Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda put the college football world on notice in Penn State’s 24-21 upset of No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.
Linebacker U is back.
You may have read some of the idle chatter in the offseason that the program was no longer among even the five best linebacker producers in the country. That the likes of Miami, Southern California and even Michigan had taken over.
And you’d have been forgiven for buying the narrative in the wake of losses against Pittsburgh and Michigan earlier this season in which the Nittany Lions looked outclassed by opposing offenses. The Panthers and Wolverines smashed the front seven to an average of 45.5 points and 473.5 yards per game.
But Bell, a senior, and Cabinda, a junior, were having none of that against the Buckeyes after missing most of those two defeats with injuries and proved that linebackers remain the engine that powers this program when it’s at its best.
The pair combined for all five tackles on Penn State’s tone-setting first defensive stop of the night and were relentless the rest of the way. Bell finished with a game-high 19 tackles including a sack and a tackle for loss. Cabinda slotted in behind him with 12 tackles — two for loss — and the sack on Ohio State’s penultimate offensive play that put the Buckeyes in an impossible fourth-and-23 situation.
Perhaps more significant is the mayhem they caused even when they weren’t making plays themselves.
The Nits’ young defensive line was able to get consistent pressure on quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate J.T. Barrett all night, and that’s a result of Ohio State having to account for the two veteran linebackers in a way Pittsburgh and Michigan largely did not — Cabinda missed both games while Bell was injured early against the Panthers and was totally absent against the Wolverines.
Their play also freed up sophomore linebacker Manny Bowen — playing in place of the injured senior Nyeem Wartman-White — to make a lot of plays, as he finished with 11 tackles, including one for a loss.
The result was Penn State’s most complete defensive performance in the post-NCAA sanction era, holding one of the highest-scoring teams in major college football to fewer than 20 points.
Because they’ve missed so much time, it’s unlikely we’ll see either guy finish the season on any All-American or even All-Big Ten lists, and they have a long way to go simply to be discussed among Penn State’s all-time greats at the position.
Their performances probably won’t be the most vivid memories that remain from this game either. Penn State’s frantic touchdown drive at the end of the first half to stay in the game — and the blocked field goal to take the lead late in the fourth quarter — will probably be what we remember most, and for good reason.
Make no mistake, though. Bell and Cabinda are the difference between Penn State being able to compete with a team as talented Ohio State and being able to beat it, and the proof is in how different the defense has looked without them for most of the first half of the season. Only running back Saquon Barkley’s absence would be as conspicuous.
Penn State probably will be favored in each of its last five games, even before upsetting Ohio State.That’s a credit to the good work it’s done to improve on offense and the growth of the depth options, including Bowen and Brandon Smith, who stepped up and played admirably behind Bell and Cabinda in wins against Minnesota and Maryland.
Stellar play at linebacker has been the mark of truly special Nits teams for decades, though, so it should be no surprise that the night coach James Franklin’s young program took a huge step forward is the night Cabinda and Bell matured into stars before our eyes.
If Penn State goes on to run the table and win 10 or 11 games, it will be because those two, like so many linebackers before them, transformed the defense from one that has a chance to be good to one that is good.
That is the mark of Linebacker U, and it’s back. Indelibly.