Column: Experience, confidence guiding Lions' defensive success

Nate Bauer, Senior Editor
Blue White Illustrated

Penn State head coach James Franklin said his defense can’t be described as suffocating.

After all, the Nittany Lions aren’t top ten nationally in total defense, rushing defense, or passing yards allowed.

At No. 12, No. 27, and No. 16 in those categories, respectively, the players within the unit have offered up an argument to counter his. But the point remains in that the Nittany Lions are not intent on taking away every yard against every offense.

They are, however, intent on taking away the ball, and preventing teams from scoring points. And through six games this season, their collective point has been delivered, ranking No. 1 in scoring defense at just 9.0 points allowed per game, and No. 1 in turnovers gained with 17.

“When you watch us we're not a suffocating defense where we take every yard away on the field, but the most important thing is we keep people out of the end zone and we create turnovers,” said Franklin.

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Steve Manuel

With a six-game sample size under the unit’s belt, the Nittany Lion defense has moved beyond the skepticism of a light nonconference slate and into the conversation as one of the nation’s best.

Described by Franklin as playing with a lot of confidence right now, particularly in the secondary, the Nittany Lions are simply exhibiting a trait that started to build before the 2016 season had even concluded. Finishing the season allowing 367.9 yards and 25.4 points per game, the Lion defense particularly met its match against Southern Cal in a Rose Bowl game decided by a score of 52-49. But in limiting Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Iowa, Rutgers and Michigan State to 24-or-fewer points, the Lions built a confidence that hadn’t previously existed.

And this year, that confidence is paying dividends.

“The defense is good because we're just confident, we're experienced and we prepare every week like it's the Super Bowl,” said corner Amani Oruwariye. “It's the same approach (this year), but with a lot more experience and confidence. I guess last year we didn't know how good we were until the end of the year, and this year, going into it, we knew we were going to be good but we just had to play like it.”

They have, in spite of what Franklin has described as a lack of attention paid to just how good the Nittany Lions have been.

Whether by taking the form of redshirt freshman Shaka Toney’s breakout Saturday in helping lift the Nittany Lions with two sacks and a forced fumble, or the rest of a defensive line that has risen to No. 19 nationally in sacks (2.83) and No. 5 in tackles for loss (8.5), Penn State’s front has been not only productive but also varied. Team-wide, the Lions have 14 different defenders who have contributed at least half a sack this season, and 26 who have notched a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

In the secondary, in spite of the spring loss of John Reid for the season due to a knee injury, standout play from leaders like Grant Haley, Marcus Allen, Grant Haley and Christian Campbell has meshed with an influx of young talent. Oruwariye, coming off his third interception of the season in the Lions’ win at Northwestern, is one of six Lions in the secondary to notch a pick in the first half of the season. With nine interceptions as a group, the Lion secondary has already made a 50 percent improvement on its total of six a season ago.

Chalking up the success to a willingness to take chances, which accompanies the confidence that comes with experience, Oruwariye said the repetition of making plays in practice has translated over to games.

All of it, Franklin said, works in conjunction.

“We're very experienced on defense, especially in the secondary. We're faster as a defense. There's no doubt about it. I think were playing with some confidence. I think we have the best coaching staff in the country,” he said. “I think it’s just a combination of all these things. It's not really one thing.

"If you look at us we don't really have one thing that we're overpowering people. It’s not necessarily just our D-line, just our linebackers, just our secondary. It's a little bit of all these things. I think we're playing really good complementary football.”

Enjoying a bye week before biting off the biggest, arguably most challenging portion of the 2017 Big Ten schedule, it's a standard the Nittany Lions have put themselves in a position to build on moving forward.

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