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Film Preview: Penn State’s offense runs through Sean Clifford, Manny Diaz’s new look defensively

Ohio State will be facing a familiar foe offensively against Penn State, but the new-look defense may provide some challenges for the Buckeyes.

Penn State v Ohio State Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The James Franklin-led Penn State Nittany Lions are hosting the Ohio State Buckeyes this weekend. They are still led by Sean Clifford at quarterback, but the Nittany Lions are the most talented roster Ohio State has played to date. For all of his downfalls, Franklin has built a roster that has been able to challenge the Buckeyes regularly.

Penn State has consistently given the Buckeyes some of their toughest matchups, with the last six meetings all being decided by 11-points or less. Franklin has tried to modernize his offense with the hiring of Mike Yurcich, but has been unable to field a consistent run game. This has led to a reliance on quarterback Sean Clifford, which surmises to say that the results have been inconsistent.

On defense, Penn State was tasked with replacing the long-tenured defensive coordinator Brent Pry. Pry was a significant part in the success Penn State has had over recent years in slowing down the Buckeyes. Now, former Miami head coach Manny Diaz has brought his high pressure defense to State College. The difference in philosophy has led to mixed results, and Diaz will need to have his team organized if they want to have any chance of slowing down Ohio State.


The Penn State offense starts and stops with how Clifford plays. His inconsistencies as a passer have defined the last four years of the Penn State football program, and will once again take center stage against the Buckeyes in Happy Valley.

Prior to Penn State’s matchup against Michigan, the Nittany Lion offense had found some balance behind their running backs. Freshman Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen came on to the scene early in the year as effective running backs, but as of late the run game has not risen to the levels many around Penn State foresaw. Ohio State has been successful in stopping the run this year, so once again this matchup will come down to Clifford’s quarterback play.

Clifford as a passer

Mike Yurcich knows his quarterback has limitations as a passer, and this has led to a lot of throws across the middle of the field. Penn State utilizes shallow crossers, dig routes, and post routes more than most teams. Last season, Penn State found success attacking the middle of Ohio State’s defense, and this will be the case once again.

In the first play, Penn State is in a 3rd-and-9 situation against Minnesota. They split out their tight end into the slot, and Minnesota has him uncovered with the safety being used as a blitzer. This gives the tight end a free run up the seam, and once he clears the linebackers, Clifford delivers a strike. His comfortability is high on these throws, and this is a common place of attack for Penn State’s offense.

Penn State’s offense is not scared to take shots down field, and Clifford does have the arm strength to push the ball outside the numbers. The last two seasons Penn State hasn’t found success passing downfield against the Buckeyes with Jahan Dotson on the roster. The issue is Clifford is inconsistent at best throwing the ball deep.

Penn State has talented wide receivers, but they are not utilized consistency because of the level of Clifford’s play. In the next clip we see the athleticism and speed Penn State has at the receiver position. They are lined in a “Doubles - Stack” formation, meaning one receiver is on top of the other. This will be a challenge for Ohio State’s safeties and corners when it comes to communication pre-snap about which receiver to take. Penn State’s receiver gets separation, and Clifford drops the ball outside.

With the struggles of the cornerbacks for Ohio State this season, expect Penn State to try to take some shots early.

Now, for every throw Clifford makes like the one in the previous example, there is one like the play below. Penn State is in a critical 4th-and-6 situation down seven points in the second half against Michigan. Clifford has a receiver open at the first down marker, but he throws the corner route, which also breaks open. The coverage is close enough to impact the receiver, but the ball is overthrown. In the early parts of the game, Clifford has been sharp most of his career, but once the game matters the Sean Clifford below is the one that usually shows up.

QB Run Game

Now, Ohio State fans might get salty at the amount Clifford gets involved in the running game, and I can already hear the echoes of people saying, “This is why Stroud needs to pull the ball every once in a while.”

Clifford needs to add this element to the game because his throwing ability is inconsistent. This added dynamic makes defensive coordinators have to always account for Clifford as a runner. In the play below, Penn State runs a read option off of their inside zone concept. Michigan overcommits their defenders to stopping the running back, and Clifford is athletic enough to rip off a big gain on the ground.

If Ohio State doesn’t remain disciplined in reading their keys and maintaining their responsibilities in run fit, Penn State can use Clifford’s legs to hurt them.

Run game behind running backs

Earlier in the season, freshman running back Nick Singleton had a few huge performances. Since entering conference play, the run game has not been nearly as dynamic, averaging 4.8 yards in the last two games with a season-low 2.9 yards per carry against Michigan.

When the Penn State run game is having success, their zone run schemes are reliant on the offensive line reaching the second level. This is a common indicator of success for many run games.

In the first play, Penn State’s tight end is lined up as an H-Back. The tight end lead blocks through the hole and gets the linebacker at the second level. This lead block opens up a running lane, leading to a nice gain. The offensive line does a great job of getting to their spots and staying on their responsibilities in this play as well.

When the run game is not going well, the theme is similar to Ohio State’s issues – the offensive line gives up interior penetration to the defensive line. Penn State is trying to use their Outside Zone concept to get the first in a 3rd-and-5 situation. Minnesota’s defensive line is able to eat up the double teams, creating congestion in the backfield. This allows the linebacker to flow aggressively, and with the defensive line eating up blockers, the linebacker is able to make the play in the backfield.


New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has brought in an entirely new identity. The more reserved and responsibility-oriented Brent Pry was able to limit Ohio State offensively by owning gaps and not giving up big plays. Diaz is the opposite. He brings a lot of pressure in any situation and will gamble to try to make big plays defensively.

Diaz had success against overmatched opponents, like Auburn and Minnesota with their back up quarterback. Michigan is more talented than both of those teams, and they took advantage of the aggressive philosophy of Diaz. By winning at the line of scrimmage, the Wolverines were able to run the ball at will. This will be a huge test for the Buckeyes, because if they can run the ball effectively, that sets up their play-action pass which can really do some damage if Penn State chooses to bring pressure.


Getting into the pressure that Penn State likes to bring, the Nittany Lions defense is willing to blitz any position. They bring safeties, corners, and linebackers on any down and distance, and this creates opportunities for the offense. If Stroud can identify where blitzes are coming from early, this will allow him to adjust protections to attack the areas the blitzers leave vacant.

In the first play, Penn State is lined up straight alignment wise and in Cover-1. Diaz uses a 4-2-5 similarly to Ohio State and Jim Knowles, so this is a look the Ohio State offense has seen a lot. Penn State’s boundary safety is aligned as a player just outside the box and he shows he is blitzing before the snap of the ball. Penn State also runs a “twist” with the interior defensive linemen. The blitz is picked up by Michigan and so is the twist, but this is exactly the type of blitzing action Diaz loves to use to create confusion on the offensive line.

In the next play, Penn State is showing a max pressure. When the ball is snapped, Penn State drops their two backers back into coverage, rushing only five including a safety who walks up late. They once again bring a looping defender into the middle of the rush, but all the movement pre-snap creates confusion for the offensive line in their blocking assignments. The initial rushes do not get home, but they are able to overwhelm the Minnesota offensive line, getting a sack.

For Penn State their pressure aids their coverage, and if the pressure doesn’t get home the coverage falls apart. This is a dangerous balance, especially against a team like Ohio State who has receivers who can dominate matchups in man-coverage and is well-coached enough to attack areas of zone coverages.

Against the run

Michigan laid the blue print for the Buckeyes to attack Penn State’s defense in the run game. The Wolverines’ running backs used outside and wide zone schemes to break off some long runs. Ohio State is still predictable running the ball, but the schemes the Buckeyes run have had proven success against Penn State.

In the first play, Michigan is running a pin-and-pull concept to the boundary. Michigan’s pinners close off the defensive linemen well, giving the pullers a clear path to get out to the next level. The pullers kick out the Penn State defenders and create a running lane all the way to the end zone. If Ohio State can get their offensive linemen moving and up to the second level, they will have a bounce back performance running the ball.

Once again, Michigan is on the right hash and they choose to run into the boundary with the same pin-and-pull concept. This is an example that shows Ohio State doesn’t need to be complicated. They can run their main concepts and have success. Ohio State has regularly used the pin-and-pull concept this year, but the Buckeyes have mainly used their wide zone to the boundary. Once again, Michigan shows how movable Penn State can be, and another running lane is made by the offensive line that gets the running back to the sticks untouched.

Penn State is a solid, well-coached football team, and on the road will provide a challenge for Ohio State this weekend. This is a huge game for the Buckeyes, and they will have to come into this one prepared for the kitchen sink to be thrown at them.

The Penn State offense is heavily reliant on the success of quarterback Sean Clifford. When Clifford is throwing the ball well and running the ball with a purpose, the offense moves and can put some points on the board. In the run game, Singleton has played well and the duo he forms with Allen has been potent. The issues arise when the run game disappears and Penn State needs Clifford to take over. If Ohio State can take the running game out of the picture, the Penn State offense will be in for a long day.

Defensively, Penn State has been a consistent group this season outside of one contest. Ohio State will have to be prepared for Penn State’s defense to bring a lot of pressure. The Buckeyes will need to remain balanced to keep the Nittany Lions at bay, and allow for the play-action to get set up. If the Buckeyes pass protection holds up, Ohio State should take advantage of the aggressive nature of the Manny Diaz Penn State defense.

For the Buckeyes, coming out of the gate hot and not letting the home stadium get involved will be the first task. If the Buckeyes can get settled early, win the line of scrimmage, and force Sean Clifford into mistakes, the Buckeyes should have a successful day in Happy Valley.