawkeyes batted down six(!!!) passes in this game.


Literally every snap:

Formations Run Pass PA
Gun 43 48 8
I-Form -- -- --
Ace -- -- --
Pistol -- -- --
Heavy -- -- --

They stayed quite balanced until third downs because they often fell off-schedule:

Down Run Pass PA
1st 23 16 4
2nd 15 14 3
3rd 5 17 1

A healthy number of those runs and PAs are RPOs, which are the base of Moorhead's offense. In RichRod-like fashion, he devised his offense partly through divine intervention, as a knee injury to his quarterback at Fordham forced him to find another way to option off defenders (read that article).

Penn State isn't going to be able to consistently move the ball against Michigan like they did against Iowa. For one thing, they struggled on the ground against Indiana and Northwestern. For another, Michigan's defense is hellacious. Don Brown is going to tear this O-line to pieces. Right tackle was an obvious sore spot but at times it was tempting to put a cyan circle around the whole dang line:

This is how Barkley isn't putting up Bryce Love numbers. It's also a major problem for Penn State when the field gets constricted. They were holding the point of attack so poorly that I didn't blame Franklin for kicking two field goals from inside the three—not even the one from inside the one. I don't think it helps that their best interior lineman (RG Brendan Mahon) lines up next to their worst lineman (whoever is at RT).

Speaking of which, that right tackle spot will have Michigan's D-line salivating. PSU finally pulled Andrew Nelson after he gave up three sacks and a hit that caused McSorley's interception. Will Fries replaced Nelson. He is #71 in this screencap:

That, believe it or not, was the sack-fumble. They look a lot like Michigan's line in pass protection: generally decent with a turnstile at right tackle.

They manage to get a top-15 offense out of this because they have a great backfield and a great coordinator. Even though Barkley commands a ton of attention, Moorhead still finds ways to scheme up plays that get him into the secondary. The screencap below shows PSU with two very viable options at the mesh point:

This was an unusual read-option. PSU pulled their left tackle (#52), who's leading through the hole for what could be a chunk gain for McSorley. The motion of the play, however, caused the unblocked DE (next to #74 in white) to shuffle too far inside. While both options would've worked, handing to Barkley is the play when the options are Barkley and McSorley; he got the corner to set up first and goal.

The receivers are solid despite the loss of Godwin. Another 6'4" downfield threat, Juwan Johnson, has stepped up in his place; he's not on Godwin's level but he's quite talented. He has McSorley's trust—he converted the first down on the scramble drill play embedded earlier in the post and also caught the game-winning score. DaeSean Hamilton, who's entered Brooks Bollinger Memorial 8th-Year Senior territory, is a reliable slot receiver who's capable of big plays, especially when things break down and it's scramble drill time. Saeed Blacknall is another downfield jump-ball threat, though one who lacks consistency; he splits time on the outside with DeAndre Thompkins, who's more of a catch-and-run guy. Given how well Michigan's corners all fared against Simmie Cobbs, I think they've got a good shot at shutting this crew down.

At that point, it comes down to whether McSorley and Barkley can produce big plays. My expectations is they'll break a couple big ones. Michigan caught PSU last year before Moorhead's offense was fully operational and you can only keep Barkley down for so long. That said, Michigan's defense can produce some huge plays of its own given their significant advantage up front. The Nittany Lions have the advantage in a rockfight because of their superior skill players; that type of game is still by far Michigan's best chance of pulling the upset, and I don't think it's at all out of the question for this to be an ugly slog that turns on a handful of plays.



October 20th, 2017 at 1:15 PM ^

Biggest thing that jumped out to me is that McSorely is only 6'0".  And who knows if that's inflated by the athletic department. 

I hope our DL puts as much emphasis on batting down passes as the Saints did this past Sunday.  Just put enough pressure where he can't get a clear lane to throw and hopefully bat some passes down (or up for INTs).


October 20th, 2017 at 12:55 PM ^

based upon our Offense performance.  Our D will keep us in the game, for the most part, if only our O can get something, anything going.

 If we are positive in the turnover dept. and have more time of possession,,...well PSU can be defeated! 


October 20th, 2017 at 12:57 PM ^

So basically what everyone expects. Michigan can't likely keep up in a track meet, but a rockfight/sludgefart/1950s game favors nobody and Michigan has more than enough talent to win.


October 20th, 2017 at 1:04 PM ^

That has been with me since i was young because of our natural rivalry. But with PSU, i feel nothing but disgust even for there football program. I hope to hell i see the ghost of Alan Branch out there laying people out! GO BLUE!


October 20th, 2017 at 1:16 PM ^

So Penn State has:

1. A shitty O line (especially Right Tackle)

2. Mediocre QB play

3. stud TE

4. Pretty much a non-existent pass game


Sound like anyone we know?  Sure, Higdon & Co. aren't like Barkley, but PSU's offense fits their personel much better than our offensive scheme.  Wish we used our RBs for dump offs and some of the things Barkley gets. 


October 20th, 2017 at 1:29 PM ^

McSorley is 20th out of 112 QBs in passing efficiency. I'd say that 's far from mediocre. John O'Korn is at 102. Therein lies the difference.


Although, to be honest, I'm starting to question that metric. It has, Ol' Arm Punter McSorley at 20, Ol' Noodelarmed Hornibrook at 9, and Ol' Can't-throw-it-downfield J.T. Barrett at 4. 3 of our next 6 opponents have top 20 QBs. Should be a good test for the young and improving defense.


October 20th, 2017 at 1:17 PM ^

I remember watching the Iowa game and laughing at how bad Iowa was defending Barkley on screen passes. I think they ran the same play somewhere between 10-15 against Iowa and gained a ton of positive yards each time. That won't work against Don Brown. Their offensive coordinator will have to call the best game of his life against Don Brown because this offense is very overrated.


October 20th, 2017 at 1:24 PM ^

Won't break 100 on the ground. It's going to come down to slowing their pass game and actually scoring touchdowns on offense. Field goals won't win this one, boys


October 20th, 2017 at 2:13 PM ^

They're too aggressive to pitch a shutout, but this defense is pretty good at containing any offense to around 10-14 points.  If we can just get within Nordin's FG range -- which with his range isn't asking much of the offense -- we can plausibly win with 5-6 FGs.  Something like 15-14 or 18-17 is within the realm of possibility.

The key thing is turnovers.  You can't attempt a field goal if the drive ends by giving the ball away.

Shop Smart Sho…

October 20th, 2017 at 1:25 PM ^

I watched part of the Iowa/PSU game and noticed something strange about how McSorley and Barkley handle the mesh point. Now, I might have been wrong in what I was seeing, or it might have only happened in that game. But it seemed as though McSorley held onto the ball for an extremely long time, even if the idea was to attempt to option off a defender. 

Please, correct me if I'm wrong about that, but it just seems like it was taking him way too long to decide to keep or hand off. If that's the case, it would seem like that is something that won't go well for them with Hurst penetrating the line as quickly as he does.


October 20th, 2017 at 2:08 PM ^

This may not be a weakness.  The age-old, super-vanilla way to defend a read option is to have the optioned defender shuffle near the LoS.  When the defender delays the decision, it naturally prolongs the mesh.  Kind of a game of chicken, really.

Now, offenses can also prolong the mesh on purpose for various reasons, but I don't think PSU has the confidence in their O-line to do that.  So I'm really interested in what you see out of the edge defender.


October 20th, 2017 at 1:29 PM ^

The offensive line continues to be the weak point; PSU has already tried three different starters at right tackle and made a mid-game switch against Iowa that didn't help matters.

Sounds like our D-line already repped for this game back in fall camp.

Ron Utah

October 20th, 2017 at 1:36 PM ^

I predicted this would be the toughest win on the schedule, and I still believe that.  Wisconsin is just okay, and we have Ohio State at home.

Barkley is the closest thing to Barry I've seen in years.  His stop/start and lower-body strength are very similar to Sanders'.

All that said, this PSU squad has been able to paper over their deficiencies with scheme on offense.  They won't be able to do that consistently on Saturday night.  Yes, this is a winnable game, but it will be extremely tough.  Victory certainly puts all of UM's goals back within reach.

Perkis-Size Me

October 20th, 2017 at 1:46 PM ^

Make it an ugly sludgefart of a game and we've got a shot. Michigan has more than enough playmakers on defense to put PSU into some bad situations and potentially make some mistakes. Brown is going to have the DL come after McSorely like he is their collective worst enemy. 

But the offense has to generate some plays here and there and, if nothing else, move the chains. Anything that keeps Barkley off the field and gives the defense a chance to rest. Force a turnover or two, set the offense up with a short field, limit the amount of big plays PSU can muster, and we've got a game. 

Oh yeah, and stop turning the ball over. 

Space Coyote

October 20th, 2017 at 1:54 PM ^

Plus like a dozen other plays in his highlights package, are something I was raving about during that game. Not only is he turning negative plays into positive plays, but he's, about on average, making 6 yards on his own. Should be tackled 4 yards behind the LOS, ok, I'll gain a yard. Should be stuffed at the LOS, ok, I'll gain 6. Should be stopped for 3 yards on a swing pass, ok, I'll jump over a guy and get a first down.

The defense has to force the reads away from him (or force PSU to force him the ball when they shouldn't, the way Michigan plays it is the same). He makes yards out of nothing.


October 20th, 2017 at 2:06 PM ^

I trust the D-line to hold down the interior but pretty much everyone's expecting PSU to try to get Barkley the ball in space.

One thing I noted about Bush early on was just how well he tackles at speed.  He wraps up guys actively trying to juke him at a closing speed that would have most defenders blowing by their target from a simple sidestep.  He has an elite combination of change of direction and the instincts to adjust at the last possible moment to make resistance futile.  That ability will be invaluable in containing Barkley.

I think Bush is going to chase Barkley all game, and if I may make a slightly bolder prediction, I think Brown will trust Bush with that assignment.  As in, I don't think Bush will get much help.  If Bush can fight Barkley to a draw, that will allow Doc Brown to smother the rest of the offense.


October 20th, 2017 at 3:04 PM ^

Hit Barkley on every option. If McSorley gets a couple good gains on pulls whatever, he is much less likely to turn a hole and 15-20 yard gain into a 60 yard TD.  

[email protected]

October 21st, 2017 at 6:14 AM ^

Looks like it is in "trouble."

Looks like that good TE is also in trouble, and will often not be going out to catch passes.

Passes of course, look like they could only be theoretical.


EDIT: Upon further review, the addition of a big Samoan man along the defensive front, on some plays could cause major confusion, and toy with their double team selections. I'm thinking their backfield could experience some explosions. Seal those edges, boys!!

Also, Maize pants. :)