The Penn State Nittany Lions are a fun team to watch for those who like the sport of football. Joe Paterno's team is well-coached and disciplined, but that doesn't mean they also aren't explosive when they want to be. The physical way Penn State plays football – similar to that of the Pittsburgh Steelers – seems to wear on teams as the game goes on. There is just an air of competence about what Penn State does on the field.
With that said, I wanted to talk about some things I noticed about the Nittany Lions upon viewing their 34-13 win against Northwestern this past Saturday. The Wildcats actually held a 13-10 lead at halftime in this one and the score was equal at 13 after three stanzas before Penn State pulled away with fourth-quarter touchdowns on three straight offensive plays.
Penn State Offensive Notes
**I decided to chart formations until the game reached the point it was out of hand, when tailback Evan Royster broke through the line and between Northwestern's safeties for a 69-yard touchdown run that made the score 34-13 midway through the fourth.
I saw only four formations that Penn State ran more than five times, and the two used most were very similar except for one small difference. The Nittany Lions most-used set was a single-back (Royster), under-center look with three wideouts and a tight end along the line, a look used about 20 times in the game. The key difference? About half the time, tight end Andrew Quarless is split out into the slot as the third receiver with fellow TE Mickey Shuler along the line and two wideouts on the flanks; the other half of the time, there were three wideouts in with Quarless in the traditional TE spot.
Penn State also used the I-formation about 10 times with Joe Suhey in as the fullback, and the other commonly used set is one familiar to Buckeye fans because Ohio State's offense has run it quite a bit – a three wideout, shotgun, single-back look with Quarless at TE.
There were also a number of formations used just a few times, such as an offset I look with Quarless wide, and an empty set in which Royster lines up as a receiver with three wides and a TE in the game. As you can see, the Nittany Lions like to do a lot of different things with their versatile personnel in an effort to get them into the game; this has been a strong point of the Nittany Lion offense since Derrick Williams showed up on campus.
**There did seem to be a few plays that were run specifically out of one formation, which could be a key for the Buckeye defense in this game.
One of those is the offset I with a tight end wide look. This is a set out of which Penn State ran one of its power plays, a beautifully designed play similar to Ohio State's "Dave" play.
In the version Penn State ran against Northwestern, Quarless lines up split to the right then comes in motion toward the center, while the FB (Suhey) is lined up offset to the right as well. At the snap, the offensive line blocks down to the right while both Quarless and Suhey come across the formation to the left to block. In addition, right guard Lou Eliades pulls left from his spot, essentially giving Royster three blockers to take out the outside linebacker, the playside end and anyone else who comes into play. The Nittany Lions ran this play with success a few times against NU.
Another time, Penn State lined up in a four-wide, single-back set, and then ran a slip screen to the right side to wideout Graham Zug. NU end Corey Wootton immediately read the play, not even feigning a rush; he simply sprinted to the flat and was able to hit Zug for a big loss. Wootton's quick reaction makes me wonder if Penn State tends to run that play out of that formation in certain situations, which could be something to watch for OSU's ends on Saturday.
Finally, the I-formation was more of a passing formation for the Nittany Lions against Northwestern. Whether this was to throw off the Wildcats based on earlier tendencies or simply a way to play against general football stereotypes is unknown, but it's worth noting that PSU might see the I-formation as a passing formation Saturday, especially in early downs against OSU's base defense.
**Much like Ohio State, Penn State had trouble protecting the quarterback at the start of the year, allowing seven sacks in the first four games. Since then, the Nittany Lions have given up three sacks in five games, and they must like their rebuilt line considering they rarely kept a tight end or running back in to block. Contrast that with Ohio State, which has done so more than half the time in the past few games. This is probably why Quarless has 25 catches, Suhey 14 grabs, Royster 11 and Shuler nine.
**One of the routes of choice when Penn State does go downfield seems to be the post or skinny post; the Nittany Lions ran a ton of them against Northwestern.
*The Nittany Lions did have short-yardage troubles against Northwestern when it came to trying to run for first downs in third-and-1 or third-and-2.
**Be on the lookout for lots of rollouts and misdirection.
Penn State Defensive Notes
**As you'll be sure to hear if you follow enough about this game, Penn State is a cover-3 team that forces you to beat them down the field in small chunks. Teams haven't done so very often; opponents have only 19 plays of 20 yards or more, including three runs. That's where the discipline comes in. I was also impressed with the tackling of Penn State's secondary. Northwestern runs a lot of short routes to get their wide receivers in space, and the Nittany Lions' corners did a good job of making tackles before this could turn into gains.
**Jared Odrick is the real deal. The defensive tackle was double-teamed quite often by the center and a guard by NU but still made his share of plays. The attention paid to him makes the two other tackles, Ollie Ogbu and Devon Still, that much better.
**The ends, however, don't seem to have the playmaking skills of past standouts Maurice Evans and Aaron Maybin. That might sound odd given that Jack Crawford has 13½ tackles for loss, but he didn't jump off the film vs. NU, although his speed made for one really nice play as he tracked down the pitch man on the option and brought him down for a loss. On some zone-read plays, Crawford appeared to be fulfilling a similar role as O'Brien Schofield of Wisconsin did against OSU, playing both the quarterback and the pitch man without committing to either. However, on NU's touchdown, the sophomore crashed to take the back, leaving QB Mike Kafka a lane into the end zone.
**Navorro Bowman, who was outstanding against Ohio State last year, looked lost in pass coverage at times against NU, but that might have been because of the excellent play of Wildcat slot receiver Zeke Markshausen., who caught nine passes. A number of times, Markshausen would run a crossing route and stop right in front of Bowman; as soon as Bowman would step forward to commit to the wideout, Markshausen would restart his route, leaving the creeping Bowman in the dust. Unfortunately for OSU, I haven't seen this type of option route in the Buckeye playbook all that much, and those routes also depend on pinpoint short passing from the QB, something the Buckeyes haven't gotten for much of the year. Bowman is still an excellent run-stuffer and one of the best linebackers in the league.
**Sean Lee is looking like the real deal again after earlier injury concerns. He moved sideline to sideline and often delivered a lick when he got to the ball carrier.
**Josh Hull was part of an early 3-3-5 nickel look for Penn State that also included a lot blitzing, but that seemed to wane as NU had success throwing underneath into Hull's areas. Later in the game, Penn State went with a typical 4-2-5 nickel with Bowman and Lee. I'm unsure if the 3-3-5 was drawn up for the Wildcat spread or is a part of the normal Penn State defense, so I can't say if the Buckeyes will see that.
**NU was able to move the ball on Penn State when it tried to pick up the pace and go into a hurry-up offense. Ohio State's offense also seems to excel when it goes hurry-up, so that could be more a part of what OSU tries to do on Saturday.
One Final Note Penn State's special teams have not been up to par all season long. The Iowa game turned on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, and Michigan also got to a punt. In this game, the Penn State punt return unit was whistled for a substitution infraction that kept alive an NU drive. Little mistakes like that could prove critical against Ohio State. Ray Small also should get some chances for some returns, given that Jeremy Boone has a booming leg. He tends to outkick his coverage at times, so Small might have room to operate.