This video has sent shivers of concern down the spine of Bearcats everywhere. It should. The Owls were the 16th best defense in the country a year ago, according to Football Outsiders S&P+ rankings. They were fast, physical and borderline angelic when it came to preventing teams from scoring when they got into position. Last year, they allowed just 2.8 points per opponent trip into their 40-yard line, a top 10 rate. They were so, so, so good last year and they return basically everyone of note from last year's defense. Smart fans knew what Temple was capable of on defense before Saturday's game against Penn State. Even Penn State fans were aware of what this Temple team could do, even if they didn't want to devote much time to contemplating it. The bottom line is that Temple had the best defense in the entire Group of Five a year ago and, with everyone of note coming back, they are the safest bet to reclaim that imaginary title this year as well. Saturday's performance was the first salvo of the season, and it was unimaginably effective.
I mean, look at the video.
The majority of the Owls sacks came on four man rushes, with a couple of traditional five man zone pressure looks. Hell they even got a sack of Hackenberg on a two man rush. None of that is particularly interesting to me as person who loves the tactics of football. You know what really interests me? This.
Chip Kelly is fond of saying that unless you were in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg or Knute Rockne you are just stealing from someone else. That six man zone blitz that the Owls unleashed on a witheringly inexperienced Penn State offensive line isn't something that sprung from the mind of Owls defensive coordinator Phil Snow. Instead, it has it's most recent genesis in the minds of two men who used to prowl the same sideline that Tommy Tuberville and his staff will occupy on Saturday night; Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi.
Temple doesn't run their six man zone pressure exactly the same way that Michigan State does. For one thing the terminology is different and their rules and landmarks for their defenders are almost certainly different. Narduzzi and Dantonio are very open in discussing their base quarters coverage scheme in clinics and meetings with other staffs, but their zone blitzes are strictly off limits. Even without the guidance or help from the Michigan State staff Temple has figured out a way to make it work for them.
What makes this blitz package so effective is two fold. First things first, this blitz overwhelmed the Penn State offensive line, not with a numerical advantage, but by sowing the seeds of confusion among the offensive line.
If you go back and watch all 10 sacks again, Penn State has enough blockers to pick up the Owls blitzes on 9 of them. Only once did the Owls send more than the Nittany Lions can block. So how did Temple do it? For one, they simply had overwhelmingly better talent along the defensive line than Penn State could match with their line. That seems crazy on the face of it, but the Owls have built themselves to this point by recruiting well, and playing guys early. This front seven is talented, deep and most importantly experienced. That all matters, but their scheme really put them in a position to succeed on Saturday.
If you look at the way that Michigan State runs their double A gap zone blitz and the way that the Owls ran it Saturday (the two videos embedded above) there is one crucial difference. While the Spartans run the double A gap blitz with incredible aggression. The linebackers declare their intentions early and attack immediately to devastating effect.
The Owls' approach is different. They build in stunts with their defensive linemen and delays from the blitzing linebackers. What that does is mess with the reads of the offensive linemen and the running backs. As a general rule the responsibilities of a running back in pass protection is to work inside out. They check the A gaps* for free rushers then they work their way out to the B to C to D gaps on the right or left side depending on the blocking scheme. If they find no one blitzing, then they might have the freedom to release into the flats on a pass route.
*The gaps on either side of the center
That progression seems straightforward enough, but the running back has fractions of a second to make his initial read of the blitz. The running back has somewhere between one and two seconds to read blitzes working from the A gaps out to the D gap. So when the Penn State running backs checked the A gap they often found no one at all and worked his way outside. Temple was great at attacking those A gaps after the running back made his read, at which point Penn State had no lineman or running back in position to effect the blitz.
That is the challenge for the Bearcats as they prepare to take on the fearsome Temple defense on Saturday. There are basically zero similarities between the Bearcats and the Nittany Lions. Both UC and Penn State have great talents at quarterback, but the similarities stop there. The Bearcats are deeper and better at almost every skill position than Penn State is. Then there is the matter of the Bearcats offensive line which is miles and miles better than Penn State's. The Bearcats will have to adjust some of what they want to do to combat the Owls pressure. They might stay in 11 personnel* more in this game than they will in any other. Hosey Williams might get a bit more run than he would otherwise because he is better in blitz pick up than Mike Boone or Tion Green.
*one back, one tight end, three receivers
The flip side of that is that the Owls will have to adjust their approach to deal with the Bearcats incredibly deep and talented receiving corps. In last year's game, the Owls were largely able to dictate terms to the Bearcats. That game wasn't just the Bearcats worst offensive output of the season, it was the Bearcats worst output of the Tuberville era. But this is a different and deeper offense, with a presumably much improved quarterback in Gunner Kiel. What seems to be clear is that both the Bearcats offense and the Temple defense will face much bigger tests this week than they did to open the season.
Whoever winds up passing that test will likely end up winning the game.