Penn State Football: John Butler Not to Blame for Braxton Miller's Dominance
It seems the new popular narrative among Penn State fans is that defensive coordinator John Butler is in over his head following a 63-14 blowout at the hands of the nation's fourth-ranked team, Ohio State.
When a team loses by 49 points, there is plenty of blame to go around. Fourteen points is never going to be enough points to beat a team like the Buckeyes, and when you give up 63, it's equally as damaging to the cause. But how much blame exactly belongs on Butler's shoulders?
Is the first-year coordinator calling too many blitzes, or not enough? Are his coverage schemes too bland? Is he simply not getting enough production from the players available to him, or is it just a matter of losing to better teams, equipped with nearly 30 more scholarships available and no recruiting hurdles to jump over the past two years?
Let's take a look.
Ohio State's first big play of the game came less than two minutes into the opening drive when Braxton Miller hit Devin Smith for 36 yards on a crossing route. Here's what the play looked like before the snap:
The Nittany Lions ran a zone blitz with Mike Hull (43) and Glenn Carson (40) rushing the quarterback while dropping Deion Barnes (18) into coverage from his defensive end spot. Adrian Amos (4) dropped deep with Jesse Della Valle (39) while Jordan Lucas (9) and Malcolm Willis (1) ran deep with the Ohio State wide receivers.
It's possible that Lucas made the wrong read and was supposed to stay shallow, but he looked like he was headed deep the entire play. The "X-factor" on this play was linebacker Nyeem Wartman (5). After freezing momentarily on the play action, Wartman settled into a middle zone. As Devin Smith crossed behind Wartman, the freshman linebacker broke to run with him. As he did, Braxton Miller saw the field open up and stepped up into the pocket, preparing to run. Wartman's instincts froze him again, and he changed direction back toward Miller. When he did, the entire left side of the field opened up and Miller made the throw to Smith.
The play call from Butler was fine. Wartman couldn't get this one right.
Had he stayed with Smith, Miller would have taken off for a long gain. The problem was up front. Ohio State left the tight end in to block and had six protectors to block the two blitzers plus the three down linemen. Blitzing is a calculated risk that often looks great when the blitzers get to the quarterback. When they don't, however, you end up with coverage issues on the back end, especially with such a dangerous, dual-threat weapon at quarterback.
Two drives later, Miller struck again.
After reaching the Penn State 39-yard line, Ohio State dialed up a quarterback draw and John Butler countered with, literally, the perfect defensive play call.
The Buckeyes spread the field, and Penn State stayed in its base 4-3 personnel but slid Mike Hull out in the slot to give the look of a nickel package. It often ran a similar defense last year with Hull. Without seeing the "All-22" film, it's not clear what the coverage scheme was, but Wartman was again the defensive player of note.
Wartman was on a clear "QB Spy" assignment, meaning his role was to shadow Braxton Miller, wherever he went.
After quickly reading the quarterback draw, Wartman stepped into the hole but Miller made an adjustment by cutting back to the right. When he did, Wartman changed directions, but by that time, defensive tackle Austin Johnson had been pushed three yards off the line of scrimmage by a double-team and Wartman got tripped up by his legs and fell. Miller immediately does what he's famous for and scampered for a 39-yard touchdown.
It's nearly impossible to lay blame on that play. A well-executed play by a great offense and a Heisman-caliber player is often difficult to stop.
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While it's easy to look at both of these 30-plus-yard gains and assume the scheme was the problem, that's almost never the case. Drawing up plays and explaining roles and responsibilities only accounts for so much, and it's impossible to practice for a guy like Miller.
There's no doubt that Butler would like to have a few calls back from Saturday night. Nobody is claiming he is completely without blame. However, when the Penn State defenders had Miller corralled in the backfield on several occasions just to see him avoid trouble and make a play, that's simply a case of Miller being great rather than Butler making a mistake.
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