Pitt Snap Counts: Lineup Decisions Puzzling As Depth Chart Begins to Take Shape

By Dan Smith on September 17, 2019 at 9:30 am
Sep 14, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Noah Cain (21) runs the ball against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the third quarter at Beaver Stadium.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State survived a scare from Pitt on Saturday, closing out a 17-10 win on the final play of the game. It was not a great football game. The amount of exciting plays would fit nicely in a brief highlight reel, and going forward this game will be remembered as a teaching tool for some of Penn State's young players.

Perhaps more importantly, it should serve as a teaching tool for the Penn State coaches. It is a bit of a transition year for Penn State, but there were strange lineup and playcalling decisions in this one. While James Franklin and his staff avoided kicking a field goal on the 1-yard line while needing a touchdown to tie, there is plenty to answer for here.

Offense (63 plays)

Pos. First Team Second Team Third Team
QB Sean Clifford (63)    
RB Journey Brown (27) Ricky Slade (18) Noah Cain (13) / Devyn Ford (8)
WR Jahan Dotson (52) Dan Chisena (11)  
WR Justin Shorter (42) Cam Sullivan-Brown (8)  
WR K.J. Hamler (54) Mac Hippenhammer (7)  
TE Pat Freiermuth (58) Nick Bowers (17)  
LT Rasheed Walker (55) Des Holmes (8)  
LG Steven Gonzalez (63)    
C Michal Menet (63)    
RG Mike Miranda (41) C.J. Thorpe (22)  
RT Will Fries (63)    
  • Out: WR Daniel George (hand/wrist)
  • Cain Dominates, Doesn't See Field Again: Penn State's offense had 10 total possessions Saturday, and only two of them met any definition of "sustained." The first was the two-minute drill to end the first half that included a fourth-down conversion and a 57-yard field goal. The latter was the 7th possession, the 13-play drive with Cain churning at running back that led to a touchdown. The Nittany Lions got the ball back three times after that, and their running backs were: Brown/Slade, Ford, and Brown.
  • Miranda Ahead of Thorpe: Thorpe played on possessions 3, 7, and 10. The middle one was the touchdown drive with Cain at running back. Aside from that, Miranda held on to the right guard spot. Holmes is seeing even less time, having only spelled Walker at left tackle for possessions 4 and 10. That's right: on Penn State's final possession, with the ball after the missed 19-yard field goal by Pitt, they had two reserve offensive linemen in the game. That was the only possession in which that occurred.
  • Two Tight End and Two Running Back Sets: We saw some different looks, with the two tight end sets continuing to make an appearance. While they mostly occur in short-yardage situations, Penn State actually started in one; Bowers started instead of Shorter. The two running back set was shown for three plays to start the first drive after Cain's touchdown run.
  • Mixing in Chisena with George Out: With George apparently injured, your second unit wide receivers are Chisena and Sullivan-Brown, with Hippenhammer in the slot. The second unit makes a wholesale change when Penn State has a sustained drive (again, this occurred just twice), and then generally mix in individually when a player runs a fly route. Clifford's several deep ball overthrows were usually a sign that a second-team receiver was about to jump in for a play or two.

Defense (79 plays)

Pos. First Team Second Team Third Team
DE Shaka Toney (54) Shane Simmons (24) Daniel Joseph (4)
DT Robert Windsor (64) Yetur Gross-Matos (13) Fred Hansard (9)
DT P.J. Mustipher (35) Antonio Shelton (29) Damion Barber (3)
DE Yetur Gross-Matos (45) Jayson Oweh (31)  
OLB Micah Parsons (58) Brandon Smith (8)  
MLB Jan Johnson (39) Ellis Brooks (21)  
OLB Cam Brown (55) Jesse Luketa (18)  
CB John Reid (72) Donovan Johnson (11) Keaton Ellis (10)
S Garrett Taylor (68) Jonathan Sutherland (11)  
S Lamont Wade (58) Jaquan Brisker (33)  
CB Tariq Castro-Fields (72) Trent Gordon (24)  
  • Cornerback Rotation Tightening: Penn State is still going five deep at cornerback, but Johnson and Ellis are seeing less time. Gordon seems to be the preferred third corner at this point. But, as expected, defensive coordinator Brent Pry is leaning heavily on his starting upperclassmen.
  • Smith Ahead of Katshir: An interesting twist in this game was true freshman Smith slotting in ahead of redshirt freshman Katshir for the first time. Katshir did not see any defensive snaps, while Smith played one full possession towards the end of the first half.
  • Isaac and Culpepper Out of Rotation as DL Rotation Also Tightens: The sixth man at end and tackle were shed in this one, as true freshman end Isaac and redshirt freshman tackle Culpepper did not appear on defense. The fifth men were not frequent either: Joseph saw just four snaps at end, and Barber just three at tackle. Both of those occurred during Pitt's mind-numbing 17-play drive in the first half.
  • Brisker Getting Time: Penn State is showing some different passing down looks this year. With young reserve corners and a desire to mix in more safety talent with Brisker on the bench, they have opted to show some looks where Brisker enters as the center fielder while Wade moves up into the "star" role. Brisker nearly sealed the game with an interception on Pitt's final possession.
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