“I think in spurts, we’ve really done a really good job,” middle linebacker Jason Cabinda said in a conference call with reporters earlier this week, “but there are times we’ve had a few breakdowns. Third-and-long, we’ve let them off the hook — especially San Diego (State) the other day.”
The Aztecs were only able to convert five of 17 third downs, but quarterback Maxwell Smith found Donnie Pumphrey for a gain of 12 on third-and-nine from the PSU 20 early in the third quarter, three plays after the Lions’ DeAndre Thompkins fumbled a punt.
That led to the SDSU touchdown that allowed the Aztecs to creep within six of the Lions, at 27-21.
Never mind that Penn State went on to win, 37-21. Never mind that its defense limited the Aztecs to 242 yards and 10 completions in 29 attempts. Or that the Lions forced three turnovers and recorded five sacks. Never mind that defensive tackle Austin Johnson rumbled 71 yards for a TD after recovering a fumble early in the fourth quarter, essentially clinching the game.
Never mind any of that.
“We weren’t able to finish,” Cabinda said. “What we need to do a better job (of) as a defense is getting off the field. On first and second down we’re doing a really good job. Then on third down — even third-and-longs — we’re not getting off. I think we’re improving, but I think we can do even better there.”
This is no doubt indicative of the aim-high approach coordinator Bob Shoop has instilled in his guys, an approach that resulted in the Lions being ranked second in the FBS in total defense last year, when they allowed just 278.7 yards a game. It was also the second-fewest yards Penn State had allowed since 1990.
Through four games this year PSU is yielding 281.8 yards per game, the nation’s 15th-best norm. The Lions are also 14th against the run (90.5), 42nd against the pass (191.3) and 21st in points allowed (16.3).
In addition, they are first in sacks, with 18. Seven of those have been recorded by end Carl Nassib, which is also No. 1 in the nation.
They are just 49th in third-down conversions, allowing opponents to hit on 33.8 percent. And that’s simply not good enough in Cabinda’s eyes (and presumably everybody else’s).
“It’s a big focus, actually, for us,” he said. “It really is important being able to get off the field on third down, getting three-and-outs — not just stat-wise but for your legs, keeping our defense fresh. I think in terms in being able to get it done, a lot of it is discipline and focus. … I think it’s something we’re going to get cleaned up.”
It should be noted that the Lions’ offense, 110th in the nation in yards per game (34.5) and tied for 90th in scoring (25.5), appears to have much bigger problems. And that the defense has some built-in excuses, after losing Big Ten Linebacker of the Year Mike Hull and safety Adrian Amos, now a starter for the Chicago Bears, from last year’s unit.
Then the guy who was replacing Hull, Nyeem Wartman-White, blew out his knee in the opener against Temple, ending his season. Cabinda slid over from the weak side, and Troy Reeder filled Cabinda’s old spot.
“There’s a lot more field to see,” Cabinda said after the victory over Rutgers. “There’s a lot more to diagnose. You’re kind of the head guy there.”
Seeing as he is tied for the team lead in tackles with 23, he appears to be adapting well enough. Same for Reeder, who also has 23 stops. So does Johnson, part of a front four (with Nassib, tackle Anthony Zettel and end Garrett Sickels) that is creating all kinds of havoc. That quartet has combined for 11 sacks and 22 tackles for loss.
“They’re doing such a good job up front of being disruptive,” Cabinda said. “If they’re not making the play in the backfield, they’re forcing running backs to cut straight into … the free hitter. … We continue to develop this thing. We’ve got to be able to take advantage of that, as much as possible, how disruptive they’re going to be.”
Because the goal, it would seem, is perfection. And this unit, strong as it appears to be, isn’t there yet.