Win brings confidence boost
STATE COLLEGE — Consider Penn State botching the opening kickoff an opportunity, one Penn State actually exploited.
Sure, the freezing temperatures for this noon kickoff coming off two straight losses made Saturday’s game with Rutgers an easy one to forecast a little early adversity.
And when Rutgers popped up the opening kickoff, one the Scarlet Knights recovered at the Nittany Lion 21, Penn State found some.
But the Nittany Lions held, allowing just seven yards and forcing a field goal after four plays. They allowed another field goal two drives later, and by the time they allowed another first down, they had their 35-6 lead that was the final score.
It was the kind of stop that head coach James Franklin said defenisve coordinator Brent Pry chellenges his team with after a turnover or other sudden change.
“It’s not like the calls are different,” said Franklin. “Just the mentality, an emotional effect from a turnover. You swing it back and be a mentally tough team. Create a punt, and that’s what it is.”
It wasn’t a punt, but just about as good, given the circumstances since Penn State’s offense couldn’t get going until the second quarter. A 6-0 lead wasn’t much for Rutgers to show the way it dominated the first quarter.
“That was a good drive there and we kept them to a field goal,” said Brandon Smith. “We had to swarm to the guys, it makes a big difference.”
Smith, starting at weak side linebacker for the first time after Manny Bowen was suspended a game for violating unspecified team rules, played a big part. The fifth-year senior and former walk-on from Lewisburg finished with a season-high 10 tackles as part of a unit that may have allowed six points and 102 yards on the first three series before dominating a offense that couldn’t pass.
And while losses to Ohio State and Michigan State likely cost Penn State a chance at the Big Ten East title and more, Saturday’s win at least allowed the Nittany Lions a chance to recover as they looks to their last two games, next week vs. Nebraska and then at Maryland.
“We needed to get our confidence back a little,” said Jason Cabinda, who finished with a game-high 11 tackles playing next to Smith. “It’s not easy after two in a row, but these guys believe in each other.”
James Franklin said he didn’t approach Saturday like a possible letdown type of game, instead trying to make his players believe it was an opportunity to rebound. His linebackers took advantage.
“Jason has been tremendous in my opinion, the steady Eddie and Mr. Consistent leading us in tackles and tackles for a loss,” said Franklin. “The shifting and the unbalance, he was in control of it and Brandon Smith is a veteran player who’s very productive, one of the most well-respected players on and off the field.”
And now, a five-year career is nearly over, one that began for Smith as a Bill O’Brien run-on in 2013 and helped win a Big Ten championship, though this year looks to finish short of that.
That may be a letdown, though there are positives in it for Smith.
“It’s pretty crazy to be making one last run here,” said Smith. “We’ll have to have a good week in practice and I love it here at Beaver Stadium and all the fans here at 12 o’clock when it’s freezing. IT’s an amazing atmosphere and I’m grateful for one last chance.”
Brigandi is sports editor at The Sun-Gazette. He may be reached at email@example.com.