In the preseason, members of this unit talked of “reloading” after losing three starters to the NFL and a key backup to graduation. Six games in, however, it is clear this is more of a rebuilding project. And it has not been helped by the fact that the crew that was supposed to ease the transition — what was once a veteran starting linebacker corps — has been ravaged by injuries.
There is not a defensive lineman among PSU’s top seven tacklers. And there are only two — ends Torrence Brown and Garrett Sickels — among the top 10. The Lions ranked 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per game through Week 6, as the front four struggled to prevent opposing backs (and receivers on jet sweeps) from getting to the edge.
On a positive note, D-line coach Sean Spencer is wisely rotating as many as 10 defensive linemen in the course of each game. That allowed the front to dominate late in PSU’s overtime win against Minnesota and in the second half of the victory over Maryland. It has also allowed a host of young linemen to begin to emerge, especially Brown and fellow end Shareef Miller (even if Miller has been caught way out of position at times).
As we mentioned, this is a rebuilding project right now. But long term, it is easy to see how the current growing pains are going to pay off.
Note that we are knocking down every position on defense a fraction of a letter grade due to the entire unit’s poor tackling.
We’re going to start off by saying this group gets an “A” for effort. The reserves and/or former walk-ons who have been forced into action have played their hearts out. Looking ahead to future seasons, one can only imagine how valuable the unexpected playing time has been for youngsters like sophomore Manny Bowen, true freshman Cameron Brown and transplanted safety Koa Farmer.
However, we’re not grading future seasons. And we are not grading on a curve. We want to rate things accurately so we can come back and compare the progress (or lack thereof) in our postseason grades.
Heading into 2016, EVERYONE acknowledged that the one area that absolutely had to stay healthy for the Lion defense to be its best was the starting linebacker unit of Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda and Nyeem Wartman-White. So naturally, all three have missed significant time due to undisclosed injuries, with Wartman-White being lost for the year. That’s been compounded by the fact that four other ’backers have also missed time with injuries.
That — combined with that rebuilding D-line we discussed earlier — has expectedly led to guys being in the wrong places at the wrong times, and opposing offenses gashing the Lions for some huge runs and screens. Of Penn State’s first six opponents, only Temple failed to uncork one run of at least 28 yards. Michigan had three different backs with rushes of 25 yards or longer.
That tells you that not only are opponents beating up on the defensive line and getting to the second level. But also that often when they arrive at that second level, there’s nobody home.
Even if Bell and/or Cabinda return, the Lions will have their hands full with No. 2 Ohio State’s powerful ground game coming out of the bye. After the Buckeyes, however, PSU’s four remaining opponents were averaging a collective four yards per carry heading into this weekend’s action.
There were two significant double-edged swords for the PSU defense coming out of the Maryland blowout:
1. Lion S Marcus Allen led the Big Ten in tackles with 57, including a whopping 22 vs. Minnesota. And fellow S Malik Golden was second on the team with 35 stops, even though he missed an entire game. While those numbers reflected extremely well on the play of the PSU safeties, they obviously reflected very poorly on everyone in front of them.
2. Penn State ranked third in the B1G in pass defense, allowing only 172.7 yards per game. The Lions had four interceptions against only six TD passes allowed. But … opponents had only thrown 169 passes against the Lions. This vs. 260 rushing attempts.
What does all of that mean for the secondary? Generally speaking, it has played very well and has stepped up when needed in run support. But it has yet to be seriously tested by a top-notch passing offense because most opponents are content to attack the Lions on the ground.
And it appears the only team remaining on the schedule that has a superior passing game and will have to use it to beat the Lions is Indiana (the game is in Bloomington Nov. 12). Until then, I doubt we’re going to get a legitimate feel for how good this secondary really is.
None of which is meant to take away from its play to date, which has been even more impressive considering the injuries that have caused Golden, and CBs Grant Haley, Christian Campbell and Amani Oruwariye to miss game action. We’re just cautioning that the matchup with the Hoosiers could be an eye-opener for this unit.
Given who he inherited and who he has lost to injury, it’s impossible to make a fair overall evaluation new coordinator Brent Pry's performance just yet. But with something of a baseline having been established, it will be imperative for the defense to improve from that in the second half of the season — especially if and when a few injured players return.
We will say that — outside of the final quarter of the Michigan game — the defense has not been prone to simply rolling over when opponents jump out to early leads.
On the flip side, Pry has not been able to solve the tackling issues that have been such a problem the last few seasons.