When Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran praised Penn State’s front four Friday morning, he said the Nittany Lions rank No. 2 in the country in sacks. But he was one spot off. At the time, before Clemson and Alabama took the field for their respective College Football Playoff games, Penn State actually sat at No. 1 in sacks per game.
Either way, Gran’s point still stood.
“Their front is how they operate. They’re the real deal,” Gran said days before the Citrus Bowl. “We’re going to have to deal with the front.”
Wildcats running back Benny Snell, a first-team All-SEC selection, sat next to Gran and agreed. The future NFL draft pick specifically pointed out Nos. 99 and 48 — defensive ends Yetur Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller, respectively — as players to watch.
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Gross-Matos — a 6-foot-5 behemoth to block — led the way for the Nittany Lions in 2018. He tallied 20 tackles for loss in the regular season, which ranked second in the Big Ten to only Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes. He also added eight sacks. Miller, meanwhile, fought through double teams all year and still took the down the quarterback seven times.
“Those guys go,” Snell said. “I have to make sure in protection that I get a chip on those guys.”
Snell mentioned that the entire Nittany Lion defense swarms to the ball. Gran didn’t try saying his last name, fearing he’d “butcher it,” but the offensive coordinator complimented Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye. Gran also said despite Micah Parsons not starting, “He’s productive as heck.”
But for Gran, having success against the Nittany Lions — establishing the run with Snell and All-American guard Bunchy Stallings — starts and ends with negating Gross-Matos, Miller, Kevin Givens and company. That will be key on Tuesday at Camping World Stadium.
“Those front guys are really good,” Gran reiterated. “They’re real.”
It’s hard to believe now, but Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen — the consensus national defensive player of the year — was hardly recruited out of high school. A two-star prospect back in 2015, Allen, who led the SEC with 18.5 TFLs and 14 sacks, had offers from Buffalo, Kansas and Kentucky. That’s it.
So the Nittany Lions weren’t the only major school that missed on Allen. But the potential top-five pick in April’s draft went to Montclair High School in New Jersey, a state Penn State has largely dominated over the years.
“Kentucky gave me a chance, and I went with it,” Allen said Friday. “I never heard anything about Penn State hitting me up on recruiting.”
If it didn’t then, Penn State — and all of college football, for that matter — knows who Allen is now. And on Tuesday, the Nittany Lions will have to face the kid who escaped their backyard and blossomed at Kentucky.
“All those people who are projecting him as a high first-round draft pick, I would echo that,” Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said. “I coached against Von Miller and some of those guys, and he’s right up there with those guys.”
“I like amusement parks. I’m still a little kid. That’s my personality … And then Best Buy, a couple guys were like buying Crock-Pots. I think John Petrishen was walking out with one of those robot vacuums that just goes around on its own. I got an Apple Watch and a gaming headset for my Xbox.” — Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, on the team’s Friday night trip to Universal Studios and Thursday night shopping spree at Best Buy.