Penn State has reached the midway point of its season and has a bye week before No. 2 Ohio State comes to Beaver Stadium for a Saturday night showdown Oct. 22. It’s a good time to take stock of what has transpired for the Nittany Lions and what might lie ahead.
While the offense was overhauling with a new system, Brent Pry wasn’t expected to make massive changes from what the departed Bob Shoop was doing the past two seasons. The challenge at the beginning of the season was replacing three NFL draft picks on the line, but that quickly shifted to linebacker.
|BY THE NUMBERS||2016||Big Ten rank||NCAA rank|
|3rd down %||37.5%||9th||56th|
|20+ yard plays||25||T-11th||T-66th|
|50+ yard plays||2||T-4th||T-28th|
Pitt racked up 341 rushing yards against Penn State by mixing sweeps to the sidelines and inside runs against a defense left completely off balance. Containment became a huge problem. Then Michigan put up 326 yards with blunt force and power that Penn State couldn’t match.
There was some progress against Minnesota, another team with a strong running game, and then the defense held Maryland to 130 yards less than its season average.
Penn State’s plan to replace Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel has clearly been a by-committee approach. Ten defensive linemen have at least seven tackles, and eight have between 1.0 and 2.0 sacks. Six of those 10 are underclassmen and three others are juniors.
DEFENSIVE LINE GRADE: C-plus
Jason Cabinda, Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White looked like a solid if unspectacular linebacking corps, but all three were lost to injuries by early in Week 3. Cabinda might be back soon, White is out for the season and Bell’s status is is unclear.
Walk-on Brandon Smith became the starter at middle linebacker, and just earned Big Ten defensive player of the week honors with 14 tackles and an interception against Maryland. Sophomore Manny Bowen leads the team with five tackles for loss, and looks like a future star. Sophomore Jake Cooper showed promise but is also now injured.
Defensive back Koa Farmer moved to outside linebacker, and the Nittany Lions can basically play a hybrid base/nickel defense when he’s in the game. Freshman Cam Brown probably isn’t ready, but he’s had to play a lot because of the injuries. This could be the most improved group by season’s end … if the current guys can stay healthy.
LINEBACKERS GRADE: B-minus
This was expected to the strength of the Penn State defense, and that has certainly been the case. Safety Marcus Allen and cornerback John Reid could both land on all-conference teams, with Allen boasting a Big-Ten leading 57 tackles. That’s 13 more than any other defensive back.
Some of it is the team’s struggles against the run, but the Nittany Lions are 16th in passing yards per game allowed. They are 42nd in quarterback passing rating allowed.
This group has dealt with plenty of injuries as well. Two starters, Malik Golden and Grant Haley, have combined to miss three games. The top two reserves at cornerback, Christian Campbell and Amani Oruwariye, are both currently injured.
The three best quarterbacks on the schedule are all in the second half (Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Iowa’s C.J. Beathard and Indiana’s Richard Lagow), so the secondary should face tougher tests in the weeks ahead.
SECONDARY GRADE: A-minus
There were obvious issues against Pitt and Michigan, but otherwise Pry’s group has done enough to help the offense figure some things out and keep the Nittany Lions on track for a successful season. There were big defensive plays against Minnesota and Maryland when that game was still in doubt.
OVERALL DEFENSE GRADE: B
Check out the grades for other aspects of Penn State’s 2016 season: