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Penn State Film Room: No. 24 Michigan State

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BSD Film Room

Last week in this very spot, we wrote about Ohio State and Greg Schiano, a “quarters” coverage guy who basically runs “man” coverage against spread ‘em out teams like our #7 Nittany Lions. Ohio State was a man coverage team, we told you, because that’s what they’ve always been under Urban Meyer. Furthermore, as evidenced by PSU’s game with Michigan, playing man coverage against RB Saquon Barkley, TE Mike Gesicki, and WR DaeSean Hamilton puts incredible pressure on your safeties and linebackers. Our three will smoke your three, and PSU will win.

Naturally, Ohio State played zone almost exclusively, because they had a bye week to prepare, and they’re not total idiots. The two Buckeye safeties we desperately wanted to attack 1-on-1 sank 15-yards deep on the snap, and rarely left their hash marks. Ohio State’s eight NFL defensive linemen took care of the rest. And Film Room gets to look even more stupid than it does normally.

As our Lions head to East Lansing this Saturday, they’re preparing to face yet another “quarters” coverage team which - against spread ‘em out teams like our #7 Nittany Lions - plays a ton of man. But Mark Dantonio doesn’t have a bye week to prepare. He also doesn’t have eight NFL defensive linemen in his rotation. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

Kill The Lights

Last week, about the same time that Koa Farmer picked up the Parris Campbell fumble that Manny Bowen forced, Northwestern ran the play you see diagrammed below. It’s a 1st-and-10 Run Pass Option (RPO) that attacks Michigan State’s field linebacker, circled in red. If that linebacker reads “run” and attacks the line of scrimmage, QB Clayton Thorson will throw the slant behind him (this works extra well with the MSU safety shading outside leverage). If the linebacker reads “pass”, and stays in the throwing lane of that slant, then Thorson will hand off to RB Justin Jackson, who’ll pick a hole, any hole, behind simple inside zone blocking up front.

Of particular note to Penn State fans is this wrinkle: superback/H-back/tight end Cameron Dickerson will motion from the strong side to the weak side, and cut Michigan State’s unblocked defensive end, allowing QB Thorson more than 0.2 seconds to make his read, rather than having that DE swallow him immediately after catching the snap. Which is nice.

Here’s how the play works out.

In this second play, Northwestern expects quarters (nee, man) coverage from Michigan State, and gets it. The beauty of this design is in its spacing. With two receivers to the boundary (bottom of the shot), Northwestern runs short decoy routes that pull the Spartan CB and S away from the deep middle post route they’ll run across the field from the opposite side of the formation (red circles). By sucking up Michigan State’s backside safety, this design gives QB Thorson an entire half of a field to throw into, without risk, allowing him to “throw open” his slow, 2-star, white slot receiver.

Here’s the video of this play. Note the vast expanse of open field.

Here’s a third gif (below). I don’t recall why I made this gif. Maybe you can figure it out for me. But it shows Michigan State dropping a defensive tackle into a short zone underneath, and rushing only three lineman at Thorson, who’s alone in the backfield in an empty set.

Actually - now I remember why I made this gif. It’s because of the empty set, and clearly shows Mark Dantonio won’t go full Don Brown on us this week. If Sparty won’t man-up Justin Jackson and Cameron Dickerson, they’re not going to man up Barkley and Gesicki. Sparty’s 2017 secondary is not the ol’ “no fly zone” of 4 or 5 years ago, and Dantonio knows it.

Hit The Lights

Will Mark Dantonio run his quarters coverage this Saturday, like he did in the first two gifs above at Northwestern? No, probably not. He doesn’t have the same confidence in his secondary that he used to - plus he’s seen Ohio State, Northwestern, and Iowa get by with playing zone. Therefore, we should get used to seeing DBs backed off, and linebackers running to spots in zone.

The silver lining, though, friends, is this: Sparty managed just one sack against Northwestern’s horrendous offensive line, on 50 pass attempts. One lonely sack. In other words, unlike Ohio State, Michigan State cannot pressure the quarterback consistently with straight 4-man pressure (take another look at the gifs above, particularly gif #2, and brim with confidence at the oodles of time Thorson had in the pocket, while passing for 368 yards with mediocre receivers and a terrible O-line). And that means PSU receivers should have time to find the holes in the zone before McSorley gets buried.

(And yes, we spent this entire post on the passing side of things, because we’re not likely to run the ball much this week. On some things Mark Dantonio will not compromise.)