Michigan Snap Counts: Despite Getting Thinner at Running Back and Cornerback, Penn State Takes Down Jim Harbaugh

By Dan Smith on November 30, 2020 at 8:59 am
Penn State running back Keyvone Lee (24) runs against Michigan defensive back Makari Paige (7) during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.
Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Penn State is on the board. The Nittany Lions moved to 1-5 Saturday with a win at Michigan. Losing five straight games just to turn around and beat Jim Harbaugh on the road is very funny, in my opinion.

There were more injuries for Penn State this week, but they managed to work around them and get their first win of the 2020 season. They had a number of players get shaken up during the game, including cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and wide receiver Parker Washington, but all returned. Here is how they handled things.

Offense (79 plays)

Pos. First Team Second Team Third Team
QB Sean Clifford (73) Will Levis (6)  
RB Keyvone Lee (58) Caziah Holmes (22)  
WR Jahan Dotson (71) TJ Jones (5)  
WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith (30) Daniel George (17) Cam Sullivan-Brown (5)
WR Parker Washington (58) Isaac Lutz (15)  
TE Brenton Strange (68) Theo Johnson (31) Zack Kuntz (4)
LT Rasheed Walker (79)    
LG Mike Miranda (61) Juice Scruggs (29)  
C Michal Menet (79)    
RG Will Fries (56) CJ Thorpe (23)  
RT Caedan Wallace (56) Will Fries (23)  
  • OUT: RB Journey Brown, RB Noah Cain, RB Devyn Ford, TE Pat Freiermuth, G Des Holmes
  • Clifford Back, Hangs in There Despite Injury Scare: He briefly left for one play due to taking a hit on the left knee, but he returned on the next series. The other five plays by Levis were all intentional, designed runs. Levis was also in on a seventh play that never got started due to a false start penalty.
  • No Ford, Lee Grabs Lead Back Status: Ford was injured on the first offensive drive last week, and also suffered a death in his family, so he did not travel to Ann Arbor for this one. Best wishes to the Ford family in this tough time. In Ford's stead, preseason fourth-string back Lee is now the starter, and he did a nice job in this one. Holmes mixed in a decent amount as the second back, but is clearly not in a timeshare as of right now. The two true freshmen will be the tandem until Ford returns.
  • Kuntz Back and in the Mix: The former blue chip tight end appeared for a few plays in the first half. He slides in behind true freshman Theo Johnson, but ahead of the other true freshman Tyler Warren. As Kuntz gets healthier, he may be able to offer more offensively.
  • Different Formations Include Six Offensive Lineman Set: It was primarily used during the Levis plays, though not exclusively. Ten times in this game, Penn State lined up with six offensive lineman. The extra lineman each time was Scruggs, who lined up outside one of the tackles, usually on the right. In these packages, Penn State also lined up with two tight ends (usually Strange and Johnson), with George as the lone wide receiver. Lee also lined up as a wide receiver in these sets, though he did have a false start the first time they attempted this.
  • More Lutz: Apparently, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca told Lutz this week that they would get him the ball more, and they did. There were several plays clearly designed to get Lutz the ball, and he did have one notable catch-and-run in which he blew through contact to pick up a first down. He also played on the final offensive drive as the Nittany Lions tried to kill some clock, along with Sullivan-Brown.

Defense (56 plays)

Pos. First Team Second Team Third Team
DE Shaka Toney (44) Shane Simmons (8) Nick Tarburton (3)
DT PJ Mustipher (41) Judge Culpepper (7)  
DT Antonio Shelton (41) Hakeem Beamon (23)  
DE Jayson Oweh (44) Adisa Isaac (13)  
OLB Jesse Luketa (35) Lance Dixon (21)  
MLB Ellis Brooks (45) Jesse Luketa (11)  
OLB Brandon Smith (43) Curtis Jacobs (2)  
CB Joey Porter Jr. (53)    
S Jaquan Brisker (49) Jonathan Sutherland (7)  
S Lamont Wade (45) Ji'Ayir Brown (11)  
CB Marquis Wilson (49) Daequan Hardy (21)  
  • OUT: CB Tariq Castro-Fields, CB Keaton Ellis, CB Donovan Johnson, LB Micah Parsons (opt-out), DT Fred Hansard
  • Castro-Fields and Ellis Out, Porter Shaken Up but Returns: Donovan Johnson is already out for the season, and things are only getting thinner at corner. Porter was shaken up on a punt return in the first half, but did return in the second half. Hardy is the slot corner, but he played outside with Wilson when Porter missed time. They have no depth beyond that; even corner-turned-safety Trent Gordon is not an option, as he entered the transfer portal last week.
  • Luketa Playing Some Middle Linebacker: After getting blocked deep into the endzone on a touchdown run by the Wolverines, Brooks did not appear on the following two drives. Instead of being replaced by Charlie Katshir, Luketa slid over from outside linebacker to play in the middle. Dixon came in at outside linebacker for Luketa.
  • Brown Back at Safety: He did not appear in last week's game, with Sutherland being the only reserve safety. Brown did play in this one.
  • No Hansard: The fourth defensive tackle did not appear in this one. It is unclear if there was an injury. Culpepper was the fourth tackle in this game.
  • Limiting Snaps Means Less Defensive Line Rotating: Penn State is not rotating as frequently as they normally do on the defensive line. This has had less to do with poor performance by the reserves (though I would argue this is a factor at defensive tackle), and more to do with the starters staying fresh. Getting stops is the main thing, as it usually takes 6-8 plays on a drive for the Lions to start swapping out linemen. Extended offensive drives with the running game also helped, as Penn State had a lead in the second half for essentially the first time all season.
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