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