So Why Can't Penn State Beat Alabama? Part 1

* 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.

1. Starters–

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.

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Tags: Alabama Crimson Tide Penn State

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  • grammar police

    Enjoyed the article, and just wanted to point out a homonymic sort of error. It’s “chock full” and not “chalk full.”

    • Ben

      haha thanks for the catch. Always want to keep the writing at the highest level!

  • twixperson1

    I’m always going to be a hopeful Penn State fan, so of course I say they are going to win. But are their new quarterbacks just as good as Clark?

    • Ben

      Doubtful he’ll be as good as Clark, but expectations are for a heavy dose of running.

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  • Jeff

    I have a question about your diagram: isn’t the coverage “nickel” when there are 5 DBs and “dime” when there are 6 DBs?
    I don’t think the # of linemen have anything to do with the coverage being nickel or dime. I believe your diagram shows “dime coverage.” If you take out one DB from the diagram (probably a CB) and add an LB, then you would have “nickel.”

    • Ben

      I changed the picture and ommited the caption which correctly ID’d the defense.

  • Richard

    One other thing you have forgotten: In nearly every game Bama played in, 2 men HAD to be assigned to our noseguard, Mount Cody. Cody may be gone. But his replacement, Chapman, is nearly as large (320-330 lbs) and is easily the strongest player on the team. It is not often mentioned, so I feel I should: Most of the guys replacing the starters had SIGNIFICANT playing time last year….and not just in mopup duty. Josh Chapman, whom I mentioned above, played in nearly every series of every game. He was second string, but barely. Many of the other “second stringers” were roted in the same way.

    I’m not saying any of this to try to say you guys don’t have a chance, I just want to give those guys their due for the amount they contributed to the team last year. I think playing you guys is going to be one of the highlights of the season, and one heck of a football game! Real, old-school football like many of us have not had a chance to see (I’m 30 and don’t remember the last time Penn State and Bama played)! Sept 11th can’t get here quick enough.

    Roll Tide

    • Richard

      “Many of the other “second stringers” were ROTATED in the same way.”

      • Ben

        That’s great insight. There is no doubt that Bama is going to be full of talented players. I expect a good game,but the mentality around here is “get away looking like we had a chance” I’m just pointing out we have a better chance than a lot of people think. Will we win?…we shall see.Thanks for stopping by!

  • Old School Bama Fan

    Ben, Ben please get back on the meds. This is fantasy land. I mean no dis-respect to Jo Pa but…here is the skinny. The Tide is bringing a juggernaut to the field this year. First: the offense, 10 of 11 starters return with NFL first round talent galore. I am an old school Bama fan and this team should be better than the 1973 Bear Bryant team that owns 14 single and season offense records.
    Second: I’m not sure Marcell Dareus is not going to play. I think he’s un-blockable, really like Ndamukong Suh. He’s that good. Not being a Bama fan you would not know this but Donta Hightower was better than Ro before he was hurt. No joke. He hit people and drove them backwards, Ro hardly ever. The secondary is questionable due to new peps and busted assignments. If Penn State is going to win then it will be through the air and not on the ground. Penn State has “class” and is a wonderful program but it’s just our year. Peace Out.

  • Craine

    “While Nick Saben is known for his defensive mindedness”

    It’s Nick Saban–not Saben…

    Dareus has been cleared to play.

    Also, its a bit rich to think that Alabama’s 3-4 can be exploited schematically by Penn State. “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.” I absolutely love the positive outlook. Hey, if you guys can establish the run you’d be the only team in three years to do so. Alabama hasn’t had a running back go for 100 on them in two years. I appreciate your break down, but State doesn’t have the offensive talent to compete.

    • Ben

      I’ll be suprised if they pull it off, I’m just looking for any crack in the system. I’ll be happy to be 1-1 going into week 3, I just wanted to put some hope out

    • paul

      benjarvis green-ellis was the last RB to go over 100 on Bama, way back in Oct 2007. look it up folks.

  • paul

    i’m looking forward to renewing the rivalry and day dreaming at work about maybe going to happy valley for the game next year since i couldn’t make it this time. i’m 27 and do remember a couple games from the 80′s, mostly the blocked FG at the end of the 89 game. anyway my dad raised me to respect jopa, and to a lesser extent bowden, and i’m glad to see this series finally renewed.

    also, not sure where you got the idea dareus was gone for the season. no one has confirmed anything close to that. dareus and the alabama compliance office have it on lock down. but thanks for the concern.

    • Joe

      Well i “looked up” literally and was reminded bama lost 8 defensive starters. With that said i believe “Hopeful Heisman” Evan Royster just may have a shot to run over a 100 yards especially with a veteran group of blocks clearing the way. SO us folks want to tell you one thing… WE ARE…PENN STATE!!!

  • Wrong blog

    Unless Penn State’s abundance of nerds have come up with “lion aid” or something there will be probably more then several failed run attempts up the middle. (You’re running against the best defense in the SEC.) If Jo Pa still remembers how to use a TE then this game will be fun to watch. woooo pig sooooie.

    • Ben

      You do know that our TE last year was one of the best TE in the nation right?