Penn State's defense let this happen. Against Indiana. Penn State's defense of yore is dead.
Penn State lost to Indiana 44-24 last weekend despite holding a 14-13 lead early in the third quarter. It was IU's first-ever win over PSU. Both teams left a lot of points on the board. Indiana had a failed 4th-and-3 in the red zone and settled for two field goals from inside PSU's ten-yard line in the first half; Penn State's first two drives ended with a failed 4th-and-5 on the IU 26 and another turnover on downs when their long snapper sailed one on a field goal attempt, losing 31(!) yards in the process. The final score, however, seems fitting to me after watching the tape—Indiana controlled most of the game and would've completely dominated if not for PSU WR Allen Robinson, who was easily the best player on the field and, if not for Taylor Lewan, would probably take that honor this weekend, as well.
Thanks to some creative editing by the BTN (I taped the replay when it was apparent nobody was uploading a torrent of this game), the charting is not comprehensive even before I stopped after Indiana took a 42-17 fourth-quarter lead; a few drives from the first quarter were cut out, as were a couple late drives. A sanity check with the box score and PSU blogs gives me the impression that I saw more than enough from this game, though, to get an accurate idea of what was going on.
[On to the breakdown after THE JUMP.]
The constant from last year's PSU-IU game to this year's: Allen Robinson is really, really good.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread. Bill O'Brien's offense operates mostly out of the shotgun, utilized some one-back under-center sets, and only put a fullback on the field in short-yardage situations. They usually trotted out a variation on this set—one back, three receivers, with the tight end standing up and off the line:
They'd line this up either 3x1, like the screencap above, or 2x2 with the slot on the other side of the formation. This looks like a pure passing formation given the TE's stance, but they had plenty of runs out of this, mostly inside zone.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Basketball on grass—PSU almost exclusively runs zone blocking concepts.
Hurry it up or grind it out? PSU plays at a very fast tempo; they're a pure no-huddle offense, and even with a true freshman at quarterback they operate at a high speed between snaps. It won't be easy for Michigan to do much rotating between plays in the defensive front seven.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Christian Hackenberg had a couple very impressive escapes from pressure in the pocket but he didn't look to run downfield. He's a pocket passer and not particularly fleet of foot, and PSU isn't asking him to run at all. I'll give him a 3.
Dangerman: As BiSB pointed out today, Allen Robinson has 44% of Penn State's receiving yards, and he's the only big-play threat on their offense. In this game, he finished with 12 receptions for 173 yards and two touchdowns, including this sick catch-and-run:
The good news is he's Penn State's only real offensive threat. The bad news is everybody knows this and he's still rather unstoppable. Robinson can take the top off the defense or work underneath, runs great routes, and is a very strong runner after the catch; he's also clearly the only receiver Hackenberg really trusts, to the point that he gets a lot of targets when he's not open—he'll haul some of these in anyway.
Zook Factor: Bill O'Brien is basically the anti-Zook. He went for it on fourth down four times in this game (the box score shows a fifth, but that's the botched FG snap) and, IMO, all were the right call. He's aggressive in a way that's going to maximize what he gets out of his offense, especially since the kicking game is still a little shaky—while K Sam Ficken has been very good this year (8/10, both misses from 40+) they did allow a blocked field goal in addition to the snapocalypse against IU.
HenneChart: Hackenberg finished 30/55 for 340 yards and three touchdowns, which on its face looks like quite the performance. He was 6/8 for 71 yards and a touchdown after IU went up 42-17, however, when the Hoosiers were content to let PSU work their way down the field. In reality, when the game was close, he was very erratic, alternating gorgeous darts to the opposite hash with late throws to the perimeter that should've been intercepted (I have four of those in my notes) and several passes either behind or over his receivers. The chart bears this out, and it's ugly:
|Indiana||3||13 (6)||2||10 (1)||5||2 (1)||2||--||--||47%|
That's... pretty awful. A couple of those INs could probably be filed under PRs (pressures), which would up his success rate slightly—Hackenberg often held onto the ball too long in the pocket, but his protection wasn't very good. Even if you move around some of those numbers, though, the general result is still the same: this is a talented true freshman who plays like a talented true freshman. Some of his passes actually elicited a "wow" from me while watching; others produced a "whoa"—as in "whoa, how did that not get picked off?"
In addition to the late throws outside—pure pick-six material—he overthrew several receivers, left a couple open out routes way too far inside, and waited too long to hit open underneath routes against zone coverage—in the latter two cases, he turned easy completions into dangerous incompletions. It's pretty clear that the game hasn't slowed down for him yet, and this was a matchup against a notoriously bad defense.
As usual, we start with the formation chart:
Before Penn State fell behind, the Ace formation was an obvious run tip. They utilized the I-form only in short yardage situations, and it was obvious when they were about to run play-action (any time the line to get was further than two yards out). The breakdown of play types by down:
This tells much of the story about PSU's offense and why they've been so bad on third down (29.7% on the season, 111th nationally, despite going 11-for-22 in this game). They routinely went run-run-pass despite a relatively ineffective ground game to set themselves up with a lot of third-and-long situations—the backs averaged 3.7 ypc, and that number went up as the game went along. O'Brien opened up the offense a bit in the second half as his team fell behind; when it was close, they were pretty predictable, and they're obviously hamstrung by trying to protect a true freshman quarterback from making big mistakes.
It doesn't help that the offensive line isn't particularly good at either facet of blocking. Zach Zwinak, who's basically a fullback, is PSU's starting tailback over a couple much more athletic options (especially Bill Belton, who looks very good when he has any room to operate) because he's able to break tackles by linebackers, and that's very necessary; PSU's linemen couldn't get a push up front, let alone get blockers to the second level, in their zone-heavy scheme. Like Michigan, Penn State has pretty much taken the tight ends out of the equation when it comes to run blocking, as you can see by how they align them. Most first-down plays were inside zones out of the gun that went nowhere, repeatedly putting the offense behind the eight-ball right away.
The pass protection was also poor; PSU repeatedly allowed linemen to run unblocked into the backfield on stunts—if I had a torrent to work with, I'd have put together a reel of this happening four times in the span of two early drives. They didn't communicate well across the whole front—there were a couple Frank Clark Specials when a defensive end would simply run into the backfield untouched.
Zwinak can consistently get positive yards despite the (lack of) blocking up front; he's another Mark Weisman, though, in that he's not going to make anybody miss downfield. Belton is much more explosive and he's also a good receiving threat out of the backfield, but he's marginalized because—much like Fitz Toussaint—he needs a crease of some sort or he's going to get buried in the backfield.
Robinson, as covered above, is terrifying. The good news is Michigan should be able to roll their coverage over to him and dare Hackenberg to look elsewhere; no other receiver has more than 16 catches this year (Robinson has 38), and that's Brandon Felder, who's averaging a paltry 8.4 yards per reception. Tight end Kyle Carter is the real #2 option and he's solid operating in the seams; still, he's only got 11 receptions this year. Hackenberg often stares down Robinson, which adds to both his poor decision-making and the line's inability to protect him (he'll stare, and stare, and then realize he's about to get killed). It's tough to blame him too much, as Robinson is clearly the team's only real offensive weapon, but it gets him in trouble about as often as Robinson bails him out.
The key to the game for the defense is clear: stop Robinson, or—like Indiana—shut down everything else so that any damage he does is offset by turnovers when Hackenberg forces it in there. Preferably, Blake Countess can do a much better job than Indiana's corners against Robinson, and with the way he's jumping routes this year he's going to get a chance or two to come away with an interception.
This is an example of an obvious I-form play-action situation, as well as one of Robinson being very, very good. It's 3rd-and-3 and PSU comes out in an I-form with Robinson at the top of the screen. For some reason—fear, probably—Indiana's corner plays way, way off of him:
At the snap, the tight end releases downfield, a dead giveaway that this is play-action. Note that Robinson still hasn't released downfield—he's reading the coverage to see where he should go next:
Hackenberg only needs a half-hearted run fake to suck up the entire front seven of Indiana; now the tight end is streaking down the seam and the corner over Robinson still hasn't moved. Robinson finally starts his route:
IU is playing a zone, as the safety passes off the tight end to the corner who started the play over Robinson—he's now backed all the way out of the screen. Robinson sits down in the hole between the safety, who's about to head his way, and the linebacker who's followed the fullback into the flat:
Easy pitch-and-catch time:
What makes Robinson so special (and Indiana's defense so bad) is the part of this play that isn't schematic at all; watch the video to see him easily break the safety's tackle and turn a four-yard gain into much more:
Robinson isn't just going to provide a huge test for Michigan's coverage; the secondary is going to have to be very sound in their tackling or he's going to consistently move the chains and break a big play or two. He's the only aspect of PSU's offense that worries me, but he's still enough of a force on his own to make this a game if Michigan's offense bogs down.
On that note...
Soft zone coverage in the end zone: not recommended.
Base Set? 4-3, though thanks to depth issues PSU is playing 5'10", 205-pound converted safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong most snaps at outside linebacker. This does allow them to shift pretty easily from 4-3 to nickel while keeping the same personnel on the field. It also means they're playing a tiny linebacker. If you're wondering how that goes, see the drive chart at the top of this post.
Man or zone coverage? Penn State played a soft Cover 2 zone on practically every down; this was like watching a Norm Parker Iowa outfit if that defense had serious talent deficiencies.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Very GERGian. PSU rushed four almost exclusively, and while they were able to generate pressure against a bad Indiana O-line, they're averaging just 2.2 sacks per game against a bad schedule; I don't see their defensive ends getting the same level of penetration against Taylor Lewan and Mike Schofield.
Dangerman: I had a very hard time coming up with one, which is telling. My friend who watched film with me suggested Devin Gardner, and he likes Devin Gardner. (He's also a former D-III football player, and within ten minutes of watching the tape he asked about the line, laughed when he heard it was just Michigan -3, and placed a sizable bet on the game.)
Anyway, dangerman. Senior DT DaQuan Jones was the one defensive lineman to really hold his own in this game, and he's leading the team with 6.5 TFLs and two sacks on the season. He gets this by default because I was wholly unimpressed with the linebackers and secondary.
(Yes, the real answer is probably Devin Gardner. Please take care of the ball, DG.)
This is where the impact of the sanctions really shows up; not only does Penn State lack their usual level of talent, they don't have the depth to help cover for their deficiencies.
The defensive line simply couldn't get off blocks. Indiana didn't get a ton of push, even though starting ends C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes weight 244 and 245 pounds, respectively, while starting DT Kyle Baublitz is listed at 281. It didn't matter, though, as they could single-block the D-line all day, get their linemen to the second level, and open up just enough space for their backs to hit a crease. Indiana averaged 4.4 ypc when sacks are removed, and their running backs actually averaged 5.7 ypc—Tre Roberson had 12 yards and two TDs (plus a two-point conversion) on five carries as the designated short-yardage running QB, which was very effective but brought down the overall numbers.
The line generated a bit of a pass rush, tallying three sacks and a few solid pressures, but their efforts were largely thwarted by the soft coverage behind them, which allowed IU to fire off quick passes before any rush could hit home. Jones could be a tough test for the interior line; however, it looks like he's the only lineman who'd require a double-team, and PSU rarely blitzes, so he should be the main focus of the line's blocking efforts.
As stated earlier, I wasn't impressed with the linebackers, especially the weakside starter, #43 Mike Hull. He ate a ton of blocks and compensated by getting over-aggressive, taking himself out of position often and also missing a few tackles even when he was in the right spot. The middle linebacker, #40 Glenn Carson, looked decent when he had the chance to flow to the football; with the line not holding up, this didn't occur too much.
It's tough to evaluate the secondary given the constant soft coverage—they even played soft in the end zone, giving up the TD at the top of this section and having another near-identical play called back for an ineligible receiver downfield. When asked to play man, I thought corner Trevor Williams (#10) did a very good job of sticking with his guy, but he gave up a few catches because he couldn't get his head around. The safeties were late getting over to corner routes as IU knew how to pick apart the Cover 2, and the Hoosiers also had a ton of success with screens; the coverage in the flats was terrible, the corners couldn't get off blocks, and the safeties didn't tackle well and took poor routes to the ball—the perfect storm for giving up lots and lots of yards on screens.
Despite the numbers, I think Michigan is a better running team with Chris Bryant in the lineup, and this looks like a team that could cede some really big plays. For example...
Indiana is in a second-and-long and comes out in the gun with three receivers; Penn State keeps their base defense on the field, with the safety-turned-linebacker shaded over the slot receiver:
Almost immediately after the snap, DT Austin Johnson—at 302 pounds, their "run-stopper" out of the Baublitz/Johnson co-starter pairing—gets buried while trying to knife inside (so badly that he actually takes out IU's right guard at the knees), opening up a crease right away on a zone read of sorts (I say that because Nate Sudfeld is the opposite of fast and never keeps on these):
Because Penn State, for some reason, fears a Sudfeld keeper, the playside DE is momentarily left unblocked as the left tackle immediately releases in the direction of the middle linebacker. IU doesn't want to leave him unblocked, however, and the tight end goes across to formation to pick up Olaniyan, who's so steadfast in maintaining the edge that the TE—expecting him to go for the RB at some point—just falls over attempting to cut him. By this point, Johnson getting crushed has taken out the entire left side of the PSU defensive line and there are blockers handling both linebackers—Jones is starting to disengage but it's too late for him to get there:
All RB Tevin Coleman has to do is run through the gaping hole and he's guaranteed at least ten yards:
And those ten yards turn into a 44-yard touchdown when Obeng-Agyapong takes a horrible angle and the deep safeties are too far to the outside to stop a running back flying untouched up the middle:
We're all waiting for Fitz Toussaint to have a really big game; between the reconfigured O-line and PSU's much worse than usual defense, this could be it. Given that Penn State also allowed 8.6 yards per pass despite dropping seven guys into coverage on nearly every play, the passing game should be solid as well—I don't see anyone on that defense who can match up with Funchess, and this should be the game when Michigan finally breaks a screen for a big gain.
The key, as always, is not turning the ball over. If Michigan keeps the turnover margin even, I have a hard time seeing a way they lose this one, even on the road.