STATE COLLEGE — Penn State’s defense faced a lot of run-heavy offenses over the final month of the season, including Iowa, Wisconsin and Maryland.
In each of those games, the Nittany Lions stood up to the challenge in crucial victories in a 9-3 campaign.
One last challenge awaits in the form of a potent rushing attack from their Citrus Bowl opponent, the Kentucky Wildcats out of the SEC.
“They’re unique in the way they run the football – jet motion, unbalanced, wildcat, (run-pass options), reads – they do it all,” Lions defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “They are majoring in ways to run the football. I have great respect for (Kentucky’s co-offensive coordinators) Eddie Gran and Darren Hinshaw and the job they do offensively down there. Darren and I worked together at Memphis for three years and I know what a good coach he is and how well prepared they’ll be for us – not to mention, they have an All-American tailback and an awfully good offensive line. We’ll have our hands full.”
The top weapon for the Wildcats’ offense is tailback Benny Snell, who ranks second in the SEC and 12th in the country with 1,305 yards on the ground this season. He was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press.
Snell announced his decision to declare early for the NFL Draft, but also his intention to play against Penn State in Orlando.
If he rushes for 107 yards or more in the game, he’ll surpass Wildcats legend Sonny Collins on the school’s all-time rushing list.
“He’s a really good player. I’m pretty sure he’s an All-American. He has great play potential,” PSU defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos said. “We’ll try to keep him within the box and not let him out.”
The other playmaker in Kentucky’s backfield is quarterback Terry Wilson, who finished second on the team in rushing yards with 518.
Although an injury hampered Wilson a bit toward the end of the regular season, Pry said the Nittany Lions still have to be fully aware of his dual-threat ability.
“I think (Wilson) is a dynamite player,” Pry said. “He throws the short-to-intermediate pass very well. He may even be faster than the tailback. He’s a very good athlete and is a threat running the football.
“From my understanding, he was slowed down a bit during the season with an injury. I look for him to be healthy and for him to be a big part of them running the football.”
Gross-Matos said the key to stopping a quarterback such as Wilson, who is just as dangerous with his feet as his is his arm, is defenders staying in their gaps.
“It’s obviously more difficult when the quarterback is as mobile as he is,” Gross-Matos said. “If you’re not taking great angles on him or trying to get in too close, he’ll just turn right around on you. For us, it comes down to being more disciplined.“
Linebacker Jan Johnson said communicating properly is one of most important things Penn State’s defense must do against the Wildcats’ rushing attack.
The brunt of that responsibility, Johnson says, falls on him as the middle linebacker.
It’s part of his job to make sure defenders are in place before the ball is snapped.
“It’s a lot on me, just making sure that I can recognize it and set the defense in the right play, but it’s also a part on everyone just keying in and making sure that we can recognize it,” Johnson said. “So, part of the whole communication thing … is just if everyone’s on the same page, they know that it’s easy, it’s quick to switch.”
Vincent Lungaro covers Penn State football for CNHI Pennsylvania media properties. Follow him on Twitter @VinceLungaro.