Sitting Dead Red: Penn State is Dominating the Red Zone Through the First Three Weeks

By Nick Polak on September 22, 2021 at 9:52 am
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
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Through the first three weeks of the regular season, Penn State is sitting in quite the enviable position within the college football landscape. The Nittany Lions have already scored two ranked wins including one on the road, and will have plenty more chances to improve their resume with massive upcoming showdowns with Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan. There are several contributory factors to the hot start for James Franklin's squad on both sides of the ball. One thing that has made this team so tough to beat in the early going, however, is how dominant it's been in the red zone both offensively and defensively.


Offense

Through three games, the Penn State offense has been a well-oiled machine inside of the opposing 20-yard line. While it falls short of turning 100% of its drives into points thanks to a missed field goal, this unit has been quite impressive when it gets near the end zone. Take a look.

Penn State Offense in the Red Zone
  Attempts Scores Score % Touchdown TD % Field Goal FG %
PENN STATE 11 10 90.91% 7 63.64% 3 27.27%
FBS AVERAGE 11.8 9.9 84.05% 7.7 63.99% 2.2 20%

After three games, Penn State is not only scoring above the FBS average when entering the red zone, but it's done so against the No. 3, No. 13, and No. 118 defenses. Even more impressively, the offense has been able to make quick work of their red zone drives, needing an average of just 3.5 plays to get their points. In fact, only two of their red-zone possessions have lasted longer than four plays, a seven-play field goal drive against Ball State and a five-play touchdown drive against Auburn.

The best part of the red zone success thus far, however, is how many different ways the Mike Yurcich offense has attacked the goal line when it's time to put the ball across for six points. Against Wisconsin, they went heavy on the line and had Noah Cain just slam it home.

Against Ball State, Cain was again the focus, but on a more spread-out look and with Brenton Strange and Devyn Ford both acting as lead blockers.

Then, with the ball on the fringe of the goal line and a size advantage, they simply let Clifford burrow in for an easy six.

Against Auburn, the passing game became the focus with Clifford finding Dotson and Strange for wide-open looks.

Then we got a taste of the Tyler Warren package.

And then a nice little misdirection look with Cain, once again.

The Penn State offense has not only been effective inside the red zone, but unpredictable as well. With the rest of the Big Ten schedule still to come, keeping it that way will be key to continuing the current win streak.


Defense

As much fun as the offense has been inside the red zone, the defense might be even more entertaining. From the opening week against Wisconsin, Brent Pry's crew has been absolute nails down near the end zone and is a major reason why this team is 3-0.

Penn State Defense in the Red Zone
  Attempts Scores Score % Touchdown TD % Field Goal FG %
PENN STATE 11 6 54.55% 4 36.36% 2 18.18%
FBS AVERAGE 9.6 7.7 79.94% 5.7 58.81% 1.9 21.1%

In addition to those eye-popping numbers, the Nittany Lions have also made their opponents work much harder than them in this area of the field, as opponents are averaging 4.3 yards per red zone possession against Penn State. To make matters even better, if you remove the one-play red zone possession Ball State had at the very end of the game, that average moves to 4.6.

There is a lot I could say about Pry's defensive schemes, how he times his blitzes, etc., but the simple fact is that this defense is also just very, very good and very, very fast. They showed this right away against the Badgers on the first red-zone possession of the season. The secondary forces Graham Mertz to attempt a pass into a nonexistent window before Arnold Ebiketie flies over the line to block the field goal attempt.

A pair of red-zone turnovers were the deal-sealers in this one, with Mertz and Chaz Mellusi mucking up an exchange before Jaquan Brisker expertly read the eyes of the quarterback to nab a game-saving interception.

 

Against Ball State, the Lions simply gave quarterback Drew Plitt no option but check-downs and last-ditch scrambles.

 

And finally, while Auburn was able to score twice on three red-zone trips in the Whiteout when the Tigers needed a score to tie things up, they couldn't get it done. First, the defense swarmed tight end, John Shenker, on a short throw. Then, Bo Nix made...an odd choice. 

This defense is nasty to go up against, and when the field shrinks, they only get nastier.


It's been a great start for this Penn State team in these critical situations, but the tests only get tougher from here. Will Sean Clifford and company be able to find space against a fierce Iowa defense? Will Brisker and the secondary be able to cover all of the explosive Ohio State pass-catching weapons? Will PJ Mustipher, Ellis Brooks, and the rest of the front-seven be able to keep the high-powered Michigan rushing attack in front of them?

We'll find out in the coming weeks, but right now, the Penn State coaching staff has to be feeling pretty great about what they have.

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