* This is part 1 of a 3 part series looking into the key aspects of the Penn State-Alabama matchup.
For the most part about 90% of the Penn State fanbase is expecting the Lions to go into Tuscaloosa and lose to Alabama. It isn’t entirely unreasonable. A new quarterback playing on the road against the defending national champs and a Heisman winner doesn’t exactly make you feel great about things. On the surface a casual fan sees Alabama as the same team they saw beat Texas, a powerful team on both sides of the ball with few flaws.
This however isn’t entirely the case, and while Penn State is facing a steeper uphill battle, the Tide aren’t going to have it as easy as many fans are predicting. Lets go inside the numbers and look at what could be a very competitive game.
Maybe the most glaring issue the Tide have to deal with is the loss of 8 defensive starters to graduation/NFL as well as the loss of Marcel Dareus (Who was by the way the MVP of the National Championship Game) due to an NCAA investigation. That leaves Alabama 2 defensive starters as well as Dont’a Hightower who will be coming back from injury.
While Nick Saban is known for his defensive mindedness, coaching a new core of players to a high level only a game into the season is no small task. Alabama fans will point to their 5th ranked recruiting class, one which is chock-full of talented, speedy defensive players, but to assume that all of these players will A) Replace the leadership, and B) Dominate out of the gate, is a little too much. It is possible, but generally talent will get you far, but talent coupled with experience will win you games.
2. The Nickel Defense–
Surprisingly Alabama spent most of last season running out of the Nickel package. While the depth chart isn’t listed as a Nickel the Tide resorted to only 4 down linemen more often than not. This set is used most commonly in the NFL but can be exploited in the lower levels with a good running game. If Alabama chooses to use this package against Penn State, the Lions could have an advantage running out of Jay’s HD Spread.
As you can see in the figure above, by spreading the defensive backs out with 3 or 4 wideouts, it allows the offensive line to outblock the defensive line. This happens to work in the Lions favor because of their tendency to run zone-blocking schemes. Zone blocking in the simplest for is blocking up field. If a lineman is across from you, you block him and then move up to linebackers and so on. If there is no immediate defender in-front of an offensive linemen, he moves to the second level at the start of the play.
When Penn State designs a gameplan around Alabama it will most likely be establishing the running game in order to give whoever is quarterback time to settle in and make smart throws. If Penn State is able to exploit the Tide’s Nickel defense it’ll go a very long way towards winning the game. The key to Penn State’s zone-blocking is it’s ability to appear to defenses as pass blocking momentarily, giving the offense just a step ahead of their opponents. In a game of inches, thats all you need. Just a second.