Penn State showcasing its defense
EVANSTON, Ill. — Penn State’s offense took the Big Ten and the nation by storm a year ago and returned almost all of their key parts going into 2017.
Through the offseason, the questions almost all were on the defensive side of the ball.
Wouldn’t you know it: As the season hit its midway point Saturday at Ryan Field, the exact opposite scenario has played out.
The Nittany Lions controlled Northwestern, 31-7, behind their defense and special teams and practically in spite of their offense, which failed to protect Trace McSorley or create much running room for Saquon Barkley, whose highlight reel was limited to one play.
Instead, this was a day for the defense to shine against an opponent that typically moves the ball against just about everybody.
“Can’t give our defense enough credit,” James Franklin said afterward. “After last season, the storyline was our offense. But our defense has played shutout defense.”
Franklin was disappointed enough to mention losing the shutout with 1:46 left, saying the second unit didn’t sustain “the standard.”
His objection was noted. It may have lost a late shutout, but it still entered the day third in the nation in both scoring defense (now 9.0) and turnovers forced (now 17).
After giving up 30 points five times last year, the defense has become the most consistent of Penn State’s three units.
“We’re not a suffocating defense, where we take every yard away, but the most important thing is we’re keeping people out of the end zone,” Franklin said. “And we create turnovers.”
The formula starts with an experienced secondary and a wild-dog mentality among the young bucks on the defensive front.
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry and defensive line coach Sean Spencer have done an excellent job keeping the troops fresh, and it paid off with four more sacks Saturday and seven tackles for loss.
“We’re very experienced on defense — especially the secondary,” Franklin said. “We’re faster, we’re playing with some confidence, and we have the coaching staff in the country — and I’m talking about the (defensive) assistant coaches.”
The secondary was outstanding. Amari Oruwariye and Christian Campbell both made interceptions; Grant Haley, who broke up three passes, is one of the nation’s best cover corners; and Marcus Allen may be the best run-support safety in Penn State history, right there with the great Mark Robinson.
But the real havoc was wreaked up front as Shaka Toney made two sacks and forced a fumble. He’s a redshirt freshman. So is Shane Simmons, who had a tackle for loss. Redshirt sophomores Shareef Miller (sack) and Kevin Givens (two passes batted down) made their presence felt.
It’s a young unit that is having fun.
“We definitely know we’re good,” outside linebacker and blitzer Kao Farmer said. “We can shut out teams. We can get off the field three-and-outs. We can come out strong after halftime. Coach Pry does a really good job letting guys play with their personality.”
Of the group, Toney drew the most post-game attention. As he was led to the interview area, the 6-foot-3, 233-pounder looked like he fit in with some of the lanky receivers.
“Football is changing,” Farmer said. “It’s becoming faster and more spread out. It’s not like Iowa a couple weeks ago running straight at you. I outweigh Shaka by like 20 pounds, and he’s playing D-end. Jason is a middle linebacker, and I weigh more than Jason. We’re working on being fast and athletic.”
It’s adding up to what may be the fastest Penn State defense we’ve ever seen — especially from the edges.
“We all need to change our picture of what a Big Ten defensive end is,” Franklin said.
Credit the scheme for liberal substitution that is wearing out offensive linemen who typically play almost every snap.
“Shaka has done a really nice job with his development,” Franklin said. “He doesn’t play a lot on first and second downs. We’re using him in obvious passing situations.”
The defense heard all the offseason murmurs about being the unit that could hold the team back from the College Football Playoff. It’s responded accordingly.
“We come out every day with a chip on our shoulder,” Toney said. “We knew we were one of the best defenses in the country, and our aim is to come out and prove that every single game.”
“I think we were better on defense last year than people gave us credit for,” Franklin said. “You don’t win the Big Ten championship without that.”
And so as the Lions now can enjoy a well-earned week off, they’ll head into the meat of their schedule — home against Michigan followed by trips to Columbus and East Lansing — at 6-0 and in what Franklin called “a good place” and “an ideal situation.”
They Lions will address the growing concerns on the offensive line, some passing game precision and Tyler Davis’ troubling slump.
But they’ll do with the comfort of knowing the defense is no longer a second fiddle.
“The defense has played lights out,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “As an offense, it definitely makes you feel like if we have to punt the ball away, our defense can keep them pinned in. Our defense has done a tremendous job this year, and I think we’re playing great complimentary football.”
After closing the 2016 season by allowing a combined 83 points to Wisconsin and Southern Cal, Penn State decided to get more defensive, and it’s obviously working.