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First Look: a preview of the Penn State Nittany Lions

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Is Penn State the “UW of the B1G”?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan State
RB Saquon Barkley is the straw that stirs the drink in the Penn State offense.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The Fiesta Bowl

Date: December 30th, 2017

Time: 1pm PT / 4pm ET

TV: ESPN

Streaming: WatchESPN.com (video); TuneIn Radio (audio)

Odds: Penn State -4.5; o66.5

Preview: the Penn State Nittany Lions

The Rivalry

Husky fans haven’t seen the Penn State Nittany Lions square off against the good guys since the Aloha Bowl in 1983. That game was a matchup against two teams who had seen their seasons not go exactly the way that they had hoped.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State
S Marcus Allen is one of the better defensive players you’ve probably not heard about in the B1G.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The Nittany Lions were coming off a national championship in 1982 and had entered the season with high hopes. A stretch of three straight losses early in the season doomed their hopes for a repeat championship and led them to the Aloha Bowl.

UW, on the other hand, was in a battle all season for the PAC 10 championship. That race ended bitterly with a narrow loss to UCLA and a loss in the Apple Cup. The Dawgs would go on to finish second in the PAC that season and travel to Honolulu for their consolation prize.

Penn State beat UW in a defensive battle by a score of 13-10. It was their second all-time victory over UW against no losses.

The Matchup

There may not be a matchup anywhere in the CFP that pits two teams of such equal accomplishment against one another. Both teams sport the following attributes as legitimate strengths:

  • excellent running back play
  • highly efficient quarterbacking
  • stout run defense
  • solid tackling and big play prevention
  • strong return teams

In a similar fashion, these two teams also share some of the very same weaknesses. In particular:

  • poor field goal kicking
  • lack of dominating defensive edge rushing
  • lack of “blow the top off” pass catching threat (UW had 8 passes over 40 yards while Penn State had 7)

The statistical analyses bear out this mano a mano equality in just about every conceivable fashion. The most interesting to me is the story told by the advanced stats. On an overall S&P+ basis - a measurement of opponent-adjusted per play success and efficiency - UW ranks #4 overall in the nation behind Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia. Penn State? They are ranked #5.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Penn State
TE Mike Gesicki leads Penn State with 9 TD receptions.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

When you dive deeper into those numbers, you see those consistencies maintained. Penn State is almost perfectly balanced ranking 12th in both offensive and defensive S&P+ while UW is a just a tad bit more skewed at 23rd and 4th, respectively.

The story told by the stats is that both teams mix a heavy amount of run into their offensive attack, both are best-in-class efficient in the passing game, both are stingy when it comes to giveaways, both control explosive plays on defense, and both are solid in establishing field position through special teams.

Looking at team stats doesn’t reveal many definite advantages on either side. A look at player-level stats does reveal a few key differences. One of them is in how the tight end gets utilized. Both teams are excellent at involving tight ends, but Penn State clearly uses theirs in order to generate big plays and red zone scores.

Another key difference is how the defenses generate pass rush. Both teams are effective in creating pocket pressure. However, UW is more successful in doing so with their base D and down lineman. Their DL ranks 6th in Adjusted Sack Rate while Penn State’s ranks 66th in the same category. While both teams have the same number of total sacks (38) on the year, UW has a greater percentage coming from non-blitzers.

Obviously, these differences are small things in the grand scheme of the game. The Fiesta Bowl will be about as even a matchup as you can find in this year’s lineup.


Three Really Good Players

Everybody knows about the Penn State stars. RB Saquon Barkley is the reigning Paul Hornung Award winner who excels in both the run and pass game in addition to special teams. He’s a low-to-the-ground running back with legs like tree trunks who gets to holes quickly and is hard to tackle one-on-one. Stylistically, UW fans might note that he looks a lot like Jacquizz Rodgers looked when he was at Oregon State.

QB Trace McSorley is a completely underrated signal-caller. The junior is very Browning-esque in that he doesn’t get as many attempts as the star QBs, but he is viciously efficient. He sports a 65.3% completion rate with a very good 8.4 YPA average. He is a quick decisionmaker who is very comfortable spreading the ball around to a variety of pass receivers.

At the risk of making this a “five really good players” section, I thought I’d skip those two stars and pull out a few names that you may not have heard but who will clearly be factors in the Fiesta Bowl.

WR DaeSean Hamilton (Senior, 6’1” 206 lbs, #5)

Hamilton is the big-stature receiver that UW wishes it had available on its roster right now. His numbers don’t blow you away mostly as a function of the Penn State offense. But he does have 48 catches and 7 TDs to go along with a 16 ypc average. Those are some solid numbers, especially when you consider that Hamilton leads all active B1G receivers in career receptions.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Penn State
WR DaeSean Hamilton is Penn State’s top wide receiver.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Hamilton is one of those guys that does the little things right. He doesn’t have blazing speed, but he knows how to run a route, has great body control and has a tendency to generate first downs. He will also make catches in traffic and he has the field awareness to generate YAC. His achilles heel is that he is known to drop a pass here and there.

LB Jason Cabinda (Senior, 6’1”, 234 lbs, #40)

Fans of football will enjoy watching Cabinda play the linebacker position. He looks to me like Azeem Victor looked before his injury a year ago. He is a tackling machine who plays with ferocity and can generate big plays. He currently leads Penn State in tackles (84), has forced two fumbles on the year, and was recently selected to the B1G all-conference team (second team) for the third time in his career.

Cabinda is the best player on what might be (relatively speaking) the weakest unit on the Penn State defense. His forte is in stopping the run - he has 10 run stuffs on the year. He can be taken out of plays when put into a position of having to defend the pass. I’d expect UW to try to use a healthy amount of shifting and formation work to put Cabinda in a position where he has to choose between defending a gap or a zone and then try to exploit that choice with option plays.

S Marcus Allen (Senior 6’1”, 210 lbs, #2)

Marcus Allen is a guy you are going to see on Sundays next season. He is a bigger safety who is less a pass defender and more of an enforcer. His strength is stepping into the box and reinforcing the run defense. He’s a sure tackler who has been either a starter or a rotational guy since his freshman year. He is second on the team in tackles (65) and was a first-team all-B1G selection this season.

The Huskies will have their hands full in dealing with both Cabinda and Allen in the middle of the Penn State defense. Allen can be attacked as a pass defender and isn’t generally a threat as a ball hawk. Thus, just as with Cabinda, I expect UW to try to find ways to force him to defend zones in order to give the rushing attack a little room to operate.

I’m already five players into my “three good players” analysis and I haven’t even come to the one guy - senior Mike Gesicki - who leads the team with 51 catches and 9 TD receptions. He might be the best tight end in the next NFL draft.

As you can see, Penn State has a lot of really good football players.


The X-factors

This is about the time that any good analyst trots out the wise (if not clichéd) talking points related to turnover margin, stopping the run, and playing efficiently on offense. Those are givens. Any team that does those things will win a game more times than not. Let’s just consider those table stakes and talk about a couple of critical x-factors for UW.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Penn State
Penn State’s offensive line hasn’t seen a defensive line like UW’s yet this season.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

1. Vita Vea and the four-man rush

Penn State beats teams with their offense because of how well it is balanced.

We all know how good a back Barkley is. But there have been three games where he was held to under three yards per attempt in rushing: Indiana, @Ohio State and Rutgers. In those three games, Penn State still managed to score 118 points.

Can you imagine the challenge that defensive coordinators have in gameplanning for a team who can have their running game taken away and still put up nearly 40 points a game?

The X-factor, then is to battle a balanced offense with a balanced defense. UW has excelled at times this year in controlling the run and generating pocket pressure with simple three- and four-man rush concepts. Pressure out of the base keeps a maximum number of defenders in pass D and diminishes the threat of chunk plays.

We know that UW Defensive Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is very comfortable letting opposing teams dink-and-dunk at will in exchange for protecting against big plays. If Vita Vea can eat up a couple of blockers while guys such as Ryan Bowman, Greg Gaines, and Jaylen Johnson win enough of their own 1:1 battles, they can effectively do to Penn State what Iowa was able to do against them earlier in the year.

2. Dante Pettis and flipping field position

We don’t often write about the kicking game around here. Most fans find such analysis banal and, besides, they’ve learned that nobody can top good ol’ Dick Baird when it comes to the subject. Nevertheless, evenly matched teams often play games that come down to things like who played with the shortest fields and who generated points on special teams. This looks like one of those games.

Dante Pettis will obviously play a critical role here. The NCAA leader in all time punt return TDs will have his hands full with a Penn State punt unit that is very good. P Blake Gillikin has attempted 50 on the year. 15 of those have been taken as fair catches while 20 have been downed inside the opponent’s 20. Those are solid numbers that have greatly contributed to Penn State’s defensive success. In fact, Penn State is 8th in the nation when it comes to defensive starting field position on drives. They’ve not surrendered a special teams TD all year and only had one game where they allowed more than 15 yards in punt returns total for the game (they gave up 39 yards on 4 returns @ Ohio State).

Pettis and (hopefully) to a lesser extent the kick return unit (Salvon Ahmed, come on down) are pivotal elements to this game. Washington is ninth in the nation in offensive starting position, so this is truly a strength-on-strength situation and one that UW needs to win in order to be successful.

3. The fourth quarter

Penn State plays really good defense at all levels. They are particularly active on the defensive line and, like the Huskies, can create a great deal of pocket pressure without blitzing. This will be one of the best defenses, if not the best, that UW will face all season.

The chink in the armor here is that Penn State is not terribly deep on defense. Their rotations aren’t as extensive as we are used to seeing here in the PAC and, as a result, they tend to either wear down the starters as the game goes on or lean more heavily on less experienced reserves. Either way, opponents tend to score more points and generate more big plays in the second half against Penn State.

If UW is close going into the fourth, they will definitely have a depth advantage. This could well translate into anywhere between a 3- and 10-point net scoring advantage, assuming UW makes the requisite investments in the rushing attack early in the game. The key for UW will be to make this a physical game in order to test that Penn State depth.

Admittedly, this is a “thin” X-factor and one that Penn State fans may not agree with. But in a matchup of equals, these little advantages often become the ones that make the difference.


We’ll have more Fiesta Bowl content as the game draws near. Until then, let us know what kinds of analysis and insights you are interested in having us dig into and we’ll do our best to oblige.

#WOOF