At long last, the bye week is over, and we yet again can look forward to Penn State Football this Saturday.
Or, well, kinda. As everyone in the college football world is aware, Penn State lost its starting quarterback early in the Iowa game, after amassing 17 points in just barely one quarter of play. The Nittany Lions were rolling, until a free blitzer put a lick on Cliff, sending him the to the locker and returning him in street clothes. It was a frustrating development in what became one of the most frustrating PSU games in recent memory.
I won’t waste time recounting the entirety of the game, but the basic pattern was this: 3 and out after 28 false start penalties under backup QB Taquon Roberson, impressive defensive stand, and terrible field position for the offense. Slowly but surely, Iowa’s Tecmo Bowl offense was able to do just enough to "escape" with a win (for which they evidently missed the memo that they were already favored…).
Given the uncertainties introduced by this game, Advanced Metrics is a little more uncertain of its prognosis than usual. Nevertheless, here’s at least a little of what to expect when the boys in blue take on the Fightin Berts of Urbana-Champaign.
When Penn State is on Offense…
Hooooo boy. If anyone tries to make any confident claims about the offense this week, they are flat-out lying to you. While the news regarding Cliff’s injury has been generally positive, the *best* that I’ve heard is that he *could* come back in emergencies—but that the staff would rather hold him out. That strikes me as pretty reasonable, and I think we should not expect to see Cliff come Saturday. Or, if we do, it’s because things went a bit sideways.
So that means Roberson, right? Ehhh… maybe, maybe not. Coach practically telegraphed in his presser yesterday that he is not pleased with Roberson’s development. In a lengthy comment about QB development, Franklin remarked that it isn’t a good sign for a more senior player to have a first-year player nipping at his heels, in terms of development. If the gap in shrinking, Franklin claimed, the younger guy deserves a shot, since he is actually developing. Now look, did Franklin drop actual names? Nope. But Roberson knows exactly what he is talking about. And in fact, Roberson and true freshman Villeaux (vih-YOH) have already split first-team reps last week, and Franklin announced that they’d continued to do so this week.
Does this mean that Villeaux gets the start? Probably not. But I do think it means he sees actual, meaningful snaps. And given that he is a true freshman, coming from Canada, and who had to forgo his senior HS due to COVID… that’s pretty much the definition of "uncertainty" on offense. So like, what can we really infer from past metrics? Take a look:
Illinois has what I’d call an average defense overall, and as a result the PSU offense holds (on a normal day) a modest advantage over them. Penn State’s biggest—actually, substantial—advantages are in explosiveness. Normally, this is the kind of thing that has PSU fans licking their chops. And indeed, Illinois loves to run man to man—to a fault. They got completely torched in their man-to-man defense by both UVA and UTSA, and they stubbornly stuck to it. They have since showed a little more flexibility, but they still are not great at stopping the big play. The problem? I don’t feel good about Roberson’s or Villeaux’s ability to exploit this weakness. What’s more, if Illinois can stay in that man-to-man defense, that’ll allow them to do what they really want to do, which is load up against the run.
So, hopefully PSU has an advantage in the run? Eh, not really. It’s not terrible: we do have a slight advantage in line yards and rushing-play explosiveness (even though our run game is decidedly not explosive), and we have more substantial advantages in overall success rate and front-seven havoc rate. At very least, we should be able to run forward and not backward. But, I don’t feel good about our ability to just impose our will and get out of Dodge with an old-fashioned JoePa-style head-thumper.
So, what do we expect to see on offense? For my money, and particularly if Illinois comes out in man, I see us use a ton of simple RPO stuff with the slot receivers and TEs. That will make the throws easier for the QB (recall: the Training Wheels offense at the end of 2020), and it’ll take a little pressure off the run-blocking. Personally, I think Illinois would be well-advised to play soft BBDS defense, and force a potentially Roberson-led PSU offense to drive down the field (gulp). So, if that’s the case, you have to think we see all manner of screen passes, quick hitches, simple outs, and other vintage Joe-Tiller-style pass plays. Here’s to hoping they work. Oh, and don’t be surprised if Tyler Warren takes a decent number of snaps at QB…
When Penn State is on Defense…
If you are uneasy after thinking about our back-up led offense, breathe easy Penn State fan. Take a gander at the sea of blue below:
I’m honestly not sure I have ever witnessed such a large differential. This is for good reason: Wisconsin completely shut down and shut out the Illinois offense, and they were hardly the first to dominate the Illini. Quite literally the only "edges" that Illinois has come on passing downs. I suspect that this is more an indictment on the PSU defense than a strength of the Illinois offense: though we have improved from 2019 and 2020 in terms of our penchant to stink on 3rd and long, we still aren’t as lights-out as we should be. Still, call me crazy, but I don’t think Illinois is going to gameplan to get into 3rd and forever, just to take advantage of a slight statistical edge.
So what should we expect to see from the Illinois offense? Well, their best RB is out for the season, and Art Sitkowski (yup, it’s the same one) is the 2nd-stringer who will be starting at QB. So, who knows? My guess is that they will do their best to establish the run, as that lies deep in Bert’s DNA—and because it isn’t the STRENGTH of the defense, particularly after the loss of PJ. Frankly, it’ll be a nice test for our DT depth, and I think you’ll see some unfamiliar faces get some run in there. If they do get that run going, my guess is that they’ll do their best to run PA and steal a few scores.
Frankly, though, if we lose this game, I highly doubt it will be the defense’s fault.
All in all, my expectation is a frustrating and ugly football game, made better only by our awesome throwback unis. I don’t see enough here to be super worried about the game (knock on wood), but I also don’t see enough to be confident that it’ll be the cakewalk we’d all like to see. Our man Yurcich is going to have to earn his paycheck in this one.