Craig Has The Scout - Penn State 2021

Oct 21, 2021

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Coming Up

Who: Penn State Nittany Lions

When: 11:00am - October 23rd, 2021

Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

How: ABC

Opponent Primer:

Head Coach: James Franklin. With the LSU job opening up, Franklin has another rumored landing spot he will be linked to in the offseason. Franklin is the media's favorite guy to propose for other national jobs. Franklin has been at Penn State for eight years now, and is recruiting at a level within spitting distance of Ohio State. Penn State is clearly the #2 recruiter in the B1G, which leaves him in a better situation than most of the jobs he is rumored to be taking. Franklin is probably in line for a nice pay bump in the offseason.

Offensive Style: Power Run game out of multiple formations. In the off-season Franklin unceremoniously dumped Kirk Ciarrocca one year after poaching him from Minnesota. Tom Herman's firing at Texas opened up the Texas OC Mike Yurcich. Yurcich coached in Pennsylvania for a decade before being hired by Oklahoma State. Yurcich brings a zone run scheme with read options mixed with man blocking concepts. They also layer general passing concepts, but will be more than happy to create mismatches with formations. Get ready for trips formations all day.

Defensive Style: 4-2-5 with heavy blitz packages. Tim Banks was a co-coordinator last year for the Nittany Lions and moved on to Tennessee in the off-season. Brent Pry has taken over completely, and a heavy blitz scheme has become even more blitz happy. The results have been stellar so far as the Nittany Lions are a top-5 unit this season.

Specialists: The place-kicker for the Nittany Lions, Jordan Stout, has one of the biggest lines in all of CFB. He has kicked 33 of 35 kickoffs for a touchback (with one of the other two going out of bounds). Illinois tends to take touchbacks on kickoffs, so expect plenty of touchbacks.

Three Things to Watch

  1. Illini 3rd down conversion percentage. Illinois is below 40% on conversions for the year. Penn State is allowing 35%. Illinois is one of the worst offenses for drive efficiency (104th nationally). Illinois needs to sustain drives to be in this game.

  2. Illini plays greater than 10 yards. Penn State is very effective at limiting big plays. Penn State pressure will require the Illini offense to break big plays. The Nittany Lion defense will attempt to suffocate the Illini offense similar to the Wisconsin game.

  3. Penn State Rushing Attempts. Penn State will want to minimize the passing game as much as possible. If they are succeeding, the number of rush attempts will be in the 40s.

Scouting Review - Offense

Scheme to space, that is the offensive philosophy of Mike Yurcich. Yurcich will selectively use motion to get defenses to declare coverages, but primarily will use formations to take advantage of the mismatches. In his history of small college ball, Yurcich crossed paths with some alternative versions of the Run and Shoot. The Trips formation was one of the primary weapons utilized as it forces defenses to roll coverages and easily puts secondaries into conflict. Additionally, the set-up allows the QB to find hot reads against pressure or blitzes. It fails when teams take away the short and intermediate routes.

Franklin philosophically seems to jive with Yurcich on game plans. Franklin came to Penn State with John Donovan and an uninspired offense. Donovan never had the talent advantage he needed in order to run the boring offense he ran, and Franklin hired Joe Moorhead and his unique uptempo offense from Fordham. Penn State took off on the transition. Moorhead moved to Mississippi State, and Ricky Rahne called the plays for the Moorhead offense for a few more years. Rahne moved on to Old Dominion, and Franklin hired Ciarrocca. The offense last year reverted back to the uninspired Donovan years, and Franklin wasted no time course-correcting. Yurcich is a closer scheme and tempo match to Moorhead.

One issue that plagued Penn State last year was an ineffective rushing attack. The new OC and a new OL coach never fully synched, so Franklin replaced the OC. The OL coach came from a power running tree (he was Addazio's OL coach at BC prior to coming to Penn State) which makes the current OL issues more confusing. They have been good pass blocking but are struggling to consistently create holes for the rushing attack. The running backs are not helping either. Noah Cain was supposed to be the breakout back, but has struggled to 3.0 YPC on the season. Clifford was the most effective rusher prior to his injury. Yurcich needs to find a way to get the rushing attack in order.

Yurcich will lean into the hits to get it started. The primary play of any spread offense is the read option. Penn State generally runs outside zone in the look, but the run game hasn't been incredibly effective this year. Here is the primary look.

Two interesting parts of this play. First, Penn State starts in the trips formation, which Yurcich uses extensively in his play design as mentioned above. Second, the double teams are a big part of the blocking scheme for Penn State, and they are struggling moving opponents this season. Against Illinois, they will most likely use more Twins set with an H-back on the side. It still allows Yurcich to maintain his 3-man receiving threat on a side.

The Nittany Lions are running a man-up blocking scheme here, which is a different look from most zone blocking schemes.

The Nittany Lions will run RPO and play action off the zone run scheme. Here is one example.

Clifford is throwing this from the snap, but the OL is run blocking on the play. Clifford made this call as a pre-snap read. I'm uncertain on the key for the read. I'll be curious to see if Roberson or Veilleux can read as effectively. Here is a similar look, but a play-action pass version.

The offensive line here is pass blocking vs. the previous version. I think Yurcich might lean more into the pure play-action passing. Penn State used this with Roberson after Clifford went down, and Roberson's passing was not top notch.

Roberson sailed this one. Illinois might press corners against Penn State to increase the skill level needed to move the ball in this look if Roberson is the QB. There is danger in that as the Penn State WRs are talented and the Illini struggled in single coverage early in the year.

Penn State likes to put running backs into a pro set in the backfield. They run primarily pass plays out of the set but have run sets attached as well. Here is the same outside zone run from this set.

The Nittany Lions utilize pin and pull blocking rules here. The rules here allow all linemen playside to block down, and any uncovered OL to pull to the edge. Penn State should use this against the 4-man Illinois defensive front.

The pin and pull rules are a big part of the Urban Meyer offense. Another big part of the Urban Meyer offense was the midline option, as seen here.

This play is one of the more successful line blocking schemes Penn State had in the Indiana game. Again, they are struggling to move the line blocking.

The time with Tom Herman has introduced Yurcich to more power running schemes. He has introduced the power runs into the offense this season. The H-motion is in play again here.

Similar to other recent offenses Illinois has struggled to stop, Penn State has made some hay with this play recently. The Nittany Lion running backs are pretty good at reading the holes and bouncing the runs if needed.

The Nittany Lion WRs are solid at blocking downfield.

The Illini will be without Jake Hansen this week, which leaves them with two LBs known more as pluggers vs. sideline LBs. The Nittany Lions should mix in a jet sweep this weekend.

The key for the Illini back is the under-center snap. Penn State has not run this out of shotgun under Yurcich.

The pro-set is the secondary formation look for the Nittany Lions. Penn State runs a play out of this my high school loved to run.

The RBs run mirrored angle routes, with levels running behind on crosses. The angles normally freeze the LBs, opening up the deep cross. Another pass play out of the pro-set is the dual post routes Penn State will run.

The TE runs up the seam pulling the safety with him. The action puts the corner on an island with the WR.

The primary formation for the Nittany Lions is trips. The three receivers to one side limit the defensive coverages, and the use of motion often forces the defense to declare the coverage pre-snap. Yurcich's mentors believed in extensive screens and tight throws to the sidelines, along with intermediate attacks along the seams. Here is an all-hitches pass play.

Another facet of the Yurcich's mentors was using the trips to the short side of the field. They utilize it here, and use the spacing of the receivers to open seams in the defense. The WR releases are used to open up seams with multiple routes.

Without all-22 film, it is hard to tell which routes are option routes versus those part of the normal pattern. Penn State uses the trips look and will cross over the routes initially to create spacing against defenders. It helps to prevent press coverages on receivers. The Nittany Lions run the standard passing concepts. Similar to the Briles offense though, they vary the splits of the WRs, cheat backfield alignment, vary the OL splits, and use motion to sow confusion for opposing defenses. From there, they run the standard, vertical passing attacks, levels passing concepts.

Without Clifford, the shorter routes will be more in play than the deeper routes he hit here. The back-up Nittany Lion QBs won't have the patience to let these plays develop like Clifford did. They also run mesh concepts. Here is a dual mesh concept I had not seen before.

The TE and split end run the standard mesh concept. The twins receivers run to each other, then split to their routes. Typically, teams will cross the receivers vs. the split Penn State runs here.

Another receiver eccentricity is a delay the receivers will use prior to running their routes.

The delay receiver tends to be the primary on the route combos. The delay allows the other two receivers to clear defenders and open space for the trailing receiver.

The most common pass play for the Nittany Lions is the WR screen. Yurcich loves to throw wide to the sideline.

The two plays above are the same, but the second play was set up with a motion to trips. Penn State will use motion to move secondaries and declare coverages. Here is the same play with Roberson at QB.

Roberson doesn't have the arm strength of Clifford, and as a result the play is stopped for a short gain. If Roberson is the starting QB, they will most likely run this to the short side of the field more often.

The final formation Penn State uses in the passing game is the 2x2 formation. The WR screen game used out of this formation is a tunnel screen.

Penn State should utilize Dotson in this attack. They will also run mirrored concepts out of this look. The attack tends to be more intermediate routes, in this case Posts and Go routes.

Roberson didn't do much in the deeper passing game, but Illinois has been susceptible. It will be interesting to see if Roberson gets the call or they utilize the freshman.

The Penn State offense with Clifford looked much different than when Roberson replaced him. Yurcich has been unable to get the running game on track, but Clifford was able to attack the deep and intermediate routes effectively. Now that Clifford will be limited or out, the offense will have to adjust. Roberson lacks the quick decision making and arm talent of Clifford. Veilleux is a true freshman and a wildcard. Penn State will most likely utilize the screen game and run more this weekend to protect the question marks at quarterback.

Scouting Review - Defense

Brent Pry must have enjoyed the schedule when he looked at it to start the season. Iowa is one of the worst offenses in the B1G. Illinois is only slightly better. And in between Penn State picked up a bye. Penn State has taken the starch out opponents this year by blitzing in early downs, getting opponents in passing downs, then taking away passing lanes to force punts. When the Nittany Lions lock down on opponents, they are very effective. Penn State is holding opponents to 58% scoring in the zone, and allowing opponents to convert 35% on 3rd downs.

Penn State offensively is not running the tempo Yurcich was brought in to run yet. They are middle of the pack in tempo thus far. Defensively though they are seeing more plays than Pry would like. They are only allowing 4.27 yards per play though (5th in the nation). Auburn was the only team moderately successful running the ball against the Nittany Lions. Illinois will need to maintain the rushing attack, the three closest games against Penn State have occurred with opponents who rushed 40 times against them.

The Illini will try and force the run game against Penn State, and the Nittany Lions will be another very stout opponent against the run. The Nittany Lion defense blitzes often yet has some of the cleanest run fits Illinois will see all year.

The Penn State defense flows quickly to the ball, and generally hold the line of scrimmage. Against Iowa, they began selling out to stop the run and occasionally overcommitted.

The Iowa OL slowly worked the Penn State front, and that led to the LB throwing himself at the hole vs. making the play. If Illinois can get a competent run game going, these types of mistakes may appear in the 2nd half.

Against the run, Penn State runs a great deal of split field coverage. Early in games though, they use man coverage with a single high safety.

Penn State is bouncing coverage with the safeties here and the new safety takes the man in motion. Here is another example of bouncing coverage.

This might be the best secondary in the B1G and Illinois will need to find clever ways to force the Penn State defenders into conflict. If Illinois starts having success doing that, Penn State will most likely move to man as seen above. Illinois will need to press the advantage for the TEs against the LBs for the passing game to work.

When Indiana had success as mentioned above against the TEs, Penn State began mixing in Cover 3 with the LBs/Nickel packed in the middle of the field.

Penn State was forcing Pennix to make long throws to the sidelines to move the ball. They are less prone to blitz while running this, so a competent passing attack to the TEs should help move Penn State to this defense. Additionally, this will open up flat routes to the RBs and TEs.

Illinois cannot fall behind the chains with regularity, the Penn State defense loves to bring five man pressure. The defensive line is extremely stout with the pass rush, and when they pin their ears back it can get ugly.

Penn State is not lighting up the board on sacks. The pressure has forced opponents to get the ball out quickly, and the secondary has been stellar at stopping passing attacks. Illinois will need a quick clock Saturday.

Penn State will blitz the LBs and Nickel when given the opportunity. The Nittany Lions are very sound, and are aggressive in pass coverage. The reputation means they are able to mug opposing receivers which builds on their coverage skills. Be ready for the differential in officiating to resemble a Wisconsin basketball game.

What does it mean?

I'm going to assume Clifford does play Saturday and is limited. Penn State's offense was pretty awful against Iowa but they don't need to be great to beat the Illini. The WR corps led by Dotson should allow the offense to score enough for Penn State to win. The Nittany Lions will struggle early to move the ball before finding some gaps in the Illini defense and moving the ball. Statistically the Illini defense is solid but will see too many plays to completely hold back the Penn State offense.

The Nittany Lion defense will take a page from the Wisconsin playbook and take away the run game and intermediate passing game. The Illini will need to break a series of big plays to generate points. If Penn State can avoid crushing turnovers, they win a closer than expected game, but comfortably.

For Illinois to Win:

Illinois has to win the quarterback battle. The Illini QB situation is up in the air between Sitkowski and Peters. The Nittany Lions are rotating reps between two back-ups as Sean Clifford is doubtful for Saturday's game. The Nittany Lions have yet to get the run game fully functional, but the passing attack has been dynamite under Clifford. Illinois needs the Penn State QB situation to remain as awful as it was in Iowa City, along with the Illini QBs to finally figure it out.

Defensively, Illinois needs to keep up the rate of forcing turnovers. The Illini are among the best in the country, and Penn State struggled last season when they were turning the ball over. Illinois needs some turnover fairy luck on Saturday in Happy Valley.

For Penn State to Win:

The offense should be limited, so the defense needs to show up on Saturday. Penn State needs to force Illinois to sustain drives, and play their standard run fits. If they can execute those, they win.

The offense looked very broken without Clifford in Iowa City, and the Nittany Lions can't afford for the offense to put the defense in bad spots. The offense needs to execute in the caretaker mode on Saturday and take advantages of the Illini struggles against rushing attacks. The Penn State offense will probably use the matchup as a get right game for the rush offense, and they will isolate their playmakers at receiver to break enough plays to pull away.

Illinois +23.5

I don't expect a high scoring affair in this game with two shaky QBs. Penn State will run a more conservative offensive game plan and rely on the defense to smother the Illini offense. That plan of attack worked for Wisconsin. Penn State knows Illinois won't reach 21 points without some bad turnover luck. The Nittany Lions will do enough to get to 21 and move on to fight another day. Illinois, coming off a bye, will be able to put some points on the board. I just don't see Penn State without Clifford covering this spread.

YTD Against the Spread:



Bear8287 on October 21, 2021 @ 09:56 PM

Given the score of the Wisconsin and this chart, I think I understand the spread. Hope the Illini can get the ball into the endzone.

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Bear8287 on October 21, 2021 @ 09:58 PM

Would've just edited the above, but "edit" doesn't seem to work... enter image description here

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