PSU up to task on defense
UNIVERSITY PARK — Two words are being embraced and emphasized in Penn State’s defensive meeting room: Finishers and closers.
“Just having a finisher’s mentality — a mentality to close out teams when we’re up on them,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said during Penn State’s media day. “We have to do a better job there. Being able to talk about it and embrace it and recognize it is a part of it.
“We’ve talked about being finishers and closers. To have a lead and lose it in the fourth quarter is upsetting.”
Pry and the defensive unit know the feeling all too well. Though the defense has generally played well the last few years, the inability to protect leads has been chiefly responsible for five of Penn State’s losses since 2016.
The list, of course, is highlighted by two straight losses to Ohio State in which the Lions squandered a pair of double-digit, second-half leads. Last season was particularly brutal as the Buckeyes punched in two touchdowns in the last four minutes to win, 27-26, at Beaver Stadium.
Michigan State went 76 yards in a minute, also on the Lions’ home field, to escape with a 21-17 victory.
And when Penn State’s late field goal put the Lions in position to tie or win the Citrus Bowl, the defense promptly allowed Kentucky to run out the clock with a pair of first downs in the last four minutes to clinch the Wildcats’ 27-24 win.
“We can pinpoint and slow those games down (on tape), and they can see we should have closed those games out,” defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. “There were plays we left out on the field. I saw a stat that seven of the last nine games we’ve lost are by four points or less, and that’s unacceptable.
“If we want to go to where we talk about going, we have to close those things out.”
Even a couple of the Lions’ victories the last two years lacked a strong finish. Appalachian State scored 28 points in the fourth quarter to force overtime in the 2018 opener, in which Penn State avoided disaster, and Nebraska scored 35 points in the second half — 21 in the last six minutes — of Penn State’s 56-44 win in 2017.
Pry said the staff has focused on doing a better job keeping the defense fresh.
“The first thing we looked at is the snap count,” he said. “Was there fatigue? Because there are clips when we don’t have the same quickness. It happens to everybody down the stretch, but we have to be at our best, particularly in big games, in the fourth quarter. As coaches, we have to be intentional with our rotations.”
That is especially true across the defensive front as teams coming from behind are passing, and rushing the passer may be the most physically draining position on the field.
It so happens this year the Lions are blessed with serious defensive line depth. Yetur Gross-Matos is a budding star, James Franklin raved Saturday about defensive ends Shane Simmons and Shaka Toney, and Jayson Oweh has whet everyone’s appetite.
Tackle Robert Windsor leads the inside returners that include Antonio Shelton and P.J. Mustipher.
“We had some unfortunate situations with injuries last year with some guys who didn’t maybe play the third quarter, which meant more snaps in the fourth quarter for other guys,” Pry said.
But he also said the late-game scheming needs to improve, adding, “Adjustments in the fourth quarter, having something left that maybe they haven’t seen.”
The players are eager to prove they learned from last year’s painful experience. Cam Brown got up in the locker room after the Citrus Bowl and promised as much.
“We’ve taken that on ourselves,” Toney said. “We have to finish games.”
Penn State will need its defense to be particularly reliable while it breaks in a new quarterback, likely Sean Clifford, and negotiates a challenging road schedule that includes trips to Columbus, Iowa City, East Lansing and Minneapolis, not to mention being the Big Ten home opener for Maryland.
“With or without the offense, we need to control the game,” Brown said. “I think we’ve learned the mentality that you have to keep the same attitude all four quarters.”
Though the Lions must replace six defensive starters, there’s plenty of optimism that the unit has grown from its past wounds and has stockpiled some talent — led by Micah Parsons — eager to bust out.
“We may not have as many guys in leadership positions,” Pry said, “but I think we have maybe stronger leadership than we’ve had the last couple of years.”
Brown made no bones about the potential.
“I think this is the best defense I’ve been on — the speed and the athleticism is going to make a big difference,” he said. “A lot of guys have experience and have played in meaningful games, and other guys have waited their turn.”
“We’ve talked about a killer mentality,” returning safety Garrett Taylor said. “We want to be in out there with the game on the line. We want to be right back in the same position we were last year.”
Neil Rudel covers Penn State from the Altoona Mirror.