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Opponent Defense Preview: Penn State

It’s been many a fortnight since we’ve previewed an opponent and here come the Nittany Lions to remedy that.

Georgia State v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Intros suck. Let’s get to it.


Important to note first: Penn State’s defense is capable of adapting to any moves or tendencies an offense shows. In film from two of their victories and two of their defeats, I saw a pretty even split between 4-3, 3-4, and 3-3-5, with some other packages thrown in from time to time. Whether against Michigan State’s endless I Formations, anOSU’s zone read, or Indiana’s...whatever Indiana does, the Nittany Lions’ versatility means there’s probably no single offense that would be a perfect mismatch.

Accordingly, they’re allowing only 15.5 points per game, which is 7th in FBS right behind your favorite Dawgs. Unlike the Huskies, however, PSU only played one team that had a scoring offense in the top 50 of FBS (UW played five), but credit where credit is due, the Nittany Lions still held that team (OSU) to 3.5 points below their average offensive output.

In fact, regardless of their opponents’ offenses, Penn State held these opponents to an average of 8.2 points less per game than average. Their best differential was against Northwestern (22.7 points less than the Wildcats’ average) and their worst differential was against Nebraska (18.2 points more than the Huskers’ average). Take both those extremes out and their stat is a slightly better 9.7 points less per game.

Part of this success is, in all likelihood, attributable to the leadership that comes with being a pretty senior-heavy unit of starters, especially in the secondary.

The defensive backs include safety Marcus Allen, who’s arguably the leader of the entire defense. He’s a First Team All-B1G selection and second on the team in tackles, flanked by fellow DBs who have almost as many accolades; corner Amani Oruwariye is Second Team All-B1G (and a maker of some incredibly acrobatic plays—watch the Michigan State game and you’ll see), corner Grant Haley is an Honorable Mention All-B1G pick, corner Christian Campbell is an Honorable Mention All-B1G, as is safety Troy Apke.


If there’s a silver lining to this for Washington, it’s that the secondary’s second- and third-stringers aren’t nearly as invincible. This was particularly on display against Nebraska, where they gave up 44 points. Sure, this happened after the Nittany Lions had built up a comfortable lead, but still...forty-four points. To Nebraska. Nebraska, I say!

If there’s one other weakness on this otherwise stout squad, it’s that their two losses were marked by costly penalties in the endzone. There were two against OSU where, if those hadn’t happened, Penn State would’ve probably won and be playing in the playoff right now. Similarly, there was at least one against Michigan State that was not without consequences.

There’re two ways to look at this if you’re a Penn State or Washington fan: on one hand, maybe they have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot when it matters and the Dawgs can take advantage of that? On the other, the argument can be made that you can’t beat this PSU secondary—either they do it to themselves, or your team loses. Insert shrug emoji here.

At the linebackers, they’re led by Jason Cabinda, who’s a three-year starter at MLB and is to this group what Allen is to the secondary. Not coincidentally, he’s the team leader in tackles. Then there’s his accompaniment in former walk-on Brandon Smith, who typically won’t blow you away but is a solid contributor.

While the linebackers are a solid group, they can be taken advantage of when dropping into coverage and have had issues against runners in space who know how to manipulate angles.

What stood out on film—and I should give the asterisk that I have no actual stats on the frequency of this—was how the linebackers’ roles vary once an opponent gets in the red zone. The defense seems to be similar to Washington’s in most field positions; “bend don’t break,” blah blah blah, but these linebackers are sent to blitz quite a bit once opponents get within striking distance of six points. Not only that, but the way they’re sent after the quarterback gets changed up frequently.

Speaking of pass rush, etc., the defensive line surprised me a bit. If you spend some time flipping through write-ups on Penn State’s defense, you’ll see that the majority of consternation looks like it’s placed on the line.

While the DL doesn’t stand out as the most dominant of the units, they’re more fearsome on film than I was expecting to find, given what I’d heard of them. End Shareef Miller was Third Team All-B1G, and the tackles Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren were both honorable mentions.

If anything kills them, it’s depth issues stemming from a couple key injuries on the edge, the sanctions of yore, etc. Because of that, they do have some trouble generating pressure but it’s not like they’re some unit that’s completely manhandled by opponents’ offensive lines. In fact, what looks like more of a problem isn’t their ability to generate pressure, but rather to turn that pressure into sacks, hits, and tackles for loss.

The pass rush looks kind of like the early mid-season UW pass rush: not bad, not great, but better than given credit for and benefiting the passing game as a whole by allowing more guys to drop into coverage most of the time.

Overall, a pretty darn good defense with just a few minor weaknesses and a whole lot of strengths. They’re not a crazy-eyes, completely dominant unit, but they don’t blow it; they play fundamentally sound, are rarely caught out of position, and tackle well.

So, pretty comparable to a Washington of the east.

Bottom Line

In Penn State’s two losses (Ohio State and Michigan State), their otherwise strong secondary was successfully picked apart. Maybe more accurately, a strong mid-range passing game took advantage of mismatches against linebackers, with yards after catch adding an extra boost.

With that in mind, I’m vaguely optimistic that maybe Hunter Bryant will have a couple good plays if the Huskies are to win. Since this is his first game in many months, that’s probably more wishful thinking than anything.

What doesn’t induce optimism is that the Nittany Lions’ defensive strategy of rarely blitzing (minus in the red zone) has worked quite effectively against Browning and Co. On the other hand, I feel pretty good about Washington’s offensive line narrowly winning the day in pass protection, and it feels like they should be quite effective in the run game.

Lastly, and speaking of the run game, Lavon Coleman comes to mind as someone who could do some damage against this defense, provided he gets past the trenches first. While PSU’s fundamentals are extremely sound—and that includes tackling in space—they’ve had trouble with their angles against ball carriers who manipulate that space. And if you’ve been reading stuff under my byline the last two seasons, you know I consider Coleman one of the guys who’s particularly good at that.

Most of their defense matches up well against the Dawgs’ offense, especially in the passing game, but in the trenches and with Gaskin and Coleman getting the ball, it seems like Washington is still in good hands. I, for one, keep going back and forth between cautious optimism and fear of their secondary. We’ll find out Saturday, I s’pose.

As always, any lurking Penn State fans feel free to chime in!

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.