3rd-down de­fense em­pha­sis

Nit­tany Lions need to get stops when it counts

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Mark Wo­gen­rich

First, Penn State coach James Franklin re­minded every­one, his team is 3-0. His de­fense has al­lowed three touch­downs in three games. And the team has taken its last two op­po­nents’ best shots and won.

“No one unit is dom­i­nat­ing sta­tis­ti­cally, but we’re play­ing re­ally good team foot­ball,” Franklin said Tues­day. “We’ve got to take some steps to be more dom­i­nant in all three ar­eas, but if we can just keep marginally get­ting bet­ter ev­ery sin­gle day, then we’ll like where we’ll be.”

That said, the Lions stud­ied plenty dur­ing their off week in prepa­ra­tion for the Big Ten sched­ule, which be­gins Fri­day night at Mary­land. One of those pres­sure points was a cu­rios­ity of the non-con­fer­ence sched­ule: third-down de­fense. Specif­i­cally, de­fense in third-and-long sit­u­a­tions.

Penn State un­der­mined it­self on nu­mer­ous third-and-long plays against Buf­falo and Pitt, though it ul­ti­mately al­lowed just two touch­downs. Still, some of the sta­tis­tics are no­table.

Ac­cord­ing to data from the Co­play-based Sports Info So­lu­tions, op­pos­ing quar­ter­backs have com­pleted 72 per­cent of their passes (13 for 18) against Penn State on downs of third and 10 or longer. They’re av­er­ag­ing 17.6 yards per com­ple­tion on those downs.

Buf­falo, for in­stance, com­pleted four third­down passes of 23 yards or longer; two went over 40 yards. And Pitt quar­ter­back Kenny Pick­ett went 9 for 12 for 120 yards on third down. Com­bine his fourth-down suc­cess (3 for 3 for 68 yards), and Pick­ett threw for more than half his 372 yards on third or fourth down.

So, yes, third-down de­fense was part of the bye-week study hall.

“We work like crazy to get peo­ple into third-and-long sit­u­a­tions and then we let them off the hook,” Franklin said. “That’s been some­thing ob­vi­ously over the bye pe­riod we’ve spent a lot of time dis­cussing and study­ing and look­ing at. It’s def­i­nitely an area that we can get bet­ter.”

Penn State has been fairly good on third down over­all, al­low­ing a 30% con­ver­sion rate that ranks 25th in the na­tion. But in those fa­vor­able sit­u­a­tions, Penn State’s pass rush hasn’t got­ten to the quar­ter­back or its cov­er­age has soft­ened.

Pitt, for in­stance, went 4 for 9 on third downs

of nine yards or longer. Ac­cord­ing to Sports Info So­lu­tions, on third-and-10 or longer, Penn State has bro­ken up just one pass and recorded one sack, de­spite get­ting pres­sure on quar­ter­backs 11 times.

Both Pitt and Buf­falo ran well-timed routes across the mid­dle against bl­itzes and pres­sure. Pitt beat Penn State with sev­eral screens. And Pick­ett threw some lovely passes to re­ceiver Taysir Mack, who made dif­fi­cult catches in tight quar­ters.

To counter, Penn State stressed an­tic­i­pa­tion on those downs, par­tic­u­larly of the screens.

“I feel like as a whole, the de­fense just needs to rec­og­nize and be ready for it,” line­backer Cam Brown said. “It usu­ally re­lies on the lineback­ers mak­ing the plays, so we can take the blame for that. But we have to just be play­ing more an­tic­i­pa­tion foot­ball and see that com­ing.”

The long con­ver­sions haven’t nec­es­sar­ily hurt Penn State yet. Buf­falo had four drives of 10 plays or longer (in­clud­ing one last­ing 19 plays) and scored just one touch­down. Pitt’s drives of 18, 10 and 10 plays pro­duced just three points.

Still, los­ing on long downs and stay­ing on the field af­fects de­fen­sive morale. It also skews time of pos­ses­sion, in which Penn State ranks 127th na­tion­ally at un­der 26 min­utes per game.

Franklin doesn’t con­sider time of pos­ses­sion a “huge fac­tor” in games, espe­cially with his team’s big-play abil­ity, but it can get teams off track.

So get off the field, Franklin told his de­fense this week. Still, it’s a tricky process.

“We are ob­vi­ously do­ing a lit­tle bit more right now em­pha­siz­ing third down in prac­tice,” Franklin said. “But as you all know, when you shift time and re­sources to one area, which is third down, then you have to take it from some­where else that we have in our nor­mal week. You just can’t add [prac­tice] time, al­though as coaches, we’d love to do that.

“So that’s al­ways a dis­cus­sion: Do you just em­pha­size it and spend more time on it, or do you leave the plan the way it is and try to work through it grad­u­ally?”

“We work like crazy to get peo­ple into third-and-long sit­u­a­tions and then we let them off the hook.” —Penn State coach James Franklin

BARRY REEGER/AP

Pitt con­verted 4 of 9 at­tempts on third-and-9 or longer against Penn State. Re­ceiver Taysir Mack, left, against Penn State cor­ner­back Tariq Cas­tro-Fields, was a big part of that.

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