Ohio State D-lineman Adolphus Washington surrendered the following quote to Eleven Warriors and assembled media types in the post-game locker room:
"We had a lot of keys and tips on when we knew they would pass the ball, so we just tried to take advantage of those the best we could."
Well the joke's on you, Adolphus, because we only threw the ball 13 times.
Every defense in college gets a list of keys and tips for each opponent they face. This is especially true at big boy football programs, which pay 120 staffers to cut up digital video files and stuff numbers into MATLAB models because how else can you spend all of that tv money. But it's rare that this merits mentioning post game, and it's more rare that the keys and tips are described as "a lot". As Penn State fans, this quote is enough to make a person go full Professor Turgeson.
Rather than blindly accept or deny Washington's claim, let's put it to a test. Knowing only what you and I know as ordinary arm-chair QBs, let's look at the first 20 snaps and guess "run" or "pass". No, we won't have the benefit of the 120 faceless staffers using "computers" to decipher trends and tendencies. Instead, we'll simply rely upon the three basics:
1) Down and Distance
2) Personnel and Formation - unbalanced line? Maybe it's a run. Empty backfield? Maybe it's a pass.
3) Alignment - are the O-linemen leaning forward (run), or on their heels (pass)? Are the tackles half a yard off the ball (pass), or on-line with the center (run)?
No cheating, here, friends. Read the down-and-distance in the bottom right corner, but try not to stare at the still frames for more than a couple of seconds. Then, grade yourself and post your score in the comments. A score of 18/20 or better earns a $500,000/year (12 games) consulting gig, somewhere, maybe.
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Everyone should have at least three correct - play numbers 7 (empty backfield = pass), 11 (unbalanced line, really beef = run), and 13 (run-pass option - O-line run blocks, Hack throws smoke route; give yourself credit either way). Beyond that, you also had some low hanging fruit on plays 4, 5, 7, 8, and 17. On each of those, Penn State faced 2nd or 3rd and long(ish) to go, and our tackles give a pretty obvious "I'm gonna pass block here" set pre-snap. That's not to criticize them, by the way. If you're in an obvious passing situation (as far as down and distance are concerned), then you may as well get a head start on your kick slide.
Another "tell" - for this week at least - involved our tight ends. Plays 1, 6, 9, 10, 11, 13 - 16, 18, and 20 - that's 11 of 20 plays - featured one of our tight ends as a "wing" or a fullback. We ran the ball on 10 of those 11 snaps (play #15 was the exception - where Mike Gesicki faked a block, released, and dropped a wide open pass). This is to say that we're not giving up on our "beef" personnel sets very easily. That's perfectly fine when Saquon Barkley gets the ball (note: every personnel group works when he gets the ball), but it sucks 100% of the non-Barkley time.
"Jet sweep" motion figured in three of the 20 snaps above. Each was a run (plays 3, 16, and 19) this week. So if you're keeping score, the only snaps we've not mentioned to this point are as follows: 2 and 12. That's it. The other 18 snaps had a fairly basic "tell", and those "tells" came up accurate 17 out of 18 times (94%). Considering that this exercise took us about 15 minutes, and Ohio State spends $80M/year on football mostly for the purpose of winning games, it's reasonable for us to conclude that Adolphus Washington wasn't full of crap.
One last note about tendencies and predictability. Through 7 games Penn State's faced 81 'competitive' 3rd downs. When yards to gain is 3 or fewer (24 times this year), Penn State runs 80% of the time (and on Sat. it was 100% run). When the distance is between 4 and 12 yards (57 times), Penn State passes 89% of the time (and on Sat. it was 100% pass prior to garbage time). That's without regard for field position, the opponent, score, personnel, formation, match ups, time remaining, or non-quantifiable things like "feel". Knowing nothing else but the yards to go on 3rd down, you and I can guess run or pass correctly at a B+ rate. Coincidentally, Penn State is now ranked 126th (out of 128 teams) in 3rd down conversions.