Penn State football: Defensive swings put spotlight on the Lions' perpetual soft spots
Penn State held its final lead against Ohio State on Saturday for all of 43 seconds.
Probably at least a few of the 108,433 on hand at Beaver Stadium spent that time in a beer or bathroom line, and didn’t get to revel in the moment. Many of those at their seats probably hadn’t sat back down yet.
Three plays, 75 yards, 35 seconds.
The defense, under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, can’t lock in gains any better than it did with Brent Pry calling the shots a year ago.
This has become a pattern, and is an issue that shouldn’t get lost in the avalanche of Sean Clifford turnovers that followed. We’ll get to that in a second — the approximate time it took OSU defensive end JT Tuimoloau to go Tasmanian Devil and flatten Bryce Effner and Clifford into 2-dimensional victims like some of us remember from Saturday morning cartoons.
Part of the problem for the Nittany Lions’ defense is that no one has emerged as a dominate force in the vein of Tuimoloau, a 5-star super recruit from a year ago for the Buckeyes. Penn State doesn’t have anyone like the 6-4, 270-pound freak athlete working its defensive edges.
Diaz is handicapped by the roster he inherited upon arrival in State College following his 3-year stint as head coach of the Miami Hurricanes. He has worked around the limitations, using stunts and blitzes, but trickery only gets a defense — even one as deep, fast and agile as Penn State’s — so far. It’s hard to spend a lot of time in attack mode when your leading sacker is defensive back Johnny Dixon, who has 3 QB takedowns to his credit after making a key one to end the first half Saturday.
Without better pressure, even Penn State’s highly acclaimed secondary is no match for a Heisman-favorite quarterback and the best receiver group in the country. And that showed again in the sputtering final segment of Saturday’s loss to the No. 2 team in the country.
We’ve seen this movie before
In baseball it’s called a shutdown inning, blanking the opponent the next half-inning after putting runs on the board. The best teams do it really well late in games, but it’s a key to success throughout a contest.
In big games, Penn State has not been that kind of team on the football field, dating to last year’s game at Iowa.
- 2021 at Iowa: After a FG puts Penn State up 17-3 — and before anyone knew Clifford was done for the day — the offensively inept Hawkeyes answer with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Later in the game, the Hawkeyes go 44 yards in 9 seconds for the go-ahead score.
- 2021 vs. Michigan: After Penn State takes a 17-14 lead with less than 6 minutes left, Michigan goes 75 yards in less than 2 ½ minutes to retake the lead.
- Oct. 16 at Michigan: After Penn State takes a stunningly improbable 17-16 lead in the third quarter, Michigan goes 81 yards on 4 plays in 2 minutes.
- Saturday vs. Ohio State: After Penn State goes up 21-16 in the fourth quarter, CJ Stroud hits Marvin Harrison Jr. for 21 yards and Emeka Egbuka for 13. Easy throws, no pressure. Then TreVeyon Henderson busts a 41-yard TD run. The cartoonish Clifford follies ensue, but the damage may have already been done. Even if the Lions weren’t coughing up the ball, there’s no guarantee they would have moved it effectively.
No 1-on-1 freaks up front
Last year, Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie provided Penn State a 1-year stopgap pash-rush specialist, leading the team with 9.5 sacks. He was desperately needed after Adisa Isaac suffered an injury that cost him the whole 2021 season.
Isaac, highly touted as a breakout candidate prior to his injury, hasn’t filled those shoes. No one has. Dani Dennis-Sutton, a 5-star freshman, shares the team lead with 3 sacks, and those came in mop-up time, not crunch time, against Auburn and Central Michigan. Sacks by other DLs are as follows: Isaac 1, Chop Robinson 1, Nick Tarburton 1, Jordan van den Berg 1, Coziah Izzard 1.
From the linebacker level, freshman reserve Abdul Carter has 2.5 sacks and Curtis Jacobs has 1. That’s it.
The team has 17 sacks on the season, on pace to slightly improve on last year’s 27. Considering November’s schedule includes the 4 weakest teams in the B1G East, the numbers might get better moving forward. But the reality remains: PSU’s potential playmakers in the front 7 haven’t proved ready for prime time so far.
Jacobs, Carter, Isaac, Robinson and Dennis-Sutton all have the athleticism to have a Tuimoloau-type breakthrough. But most of them give up 30 pounds or more to the freak athlete who was rated the No. 4 overall recruit in the country in 2021 and received a basketball scholarship offer from Oregon. Such a breakthrough might be a year away for anyone on Diaz’s defense.
Of Penn State’s 17 sacks, 7 came against Auburn, which is proving to be one of the worst teams in the SEC. The Lions haven’t had more than 2 against anyone else.
Not just a sacks issue
Beyond sacks, Penn State just doesn’t have stoppers in its front 7. Safety Ji’Ayir Brown leads the team in tackles, and had a team-high 8 against the Buckeyes. Of the top 6 tacklers against OSU, 5 are members of the secondary. Only Carter, who technically isn’t even a starter, reached 4 tackles among players manning spots in the front 7.
On the season, Jacobs and Carter are 2nd and 3rd behind Brown in tackles, but neither averages even 5 per game. After them, no one is averaging even 4 per game. Isaac and Robinson each have 15, roughly 2 per game. If they’re not getting sacks and rarely making tackles, they’re kind of invisible.
Diaz is playing a ton of guys; 24 Lions made at least 1 tackle on Saturday.
Going forward, the clutter will need to subside and some stars will need to emerge.
Offensively, Penn State needs to stop bringing Sean Clifford to CJ Stroud fights. That issue will solve itself before the 2023 season kicks off.
But there’s an analogous issue for the defense. A year of seasoning might be all that’s needed, but Penn State’s young DLs and LBs are on the clock.