Neil Rudel on PSU: Nittany Lions need to get way more defensive
STATE COLLEGE – Penn State is 9-1, which means the valley is happy.
Right? Well, almost.
The Nittany Lions held off Indiana, 34-27, on a cool, sunny Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium, but for the second straight week, their defense raised another caution flag.
It just may be the strength of the team isn’t. At least it isn’t lately.
Chief among the concerns is the way the defense has been torched early by Minnesota last week and now Indiana.
Those two combined to gain 348 yards while completing 14 of 16 passes for 277 yards as opposing receivers and the Lion defenders haven’t even been in the same zip code.
And those numbers are just for the last two first quarters.
“We just need to wake up,” safety Garrett Taylor said. “We’ve come out slow. Two noon starts, we got to pick up the juice and play with more passion.”
He paused and added, “We don’t need to get punched in the mouth to wake up.”
It obviously cost the Lions at Minnesota and carried over as Indiana, like the Gophers, found repeated holes in the Penn State secondary.
The Lions allowed Peyton Ramsey to complete 31-of-41 for 371 yards, including four passes of 30-plus yards, and for the second straight game, the Lions allowed a long first-quarter touchdown on a blown coverage.
“Their first two (big plays) were busted coverage and a miscommunication,” Taylor said.
“I think we’re one of the best defenses in the country when everybody’s communicating and on the same page,” cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said.
They’re clearly not.
“We’ve got to get better. There’s no doubt about it,” James Franklin said, noting Indiana leads the Big Ten in passing offense. “I will also say that team has done that to everybody.”
Penn State’s tackling was especially poor Saturday.
“We’ve got some guys throwing shoulders,” Franklin said.
“We pride ourselves on open-field tackling, and we have to work on that,” Taylor said.
Another issue is the sudden lack of a pass rush. A third of the way through the season, the Lions led the nation in sacks after making 10 against Purdue.
Indiana dropped back to pass 41 times Saturday and was sacked just twice.
Yetur Gross-Matos, billed as a possible first-round draft pick, had a sack against the Hoosiers, but it was his first one since the Purdue game on Oct. 5. Rob Windsor played like J.J. Watt at Iowa but has been relatively quiet over the past month.
None of the defensive linemen were made available to the media Saturday.
Meanwhile, it’s fair to ask if the Lions are using too many players on defense, and if that’s a contributing factor to some recent struggles.
There’s no question it served the team well early in the season as the unit was kept fresh.
But after the Nittany Lions took advantage of Indiana’s aborted fake punt and went up 27-14, the defense surrendered a pair of long drives that ended in a field goal and a touchdown that pulled the Hoosiers within 27-24.
Presumably operating without a must-play rule, the Lions were using some third-teamers along the defensive front in the second half.
“I think in general you think about the scores of games right now and you think about what our defense has been able to do all season,” Franklin said. “Twenty-seven points is high for us, but if you look at college football in general, that’s pretty good.”
After Indiana cut its deficit to a field goal, the Lions’ offense — led by their offensive line and tough running by quarterbacks Sean Clifford and Will Levis in short-yardage situations — took over and basically won the game.
But even up 34-24, the defense yielded a 46-yard bomb to the Lions’ 4 in the last minute, not exactly ending the game with an exclamation point.
“We want to close out games,” Taylor said. “We want to be put in that situation. Obviously, today, it didn’t go how we wanted to.”
The defensive issues and urgency to fix them are now multiplied by 10 with a trip to Columbus, which seemingly leads every opponent 42-0 at halftime, next up.
“(Against) a team like Ohio State, especially with all the weapons they have, you can’t make any mistakes,” linebacker Micah Parsons said.
Maybe the Lions have gotten their defensive mistakes out of their system. Or maybe the last two weeks have painted a more accurate picture of what their defense really is.
Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached at 814-946-7527 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.