Studying Up On Penn State


Everyone from Maryland knows someone who has gone to Penn State. If you hail from the northern half of Maryland, there’s a good chance you applied there or at least considered it on your college application. For the Terrapins, the Nittany Lions’ head man in charge represents the one that got away.

Pennsylvania native James Franklin was pretty darn close to being the next guy to lead the Terps. In fact, he was the head-coach-in-waiting under the last coach, Ralph Friedgen; Franklin was being groomed. Then Maryland had a 2-10 season in 2009 that soured the relationship, Kevin Anderson replaced Debbbie Yow as athletic director, and while they rebounded with a 9-win season in 2010 the writing was on the wall.

The short and skinny is that Maryland cleaned house, and that included their head-coach-in-waiting, Franklin. He went on to have unprecedented success at perennial SEC cellar-dweller Vanderbilt before ultimately taking the gig at Penn State — a dream job. Five-star QB, solid recruits, and (despite scholarship limitations) bowl eligibility at a top 10 job.

Things started great for Penn State as they went 4-0 to begin the season, but now they’re o a three game losing streak and the offense has been pretty terrible. The defense is world-class by most every metric, but Franklin has been unable to coax points out of his offense centered around Hackenberg’s 6’4″ frame and rocket arm. And with injuries piling up, things might promise to get worse before they get better.

Offensive Breakdown

Penn State’s offensive game plan under first year coach Franklin is petty simple: throw the ball with Christian Hackenberg. The Nittany Lions have thrown 276 passes compared to 170 designed runs (this is excluding the 54 times Hackenberg has “rushed” for -27 yards). But the problem isn’t really Hackenberg, who’s thrown six touchdowns to nine interceptions, it’s the complete lack of talent around him.

Senior back and Maryland native Zach Zwinak is out for the season and fellow senior back Bill Belton has been awful (averaging less than 4 yards per carry). The end result is this offense has one of the ten worst rushing attacks in the entirety of the NCAA. Sophomore back Akeel Lynch has started to get some more carries, but he’s been far less talented than the numbers suggest. Mark Allen, a DeMatha Stag, will replace Zwinak in hopes of sparking up some offense against the Terps.

For anyone who watched the Terrapins during Franklin’s time there, this offense will look incredibly familiar. It’s a pro-style offense that relies on solid trench play. The run plays are almost always going to be inside and outside zones (not to be confused with zone read) that Maryland has seen before against Kirk Ferentz’ Iowa team, and the occasional power and counter. They rely on the running back to read the blocks, and the blocks to actually be there (which they haven’t).

Penn State’s biggest problem has been the offensive line. If you thought Maryland’s offensive line was bad, go watch the Nittany Lions’ group and relish in the fact that you’re not them. Belton and Akeel Lynch are almost getting taken down the second they receive the ball. Against Northwestern, 7 of Penn State’s 25 rushes went for 4 or more yards. Seven total. It’s been bad, and most of that is because left guard Brendan Mahon’s been getting beat every play and center Angelo Mangiro can’t really block anyone in the Big Ten.

The receiving corps hasn’t been a whole lot more encouraging, though it can easily burn teams if proper attention isn’t given. Losing stud receiver Allen Robinson to the NFL hit the Nittany Lions hard, and Hackenberg has had to rely on two guys who have stepped up quite well: freshman Daesean Hamilton and Geno Lewis.

Hamilton leads the team in receiving yards, and the two have combined to amass 1,209 of Hackenberg’s 1,861 total yards passing (about 65%). Hamilton, the three-star transfer from UVA who also received an offer from the Terps, has been a major surprise. He’s fast, has good size, and seems to enjoy being their possession guy. Geno Smith is the big-play magnet, averaging 15.8 yards per reception.

Those two open the field up so much for Penn State that they face nothing but soft man-to-man coverage the entire time, and Penn State has been smart about audibles and picking up short yardage off slants and hitches when the defense slacks off a bit too much.

That’s actually biggest thing to know about Penn State: ignore Christian Hackenberg’s iffy yards per attempt numbers. They’re not accurate because he’s basically throwing quick routes to pick up four or five yards when the defense gives too much room to the Lewis and Hamilton. That’s effectively replaced the run game because of how bad the offensive line is.

Speaking of the offensive line, their terrible-ness has permeated into the passing game. Hackenberg was sacked five times against Ohio State, six times against Michigan, and has been taken down a whopping 26 times total this season. This method is pretty much the quickest way to ruin a quarterback’s career, and Christian Hackenberg has to truly be hurting this season.

The red zone offense is just terrible. they’re 101st in red zone scoring percentage, and that’s a result of defenses putting everything in front of them while the Nittany Lions offensive line gets dismantled.

Against Maryland’s defensive front that has found some success at times against shaky offensive lines, Penn State is going to have a hard time doing much of anything. Still, the Terps are not a good run defense, and if Penn State can establish the run for once, all bets are off. This offense is extremely capable of going off in the right circumstances. The Terps defense has failed to stop anyone with even a tiny bit of grade A talent, and it’s hard to take an optimistic viewpoint against Penn State despite all their struggles.

Maryland has been beaten to bits by big plays over and over, and Christian Hackenberg is capable of making them. You do the math.

Defensive Breakdown

What Penn State lack in firepower on the offensive side of the ball, they more than make up for it on the defensive end of things. A staple of both the Paterno era and the Bill O’Brien era has been the strength of their defense, and this Nittany Lions team is no different under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.

Penn State is still going to run the base 4-3 defense, but now they’ve varied it up enough to account for offenses spreading the field a lot more nowadays. As a result, Shoop (who coached with Franklin at Vanderbilt) has put together a Penn State defense that is more impressive in their versatility than previous iterations.

Shoop operates out of the 4-3 Under variant (popularized by Monte Kiffin during the 70’s), which essentially means the emphasis is placed on three linebackers remaining out on the field the majority of the game. Especially against a team like Maryland, which runs a spread variant. Two of those three linebackers, middle LB Mike Hull and OLB Brandon Bell, are some of the smartest players in the game.

Hull has been spectacular this season, far outshining the rest of his teammates in total tackles (83). If you’ve ever watched Penn State play, Hull is that marquee linebacker that the Nittany Lions always seem to have. He is tops in the Big Ten in solo tackles per contest, and when it comes to stopping the run there may not be a better linebacker in the nation at wrapping up backs.

Because of the nature of the 4-3 Under, Hull is consistently able to penetrate the backfield because of the strength of the defensive line. Ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan have combined for six sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Tackle Anthony Zettel, meanwhile, may be even better than the two with four sacks of his own, two interceptions, and one fumble recover for a touchdown. He has routinely abused offensive line opponents and creates space for the linebackers to have all alleys covered.

The end result is that running against Penn State is a relatively futile effort. Opponents are averaging 2.4 yards per carry and 83.4 yards per game, good for third in the nation in both measures. Because they pressure the quarterback so well, they’re also top 25 in opponent % of interceptions thrown. Teams are made uncomfortable all game.

The secondary consists of a Cover 4 look, with two safeties looking to break up passes while playing very deep. Very occasionally Penn State will run their strong safety up to the line just before the snap to place another guy in the box when they’re positive the opponent will run, which essentially forces every team they play to throw against them.

Fortunately, Penn State has gotten beaten by spread offenses before. Both Northwestern and Ohio State were able to have tremendous success against Penn State because they simply extended the field out as far as possible. Because Penn State’s focus is penetration near the ball, the Wildcats and the Buckeyes just ran inside zone read with the option of a flash screen (much like what Maryland is capable of running). The Lions were gashed whenever Siemann or Barrett made the correct read.

The Terrapins are going to be throwing a whole lot against Penn State, and the abundance of talent at the wide receiver group should show up here as Penn State doesn’t have the personnel to cover it all. C.J. Brown was downright brutal last week against Wisconsin, but they were daring him to throw downfield. This week, Brown’s routes will probably be limited to a few yards, and if he can make the defense guess wrong often enough the Terps should have some success offensively.

The worst part for the Terps is going to be how C.J. Brown and the offensive line respond to a whole lot of pressure and noise. Last week the Terps faced both and were absolutely destroyed at Camp Randall, and this week it will be no difference at Beaver Stadium.

Brown is going to face pressure almost immediately if Maryland’s offensive line holds true to form, and his decision making has been awful when that happens. Penn State forced Gary Nova into five interceptions a a result of that pressure, and he’s arguably a better QB than Brown. Even J.T. Barrett had some major problems against Penn State’s defense, and while they did score 31 points, all but one score came on rushes.

That game will be played in arguably one of the toughest venues attended during the Edsall era, and this is perhaps one of the toughest (definitely one of the five toughest) defenses Maryland will have faced during the Edsall era. It’s going to be a grueling match, and right now you have to favor Penn State defensively by a ton.