In a week that will see The Shoe cover in scarlet, Ohio State will be taking on the Penn State Nittany Lions in the first marquee, primetime game since 2017. Even though Penn State took the air out of this game with back-to-back losses to Big Ten foes, this does not mean that this is a game that Ohio State can take lightly. Even with James Franklin already dreaming of Malibu beaches, still stuck on the sideline in a mental trance against Illinois, or utilizing some high level 3-D chess to throw the Buckeyes off guard, they are a team that has proven to be competitive against the Buckeyes, no matter what the circumstances.
To get the film review started, Penn State has not been able to replicate their offensive success since Joe Moorhead left a few years back, but an old “friend” in Mike Yurcich has done his best to replicate the effective zone-run scheme, vertical passing concepts, and RPO game that are pillars of a Moorhead attack. When it comes to play calling, the duties are Yurcich’s, and the Nittany Lions’ offense has once again struggled to find consistency. They have not yet found a reliable running game and outside of Jahan Dotson, they have struggled to create big plays.
However, on the defensive side of the ball, Penn State as a team ranks in the top 10 of some major categories. Led by a group of savvy defensive backs and a stout defensive line, PSU has put together a group that has limited their opponents’ big plays. The Nittany Lion D runs a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3, and they in some two-high looks as well. The cornerstone to the defense is their high blitz rate; they like to bring players often and in any situation. You combine that with their high stunt usage, and Ohio State’s offensive line better be prepared.
With introductions out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the key concepts that the Nits rely on and what the Buckeyes can do to stop them.
In the first play that we are going to look at, we get to see one of Penn State’s two bread-and-butter run plays. This is a true inside-zone play to running back Keyvone Lee (No. 24), Penn State uses this play to essentially set up their entire playbook.
PSU lines up with a tight end to the short side and trips to the field side, they motion Jahan Dotson (No. 5) across the field to see if the defensive alignment changes. This is a straight handoff, so quarterback Sean Clifford (No. 14) does not have any reads here, which is different than before his injury. The ball is handed off to Lee. The tight end in this scenario would usually release to the second level after chipping the read-player which is why the Illinois defensive end jumps inside. This allows the tight end for Penn State to wash down the Illinois defender with ease, opening up a huge running lane for Lee on this play which ends up with a nice gain.
If the Nittany Lions are running this play with success, it opens up their play-action pass and RPO games, which can lead to their offense getting a little more dangerous.
The next play that we’re going to look at is from Penn State’s RPO game off of their inside-zone running game. Out of this set, they have a one-on-one match up to the bottom of the screen. Illinois is in man-coverage and bringing heavy pressure. This opens up the pass option on the play.
This play is a pre-snap read, so once the QB identifies the pressure and coverage, the decision is made. Clifford (again No. 14) gives a hard fake, turning his back to the receiver and then resets to deliver the pass.
We know this is an RPO and not a play action pass because everyone outside of Clifford and receiver Keandre Lambert-Smith (No. 13) are run blocking. When you look at the down and distance, it is 1st and 10, a normal run situation. This play is set up by the inside-zone run having had success on first down earlier in the game, so Illinois tries to combat that, but by doing so, Penn State is able to have an explosive play.
Penn State’s pass game is heavily reliant on RPOs and Dotson making big plays downfield. In this section we’re going to look at one of the wrinkles they often incorporate and the other large part of their passing game. Against Indiana, Clifford could not hit water if he were in a boat and his accuracy often fails him.
That being said, Clifford has delivered some big throws in his career and in the intermediate passing game, he is an above average thrower. When a play can be made on script and on time, Clifford can do some damage.
So, Penn State does this thing where they run two concepts on two sides. This is common in the passing game for teams who do not rely on full-field passing concepts, and when you have players like Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson, or Dotson, sometimes this simplicity can work, but usually it makes the defensive back’s job easier.
In this next play, Penn State does a bingo screen to the top side and double slant concept to the bottom side. This again goes into the category of pre-snap reads as Clifford is counting numbers on each side. PSU motions the receiver (No. 13) across the formation to get Clifford a read on the coverage, and once that is identified, his decision is made. He takes a quick drop and delivers a strike to Dotson (No. 5).
The last part we’re going to look at is what gave Ohio State trouble last year in this matchup and something that the Buckeyes will need to defend better if they want to take care of business on Saturday. Penn State relies on Dotson for their downfield passing game almost exclusively.
They love to push vertical in their routes, whether that be comebacks, curls, or streaks. In this play, Penn State runs a four-verticals concept. Illinois gets pressure leading to Clifford having to throw the ball off platform and early.
This ball ends up floating into triple coverage, but Dotson is still able to bring it down. Now this play is not complex, this is not here to teach you anything, except that Dotson is a fully capable, one-man wrecking crew. If Ohio State’s DBs are unprepared, they will have a very long day.
Penn State has two different defenses that they like to play, man coverage with heavy pressure or zone with a four-man rush. They rarely ever bring zone blitzes, so if there is pressure, odds are that there will be winnable one-on-one matchups for Ohio State’s receivers.
In the first play, we’re going to take a look at how they guard when they bring pressure from the second level. Penn State sends the house on this third-and-long situation leaving the defensive backs in man-coverage.
They go with Cover 0 — meaning that there’s no high safety — leaving the defensive backs responsible for their man with no help. Penn State shows that they are bringing seven in pressure, but the defensive tackle (No. 97) becomes a middle spy on quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (No. 9). This ends up taking away the running lane from Penix Jr. and leaves him with a tough throw. The DBs stick to their man and they are able to force an incompletion after forcing a pressure on Penix Jr.
In the play below, Indiana lines up in 11-personnel with their tight end to the short side with trips to the field. Normally, when the offense runs any type of trip-set, if PSU is not bringing pressure, they will be in Cover 4/quarters coverage.
Here, Penn State does drop into quarters coverage and rush four, which is a common combination. What the Nittany Lions do additionally, is run a variety of different stunts in their pass rush.
If they go straight zone, they usually do some variation of stunting like the play below. In this instance they run a twist, where the DT replaces the opposite side DE as the outside rusher. This causes confusion for a lot of offensive lines, so Ohio State needs to take their pass set and catch whomever comes their direction.
In coverage, PSU is able to play each receiver straight up and force an incompletion.
To close out, Penn State has struggled to find a consistent running game since Saquon Barkley moved on to the NFL, and under Yurcich, that has not yet changed. Part of that has to do with their simple run game that relies heavily on RPOs and QB-reads.
With Clifford injured, one of their dimensions is completely gone. Even last year, with almost the same personnel, they were only able to rush for 44 yards against Ohio State and that was with a healthy Clifford. With Clifford still on the mend, he is not likely to factor in as much as he has historically in their running game, whether that be through zone reads or scrambling. If Ohio State is able to continue what they’ve been doing in recent weeks, Penn State should have trouble establishing the run, leading to lots of problems for their offense.
Defensively, Penn State has a stout run-defense and a savvy pass-defense. Their last game is a bad example, because they gave up over 350 yards to Illinois, but as a team they are really good defensively.
Ohio State will need to be ready for some exotic looks up front, and this will be the offensive line’s biggest test yet in regards to protecting C.J. Stroud. If the Buckeyes are able to protect when Penn State brings a six-man pressure, they will be able to rip off some huge plays. If they can establish the run, Penn State will be in for a long day, as they have shown that they give up their share of big plays.
The Buckeyes will have a smaller margin for error against the Nittany Lions than they have in recent weeks, but if they can come in prepared, they should be able to deal with what Penn State throws at them, as it’s not anything they haven’t seen before.