Depth, experience powering Penn State defense

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - In the minutes following a 31-7 win on the road at Northwestern, Penn State head coach James Franklin addressed a jam-packed media room with a message hardly unfamiliar to those closely following the now 6-0 Nittany Lions.

"Can't give our defense enough credit," Franklin said. "I think after last season kind of, the story line was the exciting offense, and I'm pleased with our offense. We're scoring enough points to win, which is the most important thing. But our defense has been playing unbelievable, you know, really well. I'd say almost shutout football."

There's Northwestern of course, managing its lone score of the afternoon in the final two minutes of Saturday's game to smudge an almost third Nittany Lion shutout of the season.

A point of critique for a potent Penn State defense though, should hardly be a starting point for how far it's come and how long it's perhaps, been flying a bit under the radar.

On Northwestern's first drive, defensive tackle Curtis Cothran sacked Wildcat quarterback Clayton Thorson for a loss of eight before cornerback Amani Oruwariye picked off Thorson to keep Northwestern out of the end zone. Defensive ends Ryan Buchholz and Shaka Toney wiped away another Wildcat opportunity as Buchholz grabbed his first career fumble recovery following a Toney strip sack.

In just the first 15 minutes, Penn State's defense protected its perfect first-quarter streak, as the only FBS team to keep an opponent off the scoreboard in the first frame this season.

Penn State was hardly finished though, with cornerback Christian Campbell sending the Nittany Lions into halftime with his first interception of the season, following Toney's second Thorson sack.

"If you look at us, we don't really have one thing that we're just overpowering people with," Franklin said. "It's not really necessarily just our D-line, or just our linebackers, or just our secondary. It's a little bit of all those things."

Complimentary football as Franklin often says, but this time, outside of offense, defense and special teams, it's relatable to the entire defense.

"Our D-line, our linebackers and our secondary are all fitting correctly and complement one another to play really well, sound defense," Franklin said. "And when you watch us, we're not a suffocating defense, where we take like every yard away on the field. But the most important thing is we keep people out of the end zone and we create turnovers."

A main focus of offseason training, Penn State's ability to create turnovers has been just as impressive as its NCAA-leading 9.0 points allowed from opponents this year.

In just the first six games of the season, the Nittany Lions have forced 17 turnovers, marking the most in a 6-game span since 1993. For context, Penn State generated 21 turnovers across all 14 games last year, with nine after six games. 

"It's unbelievable, our defense is playing at an extremely high level," tight end Mike Gesicki said. "Coach Pry deserves a ton of credit for the way he has been orchestrating our defense and everybody on the defense," Gesicki said. "Whether it's the defensive line, linebackers, DBs, everybody understands their role and executes the game plan."

Fresh off of his first career multi-sack game, Toney is a key example of the depth that Pry and the rest of the defensive staff have been hard at work developing long before the Nittany Lions stepped on to the field against Akron back in early September.

"We don't have him out there very often on first and second down," Franklin said. "He's growing into that. We're using him in obvious passing situations or third down and medium to long, and allowing him to play and do what he does best."

Toney showcased exactly what he could do best Saturday, now just behind Nittany Lion starter Shareef Miller with 5.5 tackles for loss, tied though with 3.0 sacks on the year. 

"It's the change of pace," Toney said. "I talk about it with the older guys all season, with Shareef, Buc [Ryan Buchholz], Shane [Simmons], even Yetur [Gross-Matos], a young guy - if you all beat them up first and second down, I promise third down he isn't going to be able to catch me."

For Toney, it's also a result of an offseason dedicated to hard work, spending time keying in on his pass rush, leaning on the veteran advice of those around him but especially Torrence Brown, often going over to his house after every single practice. 

"Torrence, people forget about him but he taught me a lot as a player," Toney said. "It hurts that he's not here right now but I always know I can depend on him. He always works on my moves, makes sure I'm doing what I need to be doing."

Whether it's experience, maturity or leadership though, it was Pry himself who last week noted that Penn State's defense this year has been what's expected, forged of course by the unique notion that the staff knows exactly what it can expect from a veteran group that will only continue to step forward with confidence.

"Playing a team with confidence is dangerous," Oruwariye said. "We've got a better grasp of the system. Just experience. Guys have been in this position, it gets a lot easier when you have guys like that in front of Jason [Cabinda] and Marcus [Allen].



Last Updated October 12, 2017