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House's Film Preview: Scheming against Penn State’s Strengths and Weaknesses

11/04/2019, 6:00pm CST
By Daniel House

by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)

When Minnesota and Penn State take the field for Saturday’s undefeated showdown, the atmosphere will be electric. Everyone in college football will have their eyes glued to this game. It’s something that hasn’t happened very often in the history of Minnesota’s football program.

The No. 13 Gophers and No. 5 Nittany Lions are two of the hottest teams in the nation. Now, after a long bye week, we’ll finally have a chance to see how they measure up against one another.

To pass the time, I analyzed key metrics and identified ways each team may attack each other:

Looking at the Numbers: Strengths and Weaknesses

In S&P-plus, Minnesota currently ranks No. 10 with a 21.5 rating. The Nittany Lions travel to TCF Bank Stadium ranked No. 7 (26.1) in the same metric. As I’ve discussed before, this statistic is an opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency. This means Penn State would be favored by just 4.6 points against the Gophers on a neutral field. With the game being played in Minneapolis, this number likely dips to about two points.

By exploring the efficiency of these two teams, we can find advantages on each side of the ball. Minnesota has a higher S&P-plus offensive rating (39.5) than Penn State (37.8). On defense, Penn State holds a 12.2 to 18.4 advantage. When breaking this down even further, the Nittany Lions have the most efficient run defense in college football, according to College Football Data’s EPA metric (-0.126).

I also inserted all of the expected points added (EPA) data into one graph to show matchup advantages. The Gophers have higher ratings in every offensive category, but Penn State is very close behind. Defensively, Minnesota leads in pass defense, while the Nittany Lions hold a large advantage in rush defense. When looking at all of the metrics, each team’s strengths and weaknesses align nicely.

(hover over to see values for any empty label points)

As always, it’s important to pair this data with film observations to paint a clearer picture of what’s working for each team. I spent time breaking down Penn State’s games and pulled out clips from the past two weeks. While doing this, I wanted to highlight trends fans should prepare to see when watching this showdown.

Handling K.J. Hamler and Pat Friermuth

Penn State’s offense features electric wide receiver K.J. Hamler. He is a dynamic weapon and will draw plenty of attention in Minnesota’s scheme. Within James Franklin’s system, Hamler will align in the slot or outside. Teams have a tough choice to make when deciding how to defend him. Do you play zone and try to limit big plays over the top? Conversely, is it best to find your best defensive back and cover Hamler man-to-man? All year, opponents have mixed up their coverages, including using a blend of man and zone behind him. Michigan played a ton of Cover-1, which created 1-on-1 opportunities for Hamler. In the Michigan State game, the Spartans predominantly used zone concepts, including Mark Dantonio’s classic Cover-4 scheme. It was a great way to see how two different teams managed Hamler and 6-foot-5 tight end Pat Freiermuth.

First, we’ll analyze the scheme deployed by Michigan. A staple play in the Penn State playbook is the mesh-wheel concept. This play features crossing routes over the middle and a wheel route by the running back out of the backfield. The offensive coordinator is essentially trying to set a pick across the middle. When deploying the mesh-wheel concept, teams often want to attack man coverage underneath. Across the board, Michigan correctly covered everything in man. The free safety dropped deep and the strong safety streaked across the field to break up K.J. Hamler’s crossing route. The Nittany Lions ran this play multiple times in the Michigan and Michigan State games. In Minnesota’s scheme, they can show pre-snap Cover-2, flex to single-high and have Antoine Winfield Jr. cover this. The versatility of Winfield and cornerback Chris Williamson are going to be key parts of the scheme.


via Gfycat

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown took plenty of chances, including sending pressure and playing man across the board. In the red zone, tight end Pat Friermuth ran a slant and K.J. Hamler popped off a wheel/fade route. This route concept created just enough conflict to slow the defensive back. Essentially, Penn State ran a slant/seam concept to attack all of the man coverage Don Brown was deploying. When you are aggressive and don’t provide safety help, you’ll get burned over the top.

I expect Minnesota will play plenty of zone underneath and over the top. Occasionally, they could have nickel cornerback Chris Williamson match up in man against Hamler. When they do that, they can deploy zone behind him. You could play Cover-3 or a Cover-2 man under to defend everything. Minnesota could also follow a blueprint similar to ones they deployed against Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore in 2018 and 2019.

You can be aggressive and send pressure in long down situations, but playing Cover-1 or 3 is more logical because there is at least some safety help over the top. This is especially the case in red zone situations because of Penn State’s weapons. Tight end Pat Freiermuth had three touchdowns last week and is thriving due to the coaching staff’s red zone play designs. In the Michigan game, the coaches caused a little confusion by making the route concept look like a slant/seam play. This time, Hamler was lined up in the slot and popped off a hitch. Freiermuth ran a fade and exploited the man-to-man mismatch against a linebacker. Minnesota will need to account for Penn State’s top tight end and may rely upon Kamal Martin to help in coverage. However, I do expect Minnesota will provide quite a bit of help over the top in the red zone. They can also have one of their safeties match up with Freiermuth if they want to be aggressive up front.

When looking at the strategy of Michigan, they played more zone coverage and decided to man up on the outside. There was one instance where K.J. Hamler flashed his incredible awareness. It appears Michigan State dropped into zone in the second and third levels. The coverages weren’t passed off correctly in the backend and Hamler decided to run his crosser past the linebackers’ depth. The strong safety bit on Freiermuth’s crosser and Hamler got extensive separation. By running this route at a deeper depth, the explosive passing play occurred. Penn State again executed this type of mesh-wheel concept. There's no doubt Minnesota’s defense will need to communicate well in the backend to prevent big plays.


via Gfycat


I expect Minnesota to blend its coverages in early downs and take more chances during long down-and-distance situations. When watching Penn State’s offensive film, I’ve noticed a trend — they struggle to pick up pressure. Not only that, but quarterback Sean Clifford has been forced into mistakes. He tossed a couple throws off his back foot and simply couldn’t step into a few passes. Minnesota’s NASCAR pass-rushing package and various blitz looks could be a huge weapon in this game. In the Michigan State matchup, the Spartans were very agressive, which is a very traditional aspect of their defensive scheme. During the third quarter, the blitz packages were giving Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford fits. The first three plays in this sequence involved sending pressure:


The big key will be limiting Penn State’s success rate on first and second-down. If you’re in long down-and-distance situations, it’s easier to take more chances and send pressure packages. As I noted in the Maryland game breakdown, we are seeing a small glimpse of Joe Rossi’s potential creativity. When timed correctly, many of the looks we’ve already witnessed will likely translate well to this matchup, too. Considering the way Minnesota’s secondary is playing, success through front-seven pressure packages could quietly be a difference-maker in this game.

Attacking Penn State’s defense

Penn State features one of the top defenses in the country. They have talent everywhere, especially in the front-seven. Linebacker Micah Parsons is one of the top defensive players in the country. His length, range and strength allow him to be deployed in many different ways. Parsons has been a tackling machine and plays with tremendous instincts. In the clip below, Penn State’s front-four got push inside and Parsons burst off the edge for a run stop.

Penn State’s run defense is one of the team’s strengths. They have the top-ranked unit in run defense efficiency, according to College Football Data. Opponents have also posted a 27 percent success rate on rushing plays, which is the top mark in college football.

During stretches of the 2019 season, Robert Windsor has been dominant and features the versatility needed to play multiple alignments in their defense. He’s been very disruptive and will need to step up following the suspension of fellow defensive tackle Antonio Shelton. P.J. Mustipher was already rotating into the defensive line, but the sophomore will be making his first collegiate start.

One other theme I’ve noticed when watching Penn State is the trouble they’ve had when defending toss, option or pin-and-pull concepts. I’m expecting James Franklin and his staff to scheme for Minnesota’s outside zone and capitalize upon the athleticism of their defense. If they do, the Gophers will counter with their bread and butter rushing scheme — the inside zone. The big question is: what will Penn State's scheme look like? They already play a high volume of zone coverage, but how will they adjust if the Gophers start running the ball well into lighter boxes?

Michigan State ran toss and option plays to pick up positive early down yardage. In the Michigan game, the Wolverines scored a touchdown off the pin-and-pull concept. This is a play I expect to see Minnesota try. They have the athleticism on their offensive line to pull the center and tackle. For example, right guard Curtis Dunlap would “pin” the defensive tackle, while Conner Olson and Blaise Andries pull to the second level. This is a wrinkle we haven’t seen yet from the Gophers’ offensive line. After seeing Penn State play so agressive and get too far up the field, I think rushing plays in space could be super effective. Here’s a pin-and-pull example:


via Gfycat

Minnesota’s biggest challenge will be handling the stunts and blitz looks thrown its way. Penn State is agressive and will send a ton of pressure. The Gophers will benefit from seeing all of those stunts early in non-conference play. They’ve improved in this area and will need to continue passing these off at the right depth. I honestly think chemistry and time together has been one of the biggest reasons why this has been fixed. As you can see below, Penn State sent a stunt, but Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson felt pressure and got the ball out to his receiver, who was running a deep post. The length, power and athleticism of pass rushers Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney will be a big test for Minnesota’s offensive line. Penn State has the fifth-most sacks in the country and features a deep rotation, including underrated defensive end Jayson Oweh.

Gophers’ quarterback Tanner Morgan will need to feel pressure and go through his progressions quickly. Minnesota may try to roll him out of the pocket and use pure play-action more consistently. With the success the offense has shown off outside zone, there are quite a few wrinkles Minnesota can attach to their rushing concepts through play-action. In the second half, Michigan State took a deep shot up the field and burned cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields.

It’s worth keeping an eye on pregame warmups, too. Veteran cornerback John Reid was injured against Michigan State, but James Franklin has indicated he’ll be ready for the game. His replacement, Trent Gordon, was injured as well. If either of them aren’t available, true freshman Marquis Wilson could start.

With Penn State’s agressive approach, the Gophers will need to get the ball out quick via slants, outs and bubble screens. I also wouldn’t be opposed to seeing some screens and plays where Rodney Smith is flexed to the slot. Smith can be bunched up with two wide receivers and settle into soft spots within Penn State’s zone scheme. They could also run some delayed draws to take advantage of the Nittany Lions’ heavy blitz frequency.

I believe the Gophers can manufacture some mismatches by moving their personnel around a little. This includes bunching up Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Brevyn Spann-Ford, while creating a single coverage matchup on the opposite side of the formation for Tyler Johnson. Penn State had trouble with bubble screens in the Michigan State game and ran the play three times for significant yardage. If you can create a numbers advantage on one side of the field, these bubble plays are effective. This is especially the case when considering the agressive mentality of the Nittany Lions’ defense.


via Gfycat

I also wanted to share one of my favorite route concepts coaches occasionally use against these type of coverages. With Minnesota’s personnel, they can effectively run the flood concept. This can be executed via a doubles or trips formation. In this instance, I’ll show it out of a 2x2 doubles. The concept features an intermediate crosser, deep out and corner route “flooding” one side of the field. On the opposite portion of the formation, you can run a post. If everything isn't passed off well, the offense will have a very favorable matchup. In general, I think a variety of different bunch concepts would be effective, too. I’m also a huge fan of the dragon concept, which involves a quick slant and pass in the flat.

Here’s a flood concept diagram, courtesy of High Speed Spread Football:


Final Thoughts

Overall, this matchup features a relatively even mix of strengths and weaknesses. Minnesota’s offensive balance will be the biggest challenge Penn State has faced this year. On the other hand, the Gophers must find a way to develop creative ground game concepts against the nation’s top rush defense. This post highlights just a few ways both teams could approach the game. I can’t wait to see how each of them handle certain things, such as the Gophers’ outside zone running and Penn State’s usage of K.J. Hamler/Pat Freiermuth.

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