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BSD Film Room: Beating Illinois

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Illinois brings one of the better defenses Penn State's faced this year. Let's find a few holes.

"Principles? Principles won't do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief." - Joey Conrad

Much like Conrad's Heart of Darkness character Marlowe, Illinois exhibits a deliberate belief in the 4-2-5 defense. First-and-10, or 2nd-and-3, or 3rd-and-20 - whatever the down and distance, expect the Illini to line up with four down linemen, two linebackers, and one "hybrid" LB/S type of guy playing a position they call "star" (this seems presumptuous). The actual "star(s)" of the Illini defense, in Film Room's opinion, are WLB Mason Monheim (#43) and SDE Dawuane Smoot (#91).  Monheim is a very good college linebacker - smart, instinctive, quick to the hole, and, for the Illini, he cleans up a lot of mistakes, much like Mike Hull did for our Lions last year. Smoot is the Illini's big play specialist from their front. He'll line up as a "wide 9", on the far outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, and run up field nearly every play. This has allowed Smoot to accrue 11.5 tackles for loss through seven games, which is noteworthy.

Originally Film Room intended a discussion on the 4-2-5 defense. Due to time constraints, we're moving ahead in our programming. But we'll leave you with a bevy of links for further reading, most of which feature pictures and arrows and geometric shapes. All of them, not coincidentally, spend the greater portion of their word count discussing pass coverage.

Kill The Lights

Remember when Film Room pleaded with John Donovan to burn all of his multiple tight end plays? Let's keep them in the playbook for this week. In fact, let's borrow the exact play below, from Mike Riley and Nebraska.

The Huskers roll out "12" personnel - 1 RB, 2 TEs - in a formation that should look very familiar to Penn State fans all over the world. And, as the red arrow below shows, they're even running "jet sweep" motion (and will, in fact, give the ball to the "jet"). How does Illinois counter this run-heavy personnel formation? Actually, they don't. They play their base 4-2-5, with six box defenders. Best of all, they don't shift their personnel to the strong side of Nebraska's formation (UNL's right, ILL's left).

On the chalkboard, it looks like the picture below. Nebraska, via personnel and formation, presents five "gaps" on their right. Illinois, though, has just three "box" defenders - DLs and LBs - to cover those five gaps. And Illinois is not a 2-gap team. Thus, the Huskers have a decided schematic advantage, because first grade arithmetic.

This advantage plays out much like you'd expect it to play out - three defenders can't cover five gaps, and Nebraska runs for a bunch of yards, as shown in the gif below. It doesn't help Illinois that they chose to slant their D-line away from the strength, either. Lolz at CB #2 as your run force defender.

Nebraska also ran play action off of this same concept. In the gif below, QB Tommy Armstrong fakes the jet sweep and rolls to his right, away from the (fake) run. He sees WR Jordan Westerkamp open by seven yards, and rifles the ball into low-Earth orbit, where no one can catch it, not even Vlad Putin's spy satellites. But it was open by a mile.

How did Westerkamp get so open? Well the PLAY-ACTION certainly helped, as did his "double move," which nearly caused the Illini corner #24 to fall down. Illinois' safety #20, Clayton Fejedelem - their leading tackler on the season - was cheating the run, and barely registers in the gif below.

Reader Question

Farrellpsu from Parts Unknown asks Film Room, "Christian Hackenberg seems better under center. Do the stats back that up?"

Film Room hasn't charted under center vs. shotgun, farrell. And, Film Room is way too lazy to re-watch 16 hours of game film. But, if you're cool with made up "stats," keep reading.

We agree with you that Hack seems better under center, sporting crisp, classically trained 3-, 5-, and 7-step drops, as opposed to the giant sequoia impersonation he'll sometimes pull on quick throws from the gun. Setting that aside, we hypothesize that the stats would be in favor of the "under-center" version of things, if for no other reason than the defense expects "run," because we run from under-center 99 percent of the time, and when we actually "pass," we're way ahead of the game, because surprise. Hack could drop back like a dog scooting across the carpet - that is to say, horribly - and he'd probably have better efficiency stats because throwing a pass from under-center is like a trick play in this offense. It's Harlem Globetrotter level scheming. It's way, way out there.

We can only imagine what a traditional play-action pass would accomplish. If we get an under-center-play-action, with a pulling guard (!!!) this week, Film Room will be telling tailgate stories about it 40 years hence. "This one time, in twenty-fifteen, ol' Macklenberger was UNDER CENTER. And he did this thing where he looked like he was going to hand the ball to the running back, EXCEPT HE DIDN'T. HE THREW IT. It was awesome. Let's shotgun a beer." That'd be my level of excite.

Side note - here's a 3-step drop for your viewing pleasure (play action lolno). Hack gets away from center quickly, takes a looong second step to create distance, gathers himself with his third + hitch steps, and throws a back shoulder fade for a TD while getting absolutely drilled by a 300-lb DT who beat Wendy Laurent like a rented mule, and had a 7-yard running start at his ribs. Shades of Kevin Thompson to Chafie Fields at Miami. Conversely, Todd Blackledge took a 7-step drop, with play-action, and had all day to throw the bomb to Gregg Garrity in the Sugar Bowl. And guess which of those QBs "leads" PSU in INTs.

Hit The Lights

Illinois ranks 33rd nationally in total defense this season - up from 112th last year. That's great. Congrats to first-year co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair.

They're also bottom half of D1 in explosive plays allowed, and in rush defense, despite playing Kent State, MTSU, and 1-AA Western Illinois. In conference, Illinois is surrendering 4.82 yards per carry. That's not so great. Another relevant point - in Nebraska's first 25 snaps from scrimmage, Illinois blitzed one time. So, fingers crossed that we don't get the Temple/Maryland treatment (even if we've finally decided to sling it deep in response).

Film Room loves the 4-2-5, particularly Gary Patterson's implementation of it. Our own Bob Shoop runs a fair amount of it, as well - but not as a base defense, and not every down. Hopefully Bill Cubit, Phair and company stick around Champaign-Urbana long enough to get the scheme fully implemented. They'd be a wonderful case study of the efficacy of the defense in a division which features Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska - all of whom make liberal use of tight ends and fullbacks to run the ball caveman style - as opposed to Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Okie State, et.al. Retain Cubit, Illinois AD. It'll benefit science.