STATE COLLEGE – There was a time this season when it seemed like Penn State’s offense was going to have to carry the defense.
In the opener against Appalachian State, the defense surrendered 451 yards of total offense and allowed the Mountaineers to march up and down the field in the fourth quarter to force overtime.
The defense also gave up big plays and points late in close losses to Ohio State and Michigan State.
But the tables have turned a bit. While the offense has struggled to sustain drives and put up points since the Sept. 29 defeat to the Buckeyes, the defense has developed into one of the better units in the Big Ten.
Taking the debacle at Michigan out of the equation – a game in which the Nittany Lions’ defense actually played really well but couldn’t overcome the sluggishness of the offense – Penn State is giving up a shade over 20 points per game since Oct. 1.
Penn State (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) takes on Rutgers (1-9, 0-7) on Saturday in Piscataway, New Jersey.
“I think our defense puts a priority on winning,” coach James Franklin said. “Not being selfish, and doing what’s in Penn State’s best interests and doing what’s in our kids’ best interests. So that’s the thing that I know as a head coach that I really value and, obviously, me and (defensive coordinator) Brent Pry go way back. We’ve got a lot of history.”
The development of the defense was on full display in last week’s win over Wisconsin. After surrendering a 71-yard touchdown run to star running back Jonathan Taylor on the opening drive, Penn State only gave up a field goal in the final three quarters, dominating the line of scrimmage against a highly touted Badgers offensive line.
Although the Scarlet Knights have just one win on the season, their offensive line has also actually been quite steady, allowing just 12 sacks.
It will be another test for a Penn State front four that is playing with a lot of confidence.
‘See ball, get ball’
Shareef Miller and Yetur Gross-Matos have developed into one of the better defensive-end tandems in college football. At defensive tackle, Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor haven’t gotten the same attention as the defensive ends, but have performed well in their own right.
Gross-Matos is third in the Big Ten in sacks with eight. Defensive tackle Antonio Shelton said Gross-Matos’ physical gifts are off the charts, but his work-ethic and football IQ have allowed him to develop into the player he has.
“I mean, he just comes out and he plays extremely hard,” Shelton said of Gross-Matos. “He’s always … if you watch his high school tape, he was like, ‘See ball, get ball.’ He still has that. But he’s also taking the coaching very well.
“And he’s refined his skills a lot. So when you take that refining of his skills and he still has that mentality, then it translates to the field and that’s how he plays.”
As a unit, the defensive line leads the conference and ranks 6th in the country in sacks. They’re also tied for 19th in the country in tackles-for-loss.
“They’re a really good unit, and we knew that since summer camp,” guard Steven Gonzalez said. “They always gave us a challenge every single day we went on the field. Now they’re just proving it. And they’re a heck of a unit.”
Shelton said he believes Givens is the biggest reason the defensive line has found success this season.
“Kevin is one of the most athletic people I’ve ever seen,” Shelton said. “It’s kind of scary. You don’t expect someone to be that big and strong and at the same time be athletic. But a lot of things that Kevin does, he sets other guys up to be successful.”
Vincent Lungaro covers Penn State football for CNHI Pennsylvania media properties. Follow him on Twitter @VinceLungaro.