Northwestern came into the Penn State game fresh off a 700+ yard offensive output against Indiana. They were undefeated at 5-0, and had the #2 ranked rushing offense in college football, churning out over 250 yards on the ground per game. They also had a quarterback, Siemian, who could throw. Siemian was completing nearly 70% of his passes, and even in split snaps, was closing in on his first 1,000 yards through the air.
As Pettigano mentioned in his preview, Northwestern's best run was Colter leading their zone-read/zone-option play. Ted Roof needed to have an answer for that. And when Siemian was under center, Roof had to cover for his thin secondary as Northwestern would run out four and five wide in 2x2, 3x1, and 3x2 sets. In the last two seasons, Penn State had allowed 406 yards and 369 yards of offense to the 'Cats, though both in victory. This 2012 Northwestern offense, by nearly all accounts, was even better than either of those two squads.
Yet Roof's defense held them to just 247 yards. The popular notion at BSD is that the defensive improvement is a result of Roof adopting a form of Tom Bradley's Bend But Don't Suck (BBDS) defense. And while Film Room agrees with that notion at a 30,000 foot view, at the ground level there are some small but significant differences. Let's take a look at a few of them.
Kill The Lights
Stuffing The Zone-Read
Let's take a look at Northwestern's best run, the zone-read. In the shot below, Colter is the quarterback, Trumpy is the offset back, and Mark is the back in the 'pistol' directly behind Colter. This is actually a triple option play for Northwestern. At the snap, Mark will hit the LOS on a dive. Colter needs to read DE Barnes (#1 in the shot below) who will be unblocked. If Barnes crashes down, Colter will keep the ball and go wide, with Trumpy as a pitch man. If Barnes stays wide with Trumpy, then Colter gives Mark the ball. Hodges (#2) becomes Colter's second read, assuming he hasn't already given the ball to Mark. If Hodges takes Colter, then he'll pitch to Trumpy - and vice versa.
But what if DE Barnes doesn't crash down, nor does he go wide? What if DE Barnes recognizes the formation pre-snap, feels that he's unblocked, and waits for Colter to choose, becauseBarnes is athletic enough to wait and still make a play? Likewise, what if Hodges recognizes the formation pre-snap, and comes tearing into the backfield like a bat out of hell, because Northwestern's tendancy is to run with Colter under center? Last, what if Colter really wants to keep the ball for himself, and waits to the last possible second to pull it away from Mark, practically begging the unblocked Barnes to crash down?
Well then, you get something like the shot below. Colter is practically running to the LOS himself with Mark and the ball. How long has Colter waited? Long enough for Hodges (#2 below) to move from the 14 yard line on the far hash down to the 7 yard line and the near hash. Barnes has played it slowly, patiently waiting to this point, still maintaining an angle to support either option. Equally important, Jordan Hill, after being doubled initially, has given up exactly zero ground from his DT position.
The result? Colter waits so long to pull the ball from Mark that Barnes and Hodges tackle them both at the same time (below). Barnes (#1) wraps up Mark, and Hodges (#2) jumps on Colter's back like a lion attacking a gazelle - very NatGeo. Colter did eventually pull the ball away from Mark. So Colter gets credit for the 3-yard loss. Special shout out to LB Glenn Carson on the right side of the shot below, who successfully shed his block to the point that the Northwestern lineman appears to be shot and headed for a nice face plant. Nice wide feet, though.
Is that different than BBDS? No, I don't suppose it is. But I can appreciate the coaching it takes to get a freshman DE to recognize, stay patient, and make a play. Tip of my cap to you, LJ Sr.
Outnumbering the Protection
One thing that is a bit different is how Penn State reacted to Northwestern going to an empty backfield. In the shot below, Penn State does in fact have 4 down linemen and 3 linebackers on the field. But as soon as Northwestern shows only QB Siemian in the backfield, LB's Mauti (#1) and Carson (#2) jump into the 'B' gaps, showing blitz. Penn State's two DTs are pinched in, shading both shoulders of the center. At this point, Siemian has 5 blockers against 6 (potential) Penn State blitzers - i.e., somebody will have a free run at him, so he's got to get rid of the ball quickly. Right?
Wrong. At the snap both Mauti and Carson bail out, looking for the short crosser who would be Siemian's 'hot' read. That poor soul breaks off his normal route and runs right into Mauti (#1), who is praying Siemian will throw the ball to him like Scheelhaase did last week. Carson (#2) doesn't have any near in routes, so he'll be carrying the inside receiver to the next level.
DE Sean Stanley beats Northwestern's LT and is about to tattoo Siemian (below). Siemian is able to get rid of the ball, but it floats high, right into Hodges bread basket, though Hodges drops it. Mauti (#1) has the hot route covered, but the ball didn't come his way this time.
Northwestern went to an empty backfield three times in the first three "drives" that didn't start at the one yard line - all 3-and-outs. Each time they did, Mauti and Carson jumped into the 'B' gaps to show a 6-man blitz against a 5-man protection. On the first play, the LB's bailed out and Siemian threw incomplete. On the second play, the LB's rushed and the DT's bailed out - and DT DaQuan Jones had an almost interception. The third time the LB's bailed and Siemian threw a shoulda-been pick to Hodges. Northwestern chose not to run empty backfield very much after that.
Re-Route The Receivers
Re-routing the offense's receivers absolutely is a Penn State linebacker tradition. There's a story from the mid 1980's of Shane Conlan re-routing an Alabama receiver so successfully that the kid needed dental work after the game. But Film Room loves tradition, and just had to share this one of Hodges re-routing Colter, presented without comment.
Hit The Lights
Some things definitely stay the same - good D-Line play, good linebacker play. On the other hand, Roof has definitely added a few wrinkles, game-planning the 6-on-5 jump when Northwestern went to an empty backfield.
One of the most critical distinctions - one that I couldn't get any good shots of from the TV broadcast - is how Roof has adapted the old-school Bradley Cover-3 nickle defense to what we see from Penn State in the last few weeks. You may have heard about this because Griese has mentioned it a few times on air: Hull comes in for Carson, Amos moves to safety, Willis comes off the field, and Davis takes Amos' corner spot. They have some cool name for it, like "monkey boy" or "donkey kong". It actually is still a "Cover-3" - but not in the Bradley sense. The BBDS Cover-3 had one safety in the middle of the field - e.g., Sukay, Scirotto, or one of the other 700 white safeties to roll through Happy Valley - and both corners each taking a deep third. The Hero, nickle, and two LB's would drop to area zones.
Roof's nickle is a hybrid. From the brief glimpses I've been able to catch, CB Stephon Morris locks on to a receiver man-to-man, usually on the weakside of the formation. The rest of the defenders route-match the receivers in a match-up zone, with the 'deep' defenders dictated by the offense's route combinations. It is really fun to watch, but a terrible pain-in-the-ass to describe. So I'll point you to the best resource I've found on it: Brophy Football's blog. In this article, he breaks down "Mable" - Nick Saban's man-zone hybrid adaptation to 3x1 spread. And in this article, he breaks down Saban's Rip/Liz adaptation for a twins set. It's pretty awesome, if you like the chess aspect of football.
Maybe someday TV broadcasts will give us an end-zone view, and not follow the damn football exclusively. There are 21 other guys on the field, producers.
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