Big Ten champion Penn State drew a similarly late-surging team, USC, in its Rose Bowl matchup and could return virtually its entire offense next season, unless the NFL snatches up TE Mike Gesicki. These Nittany Lions aren’t going anywhere, as they proved when they responded to a 2-2 record and then to a 28-7 deficit against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.
Their success on offense this season has raised questions in the run-first Big Ten, where coaches have to ask whether they need to make similar adaptations to avoid getting blown away (Michigan is the exception this year, but the Wolverines lose a lot on defense next year). The Nittany Lions have played good defense for as long as anyone can remember, but if they’re going to be capable of dropping 384 passing yards and 38 points on teams like Wisconsin and 13.3 yards per attempt on teams like Iowa, that changes the game.
Here’s why they’ll be trouble in years to come.
Coming back against Wisconsin is a bigger deal than a normal comeback.
It’s hard to imagine a worse way to open a game against a “pound the ball, control clock, and play elite defense” squad like the Badgers.
The Lions’ first six drives included two fumbles (one returned for a TD), two three-and-outs, a turnover on downs, and a sole touchdown. The lead looked insurmountable.
The biggest problem Penn State had early on was blocking Wisconsin’s blitzes ...
... but most teams that played Wisconsin this year had similar issues.
On this one, the Badgers lined up outside linebacker T.J. Watt as the nose tackle, end/tackle Chikwe Obasih at tackle, and outside linebackers Garret Dooley and Vince Biegel at end. Dooley drops into coverage, Watt works from the center all the way to the edge, and safety D’Cota Dixon joins Biegel in overwhelming the left side of the OL.
Penn State shades its line to the side of the blitz and sends its RB there as well, but is still overwhelmed. Watt finishes things by winning the opposite edge.
That was the Badgers’ only sack on the night but, they got pressure often while controlling the line. The State run game wasn’t faring any better at winning the chains or protecting QB Trace McSorley from crushing hits:
On this play, Watt seemed to calculate that if his assignment was the QB, he might as well really get the QB. A tackle/end stunt on the opposite edge ensured that RB Saquon Barkley was also form tackled at the line of scrimmage.
Penn State couldn’t run and had 29 carries for 51 yards on the day, with Barkley managing 83 yards on 19 carries. Wisconsin played single-deep safety coverage on most snaps and kept its inside-backers in the box, making life hard for runners between the tackles.
But running the ball between the tackles is only one dimension of the spread offense.
Penn State adjusted and made the Badgers pay.
It’s true that a system like OC Joe Moorhead’s aims to run between the tackles, but his spread designs make it much easier to punish traditional defenses.
Penn State ranked No. 2 in passing S&P+, No. 9 on passing downs, and No. 6 in passing explosiveness, far better than its rushing numbers, which include the No. 75 yards-per-carry average. This team made its living by punishing Big Ten defenses for their Pavlovian need to focus on the run. They also have a lot of ways to do it.
Their first touchdown came by throwing to Gesicki, whose talent and versatility have been unleashed in Moorhead’s offense. They used a lot of “nub trips” formations that aligned Gesicki opposite a three-receiver set and often forced defenses to roll their coverage strength away from the 6’6 tight end:
The Badgers have their 2-4-5 nickel package on the field. It served them well all year in combating spread sets. Converted WR Natrell Jamerson covers Gesicki on the boundary. PSU clearly liked that matchup, and McSorley just threw it to Gesicki’s back shoulder in the end zone.
Penn State has a lot of big targets on the outside, but where they really killed teams was in McSorley’s ability to throw the ball to the back shoulder on go routes to either side of the field. Here’s another example from the same formation, this time working to the field on Penn State’s favorite route combo:
This time, Wisconsin had Jamerson lined up to side with more receivers and safety Leo Musso covering Gesicki. But McSorley still went at the Badgers’ cornerbacks, throwing to the back shoulder.
With the middle of the field closed off by the Badgers’ coverages, there were opportunities for Penn State to throw outside on the corners, if they could keep McSorley upright.
When the Badgers didn’t bring blitzes or stunts, McSorley found time. Occasionally, he’d get just enough help from his blocking:
Penn State ran a lot of two-back runs with Gesicki at H-back and moving across the formation to block at different angles. This time, they used that to set up play action and used Gesicki to pick up any inside pressure.
Sure enough, the Badgers blitzed both inside backers while dropping outside backers Biegel and Watt. Gesicki was barely able to pick up LB T.J. Edwards and keep him out of McSorley’s face long enough to complete a dig/post combination.
The dig/post combo is probably the most deadly spread passing play these days. It attacks cornerbacks by using the dig route (the receiver cutting across on a shorter route) to draw in the safety and leave the corner without inside help on a post route (the deeper route). Deep safety Dixon bit too hard on this dig (with help from McSorley’s eyes), and it left Jamerson in a world of hurt.
The Big Ten is still adjusting to the spread-to-pass offense.
There were more than a few people who called Penn State’s victory over Ohio State flukey, due to Penn State winning thanks to a blocked FG attempt and a few TD drives keyed by explosive passes.
Ohio State outrushed the Lions, 168-122, and Wisconsin outrushed them, 241-51. This is not how you have traditionally won games in the Big Ten. If your run game gets stopped up and your run D gashed, you’re supposed to lose big. That’s supposed to be the sign of being the less tough or less physical football team.
But Penn State is the Big Ten champion, so perhaps the traditional metrics need to be re-evaluated.
Penn State beat Wisconsin in part because McSorley is one of the toughest players in the league. At 6’, 205, he’s built like many QBs who have dominated the Big 12 for the last decade or so, lacking NFL measurables but remaining mobile. He finished with 118 carries for 509 yards (4.3 yards per carry) and six TDs and took 22 sacks.
In 13 games, he was tackled about 11 times a game, plus a few other hits after throws every week. McSorley’s ability to play through that was essential for Penn State’s option run game and long-developing deep routes.
That vertical passing attack from spread sets is what could really challenge and change the Big Ten. If you can complete passes deep with regularity, you’re going to score. Opponents can’t count on keeping you down with ball-control tactics if you’re threatening to score on every single play.
Eventually, they have to adapt by building an offense that can match you on the scoreboard. Just ask Nick Saban.