In the mid-Atlantic, the last two weeks of October and the first week of November stand apart. Autumn leaves, brisk morning air, the carnival-like sounds and smells of Friday night high school football - it's impossible to beat. Summer excitement's done, but for three precious weeks, we get one last wild fling before most of nature and humanity pack it in for the winter.
Perhaps somewhere in there rests an analogy for Penn State's 2014 season. Maybe not. But nine days ago Penn State traveled to Ann Arbor and produced a paltry 214 yards of offense. It was the lowest output since November 7th, 2009, when our Lions scraped together just 201 yards in a 24-7 loss to a #5 Buckeyes squad. Since Rutgers blitzed, stunted, twisted, slanted, and blitzed some more against Penn State in Week 3 this year - and everyone has copied them since - the offense has struggled. Gaining 4 yards on first down has become a Herculean task at times, and the trendline (minus UMass) in output reflects it.
Kill The Lights
One of the nifty things John Donovan introduced Saturday at Michigan was a sweet inside zone run. Inside zone, by itself, was nothing new. But what Film Room appreciated - besides the zone blocking - was a bit of Gus Malzahn Auburn razzle dazzle. Donovan spread the field with three wideouts and sent whippet DaeSean Hamilton in motion on "jet sweep" action.
When you're struggling to execute your blocking assignments, particularly in space, it's sometimes helpful to make things a bit easier for the blockers. Spreading the field doesn't just empty the box, it makes everyone's pre-snap read easier. Easier = faster = better. And in the shot below, our beleaguered O-line takes advantage. Mangiro hooks Michigan's nose tackle as Mahon moves to the second level and jacks up their LB. Hobbled Donovan Smith can't keep up with the DE over him, but on this quick hitting inside run, he doesn't have to. The DE runs himself out of the play to stop the jet sweep fakes. And Bill Belton hits a nice hole at full speed.
The end zone shot of this play is pretty sweet. Belton had an open freeway to the secondary, where he made a safety miss and took 31 yards on the play. Most importantly, it came on 2nd and 9 - a blitz down and distance - which broke a "tendency" from Northwestern, when the tendency was to pass on every play.
Of course, as you know, the fun didn't last long. Immediately following Belton's 31 yard rush, Christian Hackenberg audibled at the line of scrimmage from a run to a pass. The resultant completion came back, though, because four O-linemen pass blocked, and one run blocked. The guilty party was five yards downfield, and drew the easy flag.
It happened again in the 4th quarter, with Penn State on the move into Wolverine territory. In the shot below Hack is checking out of a pass because he has numbers to his left.
Everyone gets the check, except for one. Belton gets stuffed for no gain, and Penn State's stuck behind the chains again.
Sidenote: I might hate unbalanced line more than Wildcat at this point, though it's a close call.
|Def Total||42||13||29||Off Total||34||62||-28|
Surprise - Mike Hull's a monster. If there's a better linebacker - inside or outside - in the Big Ten this year, I'd love to watch him. Hull's +9 net isn't his best mark on the season, nor is the D's +29, but Michigan only ran 57 plays.
The Ficken kicker's quietly having his best season, devoid of drama. Chris Gulla had a rough game last week.
The Mid-Season Scorecard
|Def Total||323||103||220||Off Total||328||266||62|
According to the sum of individual grades, you're led to believe that the defense is performing at a higher level than the offense. Hooray math.
Anthony Zettel and Mike Hull have had All Big Ten type of seasons to date. Deion Barnes and Austin Johnson are also having great years. The pleasant surprise on the defensive side has to be Parker Cothren, though. He's seen his snaps grow significantly from game 1 to game 6, for good reason.
On the offensive side, no one's played at an All Big Ten level. DaeSean wins the pleasant surprise award in a walk. And Film Room's been disappointed by Donovan Smith, Jesse James and Zach Zwinak so far, though there remain at least six games to turn that around.
Hit The Lights
Despite the doom and gloom of the last three weeks, sometimes this offense really clicks. The inside zone run shown above underscores that. The hole was huge. When our guys know what to do, they can (usually) do it. That's the good news.
Too often, though, the offense plays slowly, with hesitancy. That speaks to our dearth of experience, of course. But whatever the litany of reasons might be, tentative is not a good look on a foosball field, and our Lions have paid for it through six games.
Penn State allows 7.7 tackles for loss per game - 119th in the nation - which have added up to 175 yards lost on the year. Negative plays kill drives. Cutting that number in half - easier said than done - would go a long way to righting the ship in the last six or seven games.