Film Room found a new favorite Penn State defender this week. But before we announce the “winner” of such an ignominious fate, prudence demands we rehash the run defense from last Saturday’s blasting of rival Pitt, 51-6, at Heinz Field.
Despite the lopsided score, it certainly felt like a two different games separated by a halftime. After advanced analysis, top scientific experts announced that PSU allowed Pitt to rush for 221 yards on 30 carries in the first half; then PSU allowed just 31 yards on 21 carries in the second half. That’s, you know, unusual. What’s the explanation? Let’s fire up the 8mm projector.
Kill The Lights
First of all, and in the interests of science, it’s important to note the following case fact. PSU blew assignments twice in the first half that Pitt capitalized upon to the tune of 101 yards rushing. Two attempts, 101 yards. That’ll skew your stats. Remove those two busts, and the entire rest of the hideous first half yields the following: 28 rushes for 120 yards (4.2 average). And no small portion of the 28 for 120 was Pitt QB Kenny Pickett scrambling from the pocket.
So there you go - when/if we don’t bust, we’re not horrible. Even in the first half, on most runs, PSU’s defense played a heckuva lot better than against App State. Hooray for that.
Second of all, Pitt’s third longest rush in the first half - a 13-yard touchdown run - was a bit of an anomaly, as shown in the gif below. Pitt faces 3rd and 10 - a passing down and distance - from the PSU 13 yard line - a passing area of the field. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry watches Pitt remove large fat guys from the field in exchange for small skinny ones - a passing tell - and surmises he should do the same. Thus, as shown in the gif below, PSU is in “nickle” defense, with 2 defensive ends (Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos), 1 defensive tackle (Kevin Givens), and 2 linebackers (Cam Brown and Micah Parsons (as a rush end)). The other 6 PSU defenders are all defensive backs, though S Nick Scott at the bottom of the screen is playing like an LB.
Yes indeed, Admiral Akbar - it is a trap. Pitt pulls two blockers and runs a draw up the gut. Great play call by Pitt (because it worked; if it had failed, then it would’ve been incredibly moronic). But, as noted, remove this 3rd rush, and Pitt’s “monster” first half of rushing is actually below 4 yards per carry - even with tricky Kenny Pickett scrambles. Crazy, right?
Third, as mentioned by Head Coach James Franklin post game, Penn State made adjustments at halftime. Coach Franklin specifically called out having the defensive ends spill.
“Spill” is a fancy foosball word, meant to describe a defensive strategy wherein the front seven hold their gaps, clog the holes, and force an opposing ball carrier to run horizontally to the line of scrimmage, rather than vertically toward the end zone. By “spilling” the run to the outside, you’re expecting to run the RB down whilst using the sideline as an extra defender. For a defensive end in particular, “spilling” means putting on his big boy pads and holding his gap - rather than getting folded inside, shoved off the field, or pass-rushing yourself 12 yards up field and out of the play (as in the TD gif above).
Here’s a gif from the first half that didn’t exactly “spill”. Shaka Toney - who just ran onto the field for a dinged Shareef Miller the previous play - is a tick slow off the snap, makes an inside move, and gets folded inside by the tackle - which leaves the outside to Pitt’s RB and a gang of blockers.
Here’s Shaka playing that much, much better just two snaps later. It certainly helps not being blocked at all. But he didn’t “take the cheese” here, either.
Ultimately, asking the defensive ends to “spill” wasn’t the biggest adjustment in Film Room’s stupid opinion. No doubt, it was a halftime point of emphasis - probably wrapped in a few choice words from the defensive staff. However, what Film Room noticed in the handful of pathetically awful plays Pitt ran in the 3rd quarter was the secondary coverage changes.
In 2 of the 3 gifs above, all from the first half, PSU is in “man” coverage on the outside (the lone exception is actually the tackle for loss). PSU played a ton of “man” in the first half, blanketing Pitt receivers down the field, but with their backs to the line of scrimmage. That’s cool if the QB is Dan Marino, but not so much with a running QB like Pickett.
After halftime, as shown below, that changed to a boat load of “zone”. And brother did those corners ever help the run defense. Take a look at Tariq Castro-Fields in the gif below. Rather than run across the formation to follow the motioning WR - as Amani Oruwariye did above in gif #2 - Tariq stops and sits down into a short zone. And with his eyes in the backfield (and only a blocking TE to his side, facing a “wildcat” QB), he plays like a beast on the snap of the ball. He attacks the line of scrimmage, blows up a pulling OT to close the outside, beats the block, and then makes the tackle - despite DE Yetur getting crammed inside (i.e., not “spilling”).
If Tariq’s locked up in man coverage, chasing a decoy across the field in motion, he’s not available to blow up this play. Instead, look at him go! Good grief - are we sure #5 is a cornerback? Daggone. Derek Bochna - and four decades of PSU boundary zone-corners - would be proud.
Here he is again, below, at the bottom of the screen. With no receivers to his outside, and in a zone defense, #5 has run force. Tariq whips the TE like it’s nothing, and - along with Yetur who “spills” on this one like a man - forces the Pitt RB back inside. There, Jan Johnson and Micah Parsons - who made the FB whiff - fill the hole and stuff the run.
Hit The Lights
While Film Room sat just as edgy and distressed as the rest of yinz at halftime, wondering aloud if PSU might ever stop a run, our careful and meticulous review (read: sloppy and stupid) of the film this week calmed our nerves substantially. Sure, we busted a couple of times in the first half, and got caught with our pants down at least once. That’s not great, but this is college football, after all, and we’re a young squad defensively on the road week 2. Consequently, we maintain that the first half wasn’t as horrendous as it felt at the time, or as the skewed stats would otherwise suggest.
That bit of debatable conjecture notwithstanding, the coaching adjustments at halftime - a) put on your big boy pads, fellas; and b) play zone to get DBs more involved in run defense (particularly against a scramble-first QB), made quite a bit of difference. (And it sure didn’t hurt that Pitt began every third quarter drive inside its own 10 yard line.) Plus we got a new favorite defender out of it. That #5 is nasty.
DeAndre Thompkins had a couple of drops last Saturday, but he sure made a pretty punt return. Here he is below, gently cruising along at 55mph near the 25 yard line - and then he drops the freaking hammer around the 18 yard line, accelerating to warp speed. That’s gotta be fun, having an extra gear no one can match.
Speaking of fast - my goodness, KJ Hamler.
And Central Catholic’s CJ Thorpe, in front of family and friends.
Whew. That boy mean.