Ohio State Snap Counts: Penn State Gets Away from Its Rotations and Tires Out Late

By Dan Smith on October 8, 2018 at 8:00 am
Sep 29, 2018; University Park, PA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins (7) carries the ball as Penn State Nittany Lions defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos (99) and defensive tackle Robert Windsor (54) defend in the second quarter at Beaver Stadium.

James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

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One of the defining traits of Brent Pry's defense has been the use of rotations along the defensive line. For teams with depth at end and tackle, a critical part of their success is the ability to keep fresh legs on the field.

Last year's biggest game of the season was on the road against Ohio State. In that game, nine defensive linemen played double-digit snaps. That does not even include then-starting defensive end Ryan Buchholz, who was injured on the first play from scrimmage of the game.

There are several ways you can rotate defensive linemen, and Penn State has employed all of them at different times. One is to pair tackle/end units together. This can occur at the start of drives, alternating, or can be done mid-drive. Penn State usually only does the latter when the opponent has gotten several first downs and at least six plays on a drive. This year's pairings have largely been Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor, Ellison Jordan and Antonio Shelton, and P.J. Mustipher and Fred Hansard.

Another tactic is to alternate the units, pairing a starter with a non-starter and balancing the rest so that a whole second unit defensive line isn't out on the field. A common defensive end pairing in this style for Penn State is Shareef Miller with Shaka Toney. This is done to try to avoid what we saw in the first half against Illinois when the Illini scored a touchdown on a speedy, 6-play drive down the field against a defense with just two starters in the game.

The defensive line is the most common place for this approach, but other positions see rotation as well. In past years, due to depth and experience, they rotated heavily at cornerback. This year, with inexperience, linebacker has seen more rotation, allowing freshmen like Micah Parsons, Ellis Brooks, and Jesse Luketa to see playing time.

But in this year's Ohio State game, a combination of factors led them to change that approach. An injury, an apparent desire to hold onto a redshirt, an ejection, and a lack of faith in the backups all led to Penn State riding its starting defensive tackles for almost the entire game, and the result was a go-ahead touchdown by the Buckeyes with an offensive guard playing defensive tackle.

Offense (80 plays)

Pos. First Team Second Team
QB Trace McSorley (80)  
LION Tommy Stevens (5)  
RB Miles Sanders (79)  
WR Juwan Johnson (80)  
WR Brandon Polk (44) DeAndre Thompkins (36)
WR K.J. Hamler (55) Mac Hippenhammer (25)
TE Pat Freiermuth (56) Nick Bowers (20)
LT Ryan Bates (80)  
LG Steven Gonzalez (80)  
C Michal Menet (80)  
RG Connor McGovern (80)  
RT Will Fries (80)  
  • Out: RB Mark Allen (injury), RB Ricky Slade (DNP-CD), WR Cam Sullivan-Brown (DNP-CD), TE Jon Holland (???)
  • Debut: LION Stevens
  • True Freshman: TE Freiermuth
  • Stevens Experiment Fails: The much-anticipated return of backup quarterback and starting lion Tommy Stevens was an unmitigated disaster. Only once did a play with Stevens on the field go for positive yardage (a 2-yard run), and they had significant yardage losses on the two other attempts.
  • Holland Benched: It is unclear if it is injury-related, but Freiermuth and Bowers were the only tight ends to play. They showed a few two tight end sets down near the goal line, encouraged by the loss of Hamler no doubt.
  • Hamler Injury Hurts: Last year, Penn State felt the losses of LT Bates and DE Ryan Buchholz. This year, WR Hamler was knocked out on a targeting call after a terrific deep ball on 3rd-and-long. It may have made a significant difference, as his replacement Hippenhammer dropped a key pass over the middle later in the game (though he did also reel one in over the middle for a nice gain).

Defense (78 plays)

Pos. First Team Second Team Third Team
DE Shareef Miller (61) Daniel Joseph (17)  
DT Kevin Givens (67) Fred Hansard (10) Yetur Gross-Matos (3)
DT Robert Windsor (64) Antonio Shelton (8) C.J. Thorpe (2)
DE Yetur Gross-Matos (48) Shaka Toney (30)  
WLB Koa Farmer (50) Micah Parsons (28)  
MLB Jan Johnson (36)    
SLB Cam Brown (77) Jarvis Miller (1)  
CB Amani Oruwariye (74)    
S Nick Scott (78)    
S Garrett Taylor (78) Lamont Wade (2)  
CB Tariq Castro-Fields (64) John Reid (60)  
  • Out: DE Shane Simmons (injury), DT Ellison Jordan (injury), DT P.J. Mustipher (DNP-CD), DT Damion Barber (DNP-CD), MLB Ellis Brooks (DNP-CD), MLB Jesse Luketa (DNP-CD), CB Donovan Johnson (injury), CB Zech McPhearson (DNP-CD), S Jonathan Sutherland (DNP-CD), S Ayron Monroe (DNP-CD)
  • Walk-On: MLB Johnson
  • Pry Exhausts the Defensive Tackles: To this point in the year, Penn State has consistently gone three deep at defensive tackle. While they did take a hit with the injury to Ellison Jordan, they still had five players who had been in the regular rotation, along with a seventh man in Damion Barber. In surprising news this week, they moved guard C.J. Thorpe to defensive tackle. How this game turned out was way more surprising. Not only did they cease using a third team (true freshman P.J. Mustipher did not play), they almost entirely bailed on a second team. Hansard and Shelton combined to play 18 total snaps, not aided by Shelton's early second-half ejection for targeting on a punt return. Maybe the biggest shock of all was choosing to play Thorpe down the stretch over Mustipher and Barber. He was on the field for the final two plays of Ohio State's go-ahead touchdown drive. It appears they decided they want to try to retain Mustipher's redshirt, and they do not have faith in Barber to play over a guy who moved to the positions six days before the game. On top of that, they clearly showed a lack of faith in Hansard and Shelton, who started just one drive the entire night. Givens and Windsor are the guys they trust, but until someone else steps up, they will be vulnerable to this exhaustion in a close game.
  • Tightened Rotations Elsewhere: Safeties Scott and Taylor played the length of the game, with Wade appearing just twice for dime sets. Parsons was the only second unit linebacker to see action, aside from one snap by Jarvis Miller after Brown went down with a brief injury. That left Brooks and Luketa on the bench aside from special teams. McPhearson, Sutherland, and Monroe did not play at all. True freshmen Oweh and Tarburton did not play either.
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