The scouting report on Yetur Gross-Matos, from Yetur Gross-Matos, starts with a surprising admission.
“I’m not a fast learner,” he smiles.
Things seem to be settling in well enough for the sophomore defensive end the last two weeks, anyway. On Oct. 20 at Indiana, he piled up 10 tackles and two sacks. Last Saturday back at Beaver Stadium against Iowa, he led the Nittany Lions in tackles again, with nine stops, four tackles for loss and two more sacks.
It’s rare to see a defensive end lead a team in tackles in a given game.
To see it happen two games in a row? It’s no wonder Penn State’s defensive line has been lauded as a major reason why the Nittany Lions have been able to finish back-to-back games, not because of the play of the offense, but the emergence of the defense.
“I don’t know if I’ve been around a D-end two weeks in a row with that type of production in the Big Ten,” Franklin said.
The thing about the Nittany Lions’ recent resurgence on the defensive line is, it hasn’t been just Gross-Matos’ brilliance that has been propelling it.
With major question marks surrounding the depth and experience of the front four heading into the season, and a slew of injuries challenging both as the season has progressed, the Nittany Lions have improved steadily on defense behind a defensive line that has shown the propensity for coming up with the big play.
Averaging 8.1 per game, the Nittany Lions rank ninth in the nation and first in the Big Ten in tackles for loss per game. There are only two teams in the nation — Oklahoma State and Alabama-Birmingham — that have more sacks than Penn State’s 28.
“D-line and linebacker were probably two of our biggest question marks,” Franklin admitted. “I think as the season goes on, our defense is playing better. Why are they playing better? Because of our D-line is starting to get better and play with more confidence from a depth perspective.
“We’ve got some young players that are starting to gain confidence, and we’re kind of starting to have an idea of who our guys are at that position.”
There isn’t a senior who contributes regularly on gameday for the Nittany Lions up front, so players like defensive end Shareef Miller say there was a natural learning curve for youngsters like Gross-Matos and sophomore Shaka Toney, who tied a program record with four sacks in the fourth quarter against Indiana. But Franklin said one also existed inside, where starting tackles Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor are about the only experienced players the Nittany Lions had coming into the season.
“We did a pretty good job of controlling of line of scrimmage (against Iowa),” Franklin said. “We’re going to need to continue to do that. Like the challenge we’re going to face this week, (Michigan) wants to run the football, and then they want to complement it with their passing game and getting their tight ends into favorable match-ups. We’re going to need to continue growing there.”
At the end of the day, the Nittany Lions’ success hasn’t come against an offensive line as good, as big and as experienced as Michigan’s. Tackles Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Jon Runyan are starting to settle in after some early struggles, but combined with guards Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu and center Cesar Ruiz, the Wolverines will come into Saturday’s game with 83 career starts worth of experience among their starters.
Learning how to make adjustments during the game has been one of the biggest factors for the defense’s improvement, and doing to against a veteran offensive line would be considered a positive next step in that growth.
“I don’t think my confidence has grown. I have been confident the whole time so I just go out there and make plays,” Gross-Matos said. “It’s just knowing the scheme of the defense and making adjustments during the game, and I wasn’t really catching on (last year). I think that’s a huge difference from last season to this season.”