"Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff—with his own inborn strength. 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, Heart of Darkness
There may be no finer distinction in the known universe than that between “genius” and “moron” in American collegiate football.
Kill The Lights
Conference play is different than non-conference. Divisional play is different than conference play. We know this intuitively. Here’s what those differences look like in gif form.
First up is Week One, against Akron (that’s actual Akron, not meme Akron). The Zippers slanted away from the designed hole, got rolled up front, and perhaps best of all, they ran a corner blitz on this snap. The corner can’t get to the mesh in time because he’s blitzing from 20 yards away. More importantly to this play, it also meant that the Zip safety rotated into man coverage on the outside, away from the middle of the field. The lone Zip linebacker, #5, saw 360-lb Chasz Wright and went fetal. With no one left to defense the play, Barkley sprinted to the house untouched.
Here’s Week Two, against Pitt. Pitt’s from a Power 5 conference, and a nominal rival. Just like divisional play? Objectively false. There was no corner blitz or slanting D-line on the snap below, but our O-line won their individual battles anyhow. OT Ryan Bates kept his DE wide. OG Steven Gonzalez rolled the NT. OC Connor McGovern got to the second level and sealed the backside LB. And pulling OT Chasz Wright swallowed the Pitt MLB like he was a Fig Newton. Saquon Barkley made the second level, but got tripped up by the safetyman, limiting this run to 7-ish yards, rather than 80.
Michigan State (3rd nationally in rush defense), friends, is neither Pitt (#54), nor Akron (#93). It’s not merely that they have better players, which they do. Rather, stopping the run is an ethos. It’s a core value. It’s thee single-most fundamental trait to whom Sparty hopes to be, and they’ll willingly die atop their stop-the-run hill. Go ahead and sling it through the air for 600 yards if you can - but you are not going to run the foosball. Theirs, Joey Conrad might claim, is a deliberate belief.
On this 1st and 10 snap, facing 4 receiving threats in 3x1 formation, Sparty dials up a run blitz. Both linebackers shoot gaps on the snap of the ball. Most critically, MLB Joe Bachie “fills” the designed hole 3-yards in the backfield, and blows up 360-lb Chasz Wright while he’s there, despite the 120-lb weight disadvantage. (See also: belief, deliberate). Thus, even though the rest of the O-line - and even TE Mike Gesicki!! - do reasonably well in their assignments, this play is doomed from the snap. Barkley bounces wide, away from the design, and manages just one yard.
Flipping to the other side of the ball, let’s take a look at one of our coverages. In the shot below, Penn State gives Sparty QB Brian Lewerke what looks like a man-coverage, single high safety look on this 1st and 10 play near midfield. The yellow lines would seem to indicate man responsibilities, while circled safety #2 Marcus Allen stands alone, 12-yards deep, ready to run toward deep center field once the ball gets snapped.
Immediately after the snap, the coverage changes into plain ol’ Cover 2 zone. Troy Apke and Allen take deep halves (as shown by yellow boxes). Cornerbacks Grant Haley and Christian Campbell do solid work, getting jams on outside receivers - to slow them from the deep part of the field - before sinking. But it’s our linebackers, specifically Koa Farmer (circled, playing field OLB) and Jason Cabinda (MLB, also circled) who get put to the test on this snap.
The red circles in the screenshot above highlight the common weaknesses to Cover 2. Specifically, those are the “honey holes” on either sideline, between the deep safety and the shallow cornerback; and, as everyone who watched the 2008 Rose Bowl remembers, it’s the deep middle of the field, in front of those two safeties, and behind the linebackers.
Once Cabinda reads “pass”, he has to get on his horse and haul it to deep centerfield. The deeper he gets, the more narrow that window becomes for Lewerke. Conflating that responsibility is “the cheese”. The cheese is bait for Cabinda, provided by the offensive coordinator. On this snap, the cheese takes the form of Sparty TE Matt Sokol, running a stick route directly in front of Cabinda. If Cabinda let’s that stick distract him, then he’ll never get deep enough to defend the OC’s preferred option - which is #25 slot receiver Darrell Stewart Jr on a 15-yard deep in, or “dig” route. Yes, this is the same route that Mark Sanchez threw 40 times in the Rose Bowl, and fooled one “professional” football franchise - the Jets - into believing that he didn’t stink.
Here’s the bad news about this disguised coverage. In standard Cover 2, we’d expect field OLB Koa Farmer to be wider at the snap, so that he’d be in better position to jam the crap out of Darrell Stewart. You absolutely have to slow Stewart down, or your deep safeties (and MLB) have almost no chance. It’s critical.
Instead, because of the disguised look, Farmer’s tighter inside, pretending to either run with the TE Sokol, or possibly come on a blitz. As a result, he gets no jam on Stewart, which leaves Cabinda and Apke out to dry. Nor does he get any depth, to help muddy that “dig” window. Nor does he fool the pass protection. In other words, PSU gets nothing from this pre-snap disguise. Lewerke sees FS Troy Apke singled up on Stewart pre-snap. Then - ta-da - post-snap, no one’s covering Stewart.
That was a 1st and 10 snap. Michigan State had their way on 3rd down, too, converting 10 of 18 on the day, half of which came via distances of 10, 11, 11, 18, and 19 to go. Cherry on top? Penn State was also dinged for pass interference 4 times, and personal fouls 3 times. That’s 105 yards in penalties (to go along with Lewerke’s 400 thru the air).
Hit The Lights
Mark Dantonio has a deliberate belief in stopping the run, and launching Joe Bachie like a scud missile at gaps produced success, which makes Dantonio a football genius. He also has a deliberate belief in running the ball on offense. Yet, he abandoned that (for the 2nd week in a row), since it wasn’t working, and chose to sling the ball 56 times (vs 16 hand offs). Had Lewerke thrown 1 more pick, Dantonio’s suddenly a moron.
It’s a thin line.
The same basic truth holds for Joe Moorhead, Brent Pry, and James Franklin (and Kevin Wilson, Greg Schiano, and Urban Meyer, who now all bemoan JK Dobbins’ six paltry rush attempts, and man coverage on Noah Fant last Saturday, ex post facto). Thus, Joey Conrad got it all wrong about deliberate beliefs, at least as they regard college football. In fact, only one sage has deciphered the riddle, and her name is Talia Shire.
Win, “Penn State”, Win.