Analyzing the Penn State Run Game Against Illinois

By Nick Polak on October 27, 2021 at 8:00 am
Oct 23, 2021; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Devon Witherspoon (31) forces Penn State Nittany Lions running back Noah Cain (21) out of bounds on a run during overtime at Beaver Stadium.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
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With a clearly hobbled quarterback in Sean Clifford, the Penn State offense would have benefitted greatly from being able to do the one thing it has been mostly unable to do in 2021 – run the football. However, the Nittany Lions were simply unable to do so in the 20-18 loss in nine overtimes against Illinois.

Given that the run game has been a consistent issue through the entirety of the season to this point, I decided that now was as good a time as any to go back and rewatch each run play to attempt to diagnose the issues. I've included the downs, play results, and time for each drive start so you can follow along as you rewatch yourself. Or you can just take my word for it. It was not fun to rewatch.

If you notice any skips in the drive numbers, it's not an error, it simply means that skipped drive did not include any run play or sacks.


Drive #1 (13:37, Quarter 1)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-10 PSU 34 K. Lee rush for a 3-yard loss This was a well-timed blitz by Illinois (which will become a theme), and Mike Miranda fails to get a hand on the blitzer.
2nd-and-13 PSU 31 K. Lee rush for 1 yard Had Lee bounced this to the outside he may have broken a fairly big run. But just a wall of orange jerseys outnumbering blue ones here.
3-and-12 PSU 32 S. Clifford sacked for a loss of 5 yards Rasheed Walker and Miranda were both beaten quickly, Clifford bails from the pocket and has nowhere to go. He probably could have hung in here a second longer.
Drive #2 (8:45, Quarter 1)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-10 PSU 12 K. Lee rush for 13 yards Great job by Walker and Eric Wilson on the left side. this was a large hole opened up by them.
1st-and-10 PSU 25 K. Lee rush for 8 yards Blocking was okay here, more just a great job by Lee of decisively hitting the hole with power and speed. He earned these yards.
2nd-and-2 PSU 33 K. Lee rush for 0 yards Another perfectly-timed blitz. Miranda completely whiffs and Lee has a defender in front of him before he even has the ball in his hands.
3rd-and-2 PSU 33 K. Lee rush for 1 yard Caedan Wallace gets pushed back into the pocket, and a linebacker fills the cutback hole. No one on the line is moving a defender forward here, everyone is just holding their ground.
Drive #3 (2:04, Quarter 1)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-10 PSU 7 N. Cain rush for 4 yards A good run by Cain. Blocking was fine, but no one is getting to the second level. Very little visible difference between how this group pass blocks and run blocks.
Drive #4 (12:53, Quarter 2)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-10 ILL 40 N. Cain rush for 2 yards A small hole made open, still no push downfield whatsoever. Cain gets what he can.
1st-and-10 ILL 19 N. Cain rush for 2 yards Same story – small hole, but no push. Walker can't keep his defender from getting to the hole and slowing the play, but two linebackers were waiting on the other side anyway.
Drive #5 (2:52, Quarter 2)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-10 PSU 25 J. Lovett rush for 18 yards Good work by Miranda here to open a hole, and just enough from Wilson. More than anything else, good, hard running by Lovett.
1st-and-10 PSU 43 J. Lovett rush for 2 yards The entire left side actually gets to the second level and the cutback lane would have led to a nice gain. But both Miranda and Wallace whiff on their blocks and the play is dead before it begins.
3rd-and-8 PSU 45 S. Clifford sacked for a loss of 6 yards Wallace gets torched on this play, plain and simple. He was beaten with speed. A healthy Clifford might evade this, but still a rough rep.
Drive #6 (0:33, Quarter 2)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
3rd-and-10 PSU 32 J. Lovett rush for a 2-yard loss Miranda whiffs on his block. Walker gets stuck in a 2-on-1 situation, is forced to pick one, and whiffs on him.
Drive #7 (15:00, Quarter 3)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
2nd-and-10 PSU 25 K. Lee rush for 4 yards Miranda allows early pressure and blockers at the second level don't get their hands on any pads. Nice cut by Lee here to get something on this play.
Drive #8 (11:02, Quarter 3)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-10 ILL 22 N. Cain rush for 3 yards Juice Scruggs can't hold his block and keep the hole open long enough for this play to be much more than it was.
Drive #10 (11:49, Quarter 4)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-10 PSU 25 J. Lovett rush for 2 yards Miranda (now at guard with Scruggs at center) can't hold his block and the cornerback plugs the lane to bounce outside.
1st-and-10 PSU 41 J. Lovett rush for 1 yard Wallace gets beaten off the snap, three defenders are already waiting at the line of scrimmage to make the stop when Lovett gets the ball.
3rd-and-12 PSU 39 S. Clifford sacked for a loss of 11 yards Lovett never comes even remotely close to getting the blitzer here and Clifford never has a chance.
Drive #11 (4:44, Quarter 4)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-10 PSU 15 N. Cain rush for 6 yards One of the few runs all game where the running back was not hit immediately behind or on the line of scrimmage.
2nd-and-4 PSU 21 N. Cain rush for 6 yards Scruggs (still at center) whiffs on a well-timed blitz, but the rest of the line does well to give Cain space once again.
2nd-and-8 PSU 29 N. Cain rush for 5 yards Good work by the left side here, including tight end Theo Johnson. Still no presence at the second level, but I guess beggars can't be choosers.
1st-and-10 PSU 38 S. Clifford rush for a 2-yard loss The entire right side of the line gets put on the ground in this play, which forces Clifford to move into the area of the backfield that seemed to be where the line was trying to move the defense into. Clifford slides to avoid the hit.
2nd-and-12 PSU 36 N. Cain rush for 3 yards There was technically a hole here, but it was tiny and had a linebacker waiting on the other side. Could have bounced to the outside and taken on a cornerback in space instead, but chose the former.
Drive #12 (1OT)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
2nd-and-7 ILL 22 N. Cain rush for 5 yards A decent hole was created here, but no chance for anything bigger.
4th-and-1 ILL 16 T. Warren rush for 2 yards The line was dominated and stood straight up on this play. This was all Warren and his strength converting on this play.
3rd-and-5 ILL 9 S. Clifford sacked for a loss of 4 yards The offensive line was fine here, Clifford just looked like he got spooked and left the pocket when he didn't need to. They couldn't save him at that point.
Drive #13 (2OT)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
2nd-and-9 ILL 24 N. Cain rush for 7 yards A good run and good blocking here. Johnson gets to the second level well and gives Cain one of his few chances for something beyond a minimal run.
3rd-and-2 ILL 17 N. Cain rush for 0 yards The entire offensive line gets pushed backward here, absolutely no opportunity for Cain to do anything other than get back to the line.
Drive #16 (5OT)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-Goal ILL 3 N. Cain rush, the attempt failed Scruggs whiffs on the blitzer, Cain nearly converts anyway by breaking multiple tackles in the backfield.
Drive #17 (7OT)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-Goal ILL 3 N. Cain rush, the attempt failed The blocking wasn't good here, but it at least gave Cain a chance, and he came up just short. Had he been able to reach the ball across, he almost surely converts here and ends the game.
Drive #18 (8OT)
Down Yardline Play Result Analysis
1st-and-Goal ILL 3 N. Cain rush, the attempt succeeds The blocking here is mediocre, Cain simply goes into battering ram mode and forces his way in.

Takeaways

The Breakdown

First things first, here's a rough breakdown of how many times I deemed each lineman to be "at fault" on any given play.

  • Mike Miranda (7)
  • Caedan Wallace (4)
  • Rasheed Walker (3)
  • Juice Scruggs (3)
  • Eric Wilson (0)

Now, I am not, nor will I ever claim to be an expert on offensive line play. So it remains perfectly possible that I am judging some of these plays unfairly or incorrectly, so please feel free to do a rewatch of your own and weigh in with a comment below, but this is how I saw it break down. Do with that information what you will.

A Lack of Push

The most noticeable part of each of these run plays, in my mind, was the lack of movement the offensive line got going downhill. The Illini spent much of the game running the ball, and with extra blockers for much of the time, but the difference between how these two offensive lines attacked the opposing defense was night-and-day. The Illinois offensive line was aggressive and nasty in the trenches and not only pushed the Penn State defensive line back onto his heels all game long but also routinely got bodies into the second level to eat up the linebackers.

There were maybe one or two plays on which I saw the Penn State offensive line move the Illini defenders back and clear space for Lee, Cain, and Lovett. And there were even fewer occasions of the Lions getting blockers out to the linebackers. Perhaps this is a function of these players getting so accustomed to the more RPO-heavy schemes of past coordinators and needing to be able to block without drawing ineligible man downfield flags, but the lack of push was striking.

Too often, running backs were given the ball, and seeing things like this.

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Poor Coaching? Poor Scheme? Both?

Still, there were just as many instances of the Lions failing to open holes for their backs due to mental lapses, as well. Take this John Lovett run, for example.

 

Now, the missed block by Miranda complicates this from the beginning, but the play was still salvageable had Walker blocked the correct man. The play design itself seems clear – the right side walls off their assignments, including Johnson coming across the pocket. Walker is then supposed to engage the defender on his inside shoulder while Wilson moves up to the linebacker, creating a gaping hole on the left side.

However, when faced with the choice of who to block, Walker inexplicably chooses to let the inside man run free into the hole that will spring the play and instead takes on the outside defender. If the play is blocked correctly otherwise, that outside defender would not have been in a position to cut Lovett off before he got to the hole. And from there, you would have had Lovett in the open field with two defensive backs in his way, and two wide receivers to block for him.

Is this a lack of awareness on Walker's part? Or is it poor coaching that had him seemingly drawn to the outside defender from the start?


It's clear that the run game, barring monumental changes, is simply not going to be a factor for the Penn State offense this season. If there was ever going to be a time where these things were cleaned up, it would have been during the bye week. Going forward, this coaching staff will need to start asking some very tough questions, as far as whether or not it's truly using its five best players upfront. And conversely, questions need to be asked of this coaching staff and whether or not it's putting its players into positions to succeed.

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