PSU defense needs to reverse trend

Through the last couple of seasons, during its rise from the post-sanctions era and establishment of James Franklin’s tenure to Big Ten champion and annual league contender, it’s become apparent that Penn State’s success is largely tied to having to score 40 points in order to win.

We’ve seen enough of a sample size over the last two years to prove that.

Twice in the last four games, dating back to last season, the Nittany Lions have won while allowing 44 (Nebraska) and 38 points (Appalachian State).

And in Penn State’s five losses over the past two-plus seasons, the Lions have yielded an average of 41.8 points.

The damage has included most of the big games — Pitt (42), Michigan (49), USC (52) and Ohio State (39). The only Penn State loss where the opponent failed to score at least 30 points was Michigan State (27).

Particularly concerning has to be the way the Lions have either worn down, let their guard down or gotten conservative defensively with big leads against Ohio State, Nebraska and App State.

In each case, the Lions’ defense allowed 20-plus points in the fourth quarter, capped by Appalachian State’s alarming 28 — four touchdowns — in the last 11 minutes.

Franklin admitted the subject was addressed at length Sunday.

“I think defensively, yeah, I think we could have used some more aggressive blitz packages and things like that, and we’ve discussed that the last couple of days,” he said. “We could be more aggressive in those settings. So yeah, I think that’s a fair criticism.”

During App State’s comeback, the Lions weren’t just sitting back being picked apart. They did blitz and were caught in it. They also missed tackles and didn’t hold up in one-on-one coverage.

Fortunately, they were bailed out when cornerback Amani Aruwariye sealed the game with an interception in the end zone, and even that took a great athletic play as Aruwariye, probably a 2019 high-round draft pick, did not have position on App State receiver Corey Sutton.

Most expected Penn State’s defense to be the lesser unit this season. That was compounded when Kevin Givens and Shane Simmons weakened an already inexperienced defensive front by being suspended for disciplinary reasons.

There were other factors, as well: True freshman linebacker Micah Parsons was just getting his feet wet and didn’t play much in the second half. That probably will change tonight at Pitt.

Further, safety John Reid, who sat out all of last year with a knee injury, is still acclimating and was victimized by App State.

“We obviously left some plays on the field,” co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Tim Banks said.

As the topic continued through the week, Franklin said he’ll lean on the tenure of his coaching staff, the core of which — Franklin, defensive coordinator Brent Pry and line coach Sean Spencer — has been together since their Vanderbilt days.

“I think what gives us confidence is in my eight years, we’ve gotten better each week,” Franklin said Thursday. “I’m just basing it on (our) experience. We’ve been able to evolve and grow and correct mistakes. We have a really good staff and good players. We have to force feed that maturation.”

One thing the Lions need to address is the fact that the defensive coaches seem to be better at pre-game scheming than they are halftime and in-game adjustments.

Just in the last half year, they did not allow a touchdown for the first three quarters against App State, and they were up 28-7 on Washington, 42-10 against Nebraska and 28-10 in Columbus.

That’s impressive and a position to build on, but Banks doesn’t think the late-game play calling is the issue.

“It’s not so much the calls, it’s the execution,” he told reporters Thursday. “Most of those things (strategy) are discussed during the week and have been decided well in advance.”

Banks would not accept a question about being disappointed in the defense’s finish.

“I’m never disappointed after a win,” he said. “I think we have a chance to be a great defense. We know we need to do better to play at the level we think we’re capable of.”

If you accept the App State game as an audition of new faces in new places, tonight will be the start of identifying exactly what that level is and how capable this defense is of approaching it.


Neil Rudel covers Penn State football from the Altoona Mirror.