Penn State’s defense — missing starters in several key places — was much maligned after Pitt tore through it a week ago. Then the Nittany Lions lost two more starters in the first five plays Saturday against Temple.
It had the potential to be a calamitous afternoon, but a patchwork defense helped Penn State fend off Temple in a 34-27 victory. Several unsung defensive players had big games for the Nittany Lions, but the injuries and lack of depth are a massive concern as the Big Ten schedule begins next week.
The Nittany Lions began the day without four starters on defense: defensive end Evan Schwan, linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda and cornerback Grant Haley. Both starting safeties, Malik Golden and Marcus Allen, left the game with injuries early in the first quarter, though they did eventually return.
Penn State’s lone remaining healthy starting linebacker, Nyeem Wartman-White, was later injured while the Nittany Lions were returning a punt. He eventually got up off the turf and did some quick calisthenics, but never returned to the contest.
While it seemed odd that Penn State had its only healthy starting linebacker playing special teams, coach James Franklin said afterward the team was in “punt safe,” so the defense stays on the field.
The problem is compounded by Penn State’s overall situation at linebacker. The Nittany Lions have seven scholarship linebackers, which is easily two or three shy of where a typical Power 5 program would be.
While the NCAA sanctions have been lifted and Penn State is allowed to have 85 scholarship players in 2016, the issues that come from the sanctions never go away immediately. Other elite college football programs have gone through the same problems. Southern California, for instance, still had serious depth issues the year after the Trojans’ full allotment of scholarships were restored.
Even with three reserves playing at linebacker, and half the secondary nursing injuries from earlier in the game, the Nittany Lions cobbled together a strong defensive performance.
The final score is incredibly misleading. Temple started two drives inside the Penn State 10-yard line. One came after an interception, and the other after a quirky punt glanced off Amani Oruwariye while he was trying to block a gunner and the Owls recovered it at the 1-yard line. The Owls’ first touchdown came after a 67-yard pass to tight end Romond Deloatch. Golden was already out of the game, and Allen was hurt on that play.
After that big play, Penn State’s defense settled in. Both Golden and Allen returned. The results weren’t spectacular, and Temple’s self-inflicted problems because of penalties helped out.
A week after being dismantled by the Pitt rushing attack and a year after Temple ran all over them as well, the Nittany Lions held the Owls to just 38 yards rushing on 28 attempts.
All of the new linebackers contributed. Walk-on Brandon Smith had eight tackles, sliding into the middle linebacker spot with Cabinda and Wartman-White not available. Sophomore Manny Bowen had three tackles and one of Penn State’s five sacks. Sophomore Jake Cooper had five tackles.
If Cabinda, Bell and Wartman-White are unavailable, those three are likely to be Penn State’s starting linebackers moving forward. Freshman Cam Brown has played some on special teams, and maybe he can earn enough trust from the coaching staff to join the rotation. He might be one more injury away from playing a lot whether he is ready or not. Von Walker, a senior who was a walk-on but has earned a scholarship, is also available.
Penn State also didn’t have Saquon Barkley for about half of the game against Temple, but running back is one place the Nittany Lions can survive a short-term injury crisis.
The next team on the schedule is Michigan. The Wolverines are not going to let the Nittany Lions with penalties and missed open receivers nearly as much as the Owls did.
The offense had a solid game against Temple, even without Barkley. He did return and produce one incredible run in the second half.
But if the Nittany Lions can’t get healthy on defense, all of the improvement from last season on offense might not matter against some of their better Big Ten opponents.