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Advanced Metrics Are Gearing Up for a Close One

Week 3: yet another worthy opponent for our Penn State Nittany Lions. After gutting out a victory in Madison and breezing past defending-MAC-champions Ball State, our Fightin Franklins are set to take on a team that had a similar 2020 fate as PSU, the Auburn Tigers. After a mediocre 2020, Auburn parted ways with Gus Malzahn--and hired an intriguing candidate, Boise State's Bryan Harsin. Harsin swiftly made a series of quite impressive assistant hires, including Derek Mason at DC.

Why am I summarizing a bunch of things you likely already know? Well, it's because these staff changes--along with our own--place a bigger-than-usual asterisk on the metrics I've presented below. Both Auburn and Penn State return a ton of starters, and so I still think these numbers impart at least a little knowledge. Still, we will be facing a new offensive and defensive scheme, which is worth bearing in mind.

As in the past two weeks, I'm drawing here on data from the 2020 season. We obviously have just two weeks of data in 2021, and to make matters worse in this matchup, Auburn has played exactly no one. Consequently, a comparison of 2021 metrics would be meaningless. Hopefully, in another week or two, the 2021 data will make some more sense. In the meanwhile, here are what our 2020 metrics tell us about this year's Whiteout match-up.

When Penn State is on Offense...

As always, you can navigate to this previous post for a summary of what each of these metrics mean. The figure below presents the same metrics as the previous two weeks. Blue = good. Orange = not good.

As noted above, Auburn has a new DC -- and a darned good one. But if these numbers are to be believed, a clear pattern emerges here. Auburn, last year, appears to have been quite good at limiting big plays: they exhibit a large advantage in explosiveness, as well as metrics that lead to explosive plays such as Open Field Yards. By the same token, however, we exhibit slight-to-moderate advantages in things like Line Yards, Stuff Rate, and overall Success Rate. Generally speaking, this means that teams made hay against the Auburn defense by running the ball straight at them.

At first blush, this may be surprising--or concerning--to us PSU fans. After all, thus far this season, we don't exactly view our run blocking, especially up the middle, as a team strength. However, if you peruse Auburn chat rooms and the like, you'll see quickly that a primary concern is the defensive line--particularly the interior. It may not be sexy, but a path to success in this game may be a heavy dose of Lee and Cain.

Additionally, you'll notice that we hold major advantages in Havoc rates. Among other things, this suggests that Auburn did not do a great job forcing turnovers and negative plays. As you all know, turnovers were the bane of 2020 for our Nittany Lions. We won when we avoided them; we lost when we didn't. Here's to hoping we can avoid them yet again this weekend.

When Penn State is on Defense...

Overall, the picture on offense was surprisingly sanguine: there was a LOT of red in both Ball State and Wisconsin weeks--this week, comparatively less orange.

While still not bad, the defensive numbers are also a bit surprising--in Auburn's direction:

For all the trouble that Bo Nix supposedly has had, Auburn holds a decided advantage in Havoc--similar to us on offense. Turnovers were similarly determinative of Auburn's success, and it is important for us to force Auburn into turnovers. Here, we know that our defensive backs especially have improved since last season, so I have a good feeling that the Havoc statistics could flip this weekend.

Also similar to our offensive situation, Auburn holds a statistical advantage in a variety of running rushing-play and short-yardage statistics. This should hardly be surprising: Auburn's best player is a RB literally named Tank. And the dude is good. Fortunately, my eye tells me we are improved in run defense this year, compared to last. But stopping the run--and encouraging Nix to force the ball in passing situations--will be a first-order concern for us. If we struggle on that front, we are going to have problems.

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Long story short, the run game--on both sides of the ball--will decide this ball game. Can Penn State take advantage of a suspect interior DL for Auburn? Or will too much fall into Cliff's lap, leading to desperation throws and turnovers? Can Auburn get Tank going against the new-and-improved Penn State defense? Or will Nix be forced into hero ball for the first time in 2021?

Should be fun! Oh and bonus stat, according to Auburn folks: Nix is markedly worse in away games. Here's to hoping that he has never seen an environment quite like our Whiteout... and that he is as bad against the Nittany Lions as his father Patrick!

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