Two usual Big Ten powers, Michigan and Penn State, have started the season a combined 1-7. Michigan has been awful since an opening-weekend victory against Minnesota. Penn State has probably played well enough to have two wins, but, alas, they sit here winless, and questions about the directions of each program are warranted.
From a schematic standpoint, the issue for both teams has been their inability to create efficient offense or defense from concepts that they should be hanging their hats on.
PENN STATE: THE RPO-HEAVY OFFENSE IS FALLING FLAT
Penn State offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca came over from the same position at Minnesota this offseason and brought his RPO-heavy offense along with him.
The Gophers ran the sixth most run-pass option (RPO) plays last season, with 412 of their 912 offensive plays (45.2% of plays, the fifth-highest rate in the nation) having some kind of RPO attached. And they were still an efficient attack despite this high volume, ranking 29th among 130 FBS teams in expected points added (EPA) per play on those RPO concepts.
The modern RPO is supposed to either alleviate the box to create better numbers in the run game or give the quarterback an easy read into an open window in the passing game. But this season, the pairing of quarterback Sean Clifford and Ciarrocca has been woeful on these concepts.
It's a surprising development. The Nittany Lions ran quite a few RPO concepts last season, and they were efficient running them. Minnesota and Penn State had roughly the same EPA per play numbers on RPOs in 2019, 0.157 to 0.164, respectively. This season? Penn State’s EPA per play figure is -0.122, 91st among 125 qualifying FBS offenses. They’ve produced a successful play on only 38.5% of their RPOs this season, down almost 10 percentage points from their 2019 mark of 47.5%. Not good!
The Nittany Lions have been abysmal handing the ball off on these plays. Of the 57 Power 5 teams that have run 10 RPO run plays this season, PSU’s 4.2 yards per carry is 45th. Their efficiency numbers are also not that great — they come in at 38th in EPA per play among the same group of teams (-0.089). Though, being down a bunch of running backs certainly isn’t helping.
Ciarroca’s “Duo” scheme — his most used RPO scheme last season — has produced really good numbers for them, but they’ve switched to more of an inside-zone base and haven’t been able to move the ball at all. The Lions have already run the 20th most inside-zone RPO plays, even in their shortened season, but they are still averaging only 3.5 yards per carry, 81st out of the 97 teams with at least 10 of these runs. When your Day 1 install isn’t working, there are going to be problems.
Ok, but that’s just the run. The big RPO plays come from pulling the ball and throwing it downfield on a slant or glance-post or something like that, right?
Well, among the 98 teams with at least 10 RPO throws this season, Penn State's -0.278 EPA per pass play currently ranks 80th. Somehow, there are four Big Ten teams in worse shape in this category, which is probably a whole other discussion. I digress.
RPOs are supposed to be safe completions, but they are anything but for the Lions right now. Cumulatively, the completion percentage for every FBS team minus PSU is 70%, and that number goes up to 79% if we look at adjusted completion percentage. Penn State, meanwhile, is presently at 57% overall and 72% when we look at the adjusted completion percentage. They just can’t complete passes. Their Day 1 pass install is the slant or glance off their RPO looks, yet they have only completed 6 of those 14 throws. Again, if your base stuff isn’t working, you are going to have major problems.
On the whole, this has led to the Penn State offense ranking 72nd in EPA per play. Michigan, on the other hand, has issues on defense.
MICHIGAN: THE BLITZ IS NOT GETTING HOME
The Wolverines rank 96th among 126 defenses in EPA per play allowed right now, and they barely crack the top 50 in terms of overall team defense grade (74.0, 47th). And like Penn State with their RPOs, Michigan is having trouble living in the world they want to live in.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown loves to blitz. Since 2016, his first year at Michigan, they have been in the top 15 in the number of blitzes per season three times. He also loves to play man coverage, having ranked third and 19th in Cover 1 snaps in the last two years, respectively. Yet, Michigan has not played up to its usual standards in either of those two categories this season.
First, they keep getting beaten on the outside. If you are going to play a lot of man coverage, you better be able to hold up outside, but that’s not happening this season. Against throws to players who lined up pre-snap as the outermost receiver, Michigan is 120th in the country in EPA per play. They are giving up 18 yards per catch on these throws. For reference, Oklahoma State, one of the best coverage teams in the country, has allowed only four fewer catches to outside receivers, but they have given up only 7.5 yards per catch. Teams know Michigan is giving up big plays on the outside, and they have continually tested them there.
Just in terms of plays where the targeted receiver ends up in single coverage, Michigan is 115th in EPA per play. This isn’t necessarily Cover 1 or man coverage — it could be a zone look that ends up in man after the distribution of the routes — but the idea here is that the Michigan defensive players can’t hold up either at the catch point or just during the route that they should be covering. Michigan has allowed 13 contested catches against them already this season in only four games. They allowed 30 in 13 games last season.
Finally, they have not been able to get after quarterbacks via the blitz at all in 2020. In Don Brown's first four seasons with the team, Michigan never allowed more than -0.229 EPA per play when blitzing — that’s really good! In 2016, they were at -0.532 — incredible! This year? 0.097. It's their first time allowing positive efficiency when blitzing.
They are having so much trouble getting to the quarterback when they blitz this season. Going into the season, their lowest pressure rate when blitzing was 45% in 2018. They are down to 32% this season.
When what you set out to do from spring camp to fall camp to the start of the season isn’t working, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of work to take a step back and find something else to call. Most coaches will try to patch up their base calls to make them manageable instead of making wholesale changes in the middle of the season. However, the 2020 campaign might be lost for both Penn State and Michigan, so if they even can fix these issues, it is surely too little, too late.