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BSD Film Room: Renewing Vows

The honeymoon ended 13 months ago, but Saturday's game in Evanston offers a chance to renew our vows.

Thirteen months ago, on September 27, 2014, then 4-0 Penn State got embarrassed by a 1-2 Northwestern squad, whose only victory to that point had been over 1-AA Western Illinois. It started poorly, with Sam Ficken making a TD-saving tackle on the opening kickoff. Though Northwestern graciously shanked a field goal attempt to cap that opening drive, Penn State responded with the following: 1) a 3-and-out on offense; 2) allowing a 42-yard punt return; 3) surrendering a jNW TD from a short field; 4) another 3-and-out on offense; 5) surrendering a 10-play 60-yard TD drive on defense; 6) a third consecutive 3-and-out on offense; and 7) a partially blocked punt to set the 'Cats up at the PSU 29 for their fourth possession. was not a pleasant start.

Yet, that was only the first quarter. Trailing 14-0 with 4:20 remaining in the second quarter, Bill Belton ran for two yards from the "wildcat." This was noteworthy because it was the last time Penn State called a rush attempt until 3:53 remained in the third quarter. In between, John Donovan dialed up 27 consecutive pass attempts. But even better, following a solitary Belton rush attempt at the 3:53 mark of the third, an implacable Donovan called nine more passes in a row.

Did we ever call another rush attempt? Oh, you bet we did. Fast forward to the 4th quarter, with 11:50 remaining.  Now trailing 23-6 and facing a 4th-and-1, Donovan finally chose to run the ball again. Penn State sent Bill Belton up the gut from an unbalanced line, behind a pulling Brian Gaia. He was stuffed for a loss of two yards. You know this play as "PSU blocks itself" dot gif.

For some PSU faithful, that game signaled the end of the honeymoon with James Franklin, or at least John Donovan. If you're one of those, then perhaps this Saturday's tilt in Evanston offers a chance for renewing your vows. Pat Fitzgerald's crew sits at 6-2, is coming off of a bye week, and owns surprising victories over ranked Stanford and Duke squads, plus a convincing 27-0 shutout of the Gophers. So they might be good. But, they also own blow out losses to Michigan (38-0) and Iowa (40-10) - so, they might stink. A win over the 'Cats on Saturday would be Penn State's best quality, and eighth, win on the season, eclipsing last season's total with three games yet to play. Spirits in Happy Valley would be high. Love would be in the air. PSU might be ranked for the first time in four years.  How might our boys do it?

Kill The Lights

If you're in the marrying mood, we have great news. There appears to be a secret sauce to beating the Wildcats, and it's one that Penn State traditionally does quite well: stop the run.

In Northwestern's six games this season against teams with big boy pads, a trend emerges (cue jNW rushing offense chart):

Opponent Rush Att Rush Yds Avg Result
9 Stanford 54 225 4.17 W 16-6
@ 24 Duke 54 201 3.72 W 19-10
Minnesota 51 184 3.61 W 27-0
@ 16 Michigan 25 38 1.52 L 0-38
10 Iowa 26 51 1.96 L 10-40
@ Nebraska 28 156 5.57 W 30-28

In their four victories, Northwestern's averaged 4.1 yards per carry. In their two blowout losses, they averaged 1.7 ypc. With a quarterback (Clayton Thorson) completing just 48.5 percent of his passes in those six games, the evidence is pretty clear - stop RB Justin Jackson (who takes 50+ percent of their rush attempts) and QB Clayton Thorson (who takes about 1/3rd), and the Cats will struggle to score.

Reader Question

From the "OMG Hack / Let's Keep Donovan / We May Win The Title This Year" thread, BSDer Drea1020 wonders aloud, "did anything change last Saturday [vs. Illinois] that made [Macklenberger] more successful?"

Film Room wondered the same thing, Drea1020. What is the nature of this magic that resulted in completions and yards and - gasp - 39 points? Was it some form of Appalachian voodoo? Is there a shaman or priestess that we could pay to extend said voodoo for an additional four games?

Before we tossed a(nother) shiny penny towards a cool, mountain creek (pronounced: "crick"), we took a look at the tape. Here is what we saw from the 33 called passes that Christian Hackenberg executed through the first 11 possessions of pseudo non garbage time:

Snaps Attempts Completions
Comp% Yards YPA TD 
Sacked Scrambled
vs. Illinois Blitz 12 9 5 55.6% 48 4.0 0 0 2 1
vs. Illinois Base 21 20 16 80.0% 202 9.6 2 0 1 0

When the Illini sent their standard four-down-linemen pass rushers after Macklenberger, Christian completed 80 percent of his passes for 202 yards and 2 TDs. That's pretty good. When Illinois rushed five (or more) at him, the numbers dropped precipitously. Here's a possession-by-possession breakdown of when the Illini blitzed (or didn't), and, coincidentally, when we scored (or didn't):

Drive Starting at Illini blitz? Yds Gained PSU result
1 PSU 32 No 8 Punt
2 PSU 20 No 80 TD
3 ILL 6 No 6 TD
4 PSU 37 Yes 34 Fumble
5 PSU 10 Yes 4 Punt
6 PSU 47 Yes 21 Punt
7 ILL 32 Yes 18 FG
8 ILL 43 Yes 43 TD
9 ILL 49 Yes 6 Punt
10 ILL 44 Yes 33 FG
11 PSU 20 No 80 TD

TL;DR Table Translation:

  • no blitzing on four drives. one with great field position. three touchdowns.   
  • blitzing on seven drives. five with great field position. one touchdown.

Illinois began the game playing their base 4-2-5 defense, without blitzing. Hack responded by starting the game 8-of-9 with two TDs. That's pretty good. But after digging itself into a 12-0 hole by eschewing the blitz (and stunts), the Illini decided it would try some five-man pressure (because staying milquetoast was a bad idea). Predictably, it worked. PSU scored just three points on its next four possessions (numbers four through seven), and the Illini got to halftime down just 15-0, in spite of its own putrid offense.

Koa Farmer's big kick return started the second half, and Hack's two beautiful third down conversions to DaeSean Hamilton (on 3rd-and-10 for 16, vs. the blitz; and on 3rd-and-16 for 19, vs. base) on that eighth drive was the tipping point, and it more or less broke the Illini defenders, who knew they now had zero shot at a win, down 22 points, given their horribad offense. By drive number 11, the Illini coaches appear to have called it quits as well, choosing to blitz not one time as PSU traveled 80 yards for a TD, and a 32-0 lead. Second teamers from both sidelines entered the game immediately afterwards.

The obvious question this week, then, is "how often does Northwestern blitz"? The prevailing sentiment was that NU blitzed Macklenberger to death last season, providing the blueprint by which the rest of the Big Ten beat our collective brains in when we possessed the foosball. But looking back at the digital video, that doesn't really hold up. Below is a table showing how many large men chased after Hack on his first 25 pass attempts (all in the first half):

jNW Rushed Snaps
3-man pressure 3
4-man pressure 19
5-man pressure 1
6-man pressure 2

Three times in 25 attempts is not too much.  When they did blitz, they brought the dreaded Dick LeBeau "double A-Gap." As shown in the gif below, this is where two LBs come through the middle of the line, and punch Macklenberger in the face. You should remember this exact blitz from seeing it 100 times in week one vs Temple. [Coincidentally, one nice counter to this blitz is also shown in the gif below - RB out of the backfield. Hack dumped it to Saquon Barkley five times last week, completing three for 58 yards. Progress. It's nice.]

The other thing NU did well last year was stunt their D-linemen. Their favorite stunt, which got home quite often, was the "ET," or End-Tackle stunt. The DE starts upfield, wide. The DT rams into the OT, taking the OG's attention with him, while the DE loops back into the middle of the line, past the distracted OG, and into the QB's face. We didn't handle this stunt very well in week five of 2014.

Penn State's O-line is a lot better at handling blitzes and stunts in week 10 of 2015 than they were in week five of 2014 (or, you know, week one of 2015). So we've got that going for us, which is nice.

Hit The Lights

So much words this week.  We end with a quiz:  how does Penn State win?

A) Stop the run on defense. NU scores 0 points. Ergo PSU wins. People rejoice.

B) Handle the occasional NU double-A-gap blitz and ET stunt. PSU scores points. Ergo PSU wins. People are excite.

C) Both A and B. NU blow'd out. Marriage vows renewed.