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BSD Film Room: Young Linebackers

The PSU rush defense has been inconsistent. Here's one possible explanation.

Penn State welcomes Michigan to Beaver Stadium this Saturday for a man-ball showdown. Our guys smash into their guys, theirs smash into ours. Each side continues smashing until the other side quits or is beaten unconscious. This is traditional football, the American way. Olds rejoice.

Ten games into this season, Penn State's rush defense exhibits a feast or famine quality. Consider the following rush defense game log:

Opponent Att Yards Avg.
at Temple 43 149 3.47
Buffalo 33 69 2.09
Rutgers 32 43 1.34
San Diego St. 33 101 3.06
Army 55 261 4.75
Indiana 33 79 2.39
at Ohio St. 50 315 6.3
at Maryland 48 241 5.02
Illinois 27 37 1.37
at Northwestern 47 227 4.83

Outside of SDSU, our opponents either gain well under 100 yards, or well over 100. And four of the five times they've eclipsed the 100 yard barrier, they've also streaked right on past 200. What gives?

Kill The Lights

We turned on the Northwestern tape and took a look at a couple of plays. The first thing that jumps out, naturally, is the PSU defensive line. They make a lot of plays. Here's our nose tackle, 330-lb Austin Johnson, beating his block and pursuing down the line of scrimmage like a middle linebacker, limiting what would have been a TD run (a perfect call against this blitz) to just three yards.

When the D-line gets blocked, though, things aren't quite as successful. Below is a critical 3rd-and-1 from early in the game. Penn State's in its base 43Under. Reeder is playing SAM, with Bell as the WILL. Johnson, the nose, beats the double team, but everyone else - particularly Brandon Bell - gets blocked, and stays blocked.

Here's the same snap, from an end zone view. Cabinda reads run and comes downhill, filling his gap, using his inside shoulder to take on the block and maintain leverage. Bell, not so much on this snap. Northwestern used this long run to put it's first TD on the board three plays later.

Two more long runs set up Northwestern's second touchdown. The long runs were actually the same play call. Here's the first, with the 'Cats backed up. PSU's D-line slants away from the designed run to the short side. The pulling center and guard swallow whole Troy Reeder and Marcus Allen, while Cabinda unsuccessfully tries to undercut his blocker. Justin Jackson's untouched and off to the races.

As mentioned, it worked well the first time, so Northwestern ran it again a couple of snaps later. It worked the second time, too. There's no D-line slant, this time, but everyone gets - and stays - blocked.

Hit The Lights

This defense's 93 tackles for loss (through just 10 games) already surpasses the last decade of PSU defenses in this category, save the 2009 squad's 105 total (in 13 games). That's great. But, unlike most Penn State defenses, the 2015 version seems less about the linebackers. See if you notice anything unusual about the table below.

Year LB Crew Team Tkl Rank Tot Tkl/Game
2008 Bowman, Hull, Sales 1, 2, 3 19.15
2009 Hull, Bowman, Lee 1, 2, 3 25.97
2010 Colasanti, Stupar, Mauti 1, 3, 5 20.33
2011 Hodges, Stupar, Carson 1, 3, 4 19.99
2012 Hodges, Mauti, Carson 1, 2, 3 24.89
2013 Carson, Hull, Obeng 1, 2, 9 18.13
2014 Hull, Wartman, Bell 1, 2, 6 21.29
2015 Cabinda, Reeder, Bell 1, 5, 7 18.10

The tackle stats are down, and you need to scroll to fifth to find the second linebacker in the list for this season. But here's what else jumped out at us: 2015 is the only crew in the table without at least one fifth year senior. And now that we mention it, 2015 is also the only crew without a fourth year player, either. This is something to keep in mind while we watch Michigan start 18 seniors and juniors on Saturday.