Penn State’s dominance of Maryland on Saturday at Beaver Stadium notwithstanding, the defense hasn’t been as good as it has been timely in the team’s first six games.
In four wins against Kent State, Temple, Minnesota and Maryland, the Nittany Lions have allowed an average of 20 points, which is pretty good.
They’ve also allowed chunk plays of 67 yards against the Owls, 37 yards and a touchdown against the Golden Gophers and 66 yards and a touchdown against the Terrapins.
Those big gainers are reflective of the vulnerabilities that superior Pittsburgh and Michigan offenses exploited more completely in Penn State’s two losses, racking up 92 points and piles and piles of yards.
It’s a unit prone to breakdowns for two reasons: No. 1, it has underclassmen and inexperienced players at several spots, especially along the defensive line, and No. 2, it has sustained a lot of injuries, especially in the linebacking corps where senior Nyeem Warman-White is out for the season while Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell — among Wartman-White’s few fellow upperclassmen — have missed most of the season with injuries, if less severe ones. Problem No. 2 has amplified problem No. 1.
So how did Penn State get around to keeping those points-allowed numbers so low in its wins?
It made the right plays at the right times.
Against Minnesota, the Nits intercepted a third-and-9 pass from their own 12-yard line to thwart what appeared to be certain points for the Gophers in a 20-20 game early in the fourth quarter.
On the next defensive series, after Minnesota had moved the ball well again, they forced a field-goal attempt by stiffening at their own 19-yard line, giving the offense the room it needed to answer with less than a minute left to force overtime.
Finally, the unit forced another field-goal attempt with a three-and-out in that extra session, which offered all the help running back Saquon Barkley needed to end the game with a touchdown run.
Good, timely stuff.
Then against Maryland, a team the defense largely dominated, Penn State got key stops at moments that could have significantly changed the momentum in the the opposite direction.
The first came after the Terps blocked a punt down 17-7 late in the first half and set themselves up with first-and-10 from the Penn State 15-yard line. A score there would have gotten Maryland within one possession before halftime and put the Nits on their heels a little bit.
Instead, converted linebacker Koa Farmer drilled Maryland signal caller Perry Hills, forcing a fumble that Penn State recovered to thwart the threat.
Later, with Maryland attempting a fourth-and-2 from Penn State’s 22-yard line early in the fourth quarter and the game slipping away from the Terps down 31-14, the defense stuffed Jake Funk for a loss of 5 and a turnover on downs that pretty much sparked the rout the game would become as the second half wore on. This after they had sniffed out another fourth-down attempt in the third quarter with the Terrapins down just 24-14.
These are the kind of plays Penn State is going to need to have a prayer against Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State, the three teams that really stick out on the second-half schedule.
It’s almost certain that these teams are going to score points on Penn State’s defense. The Buckeyes have 5-star prospects at almost every position, the Hawkeyes have a lot of experience — especially behind center with quarterback C.J. Beathard — and the Spartans rolled up 55 points when these teams met last November in East Lansing.
So success is probably going to depend on that familiar pattern of making the right plays in those moments when the momentum of the game can swing wildly in one direction or the other.
That is perhaps the biggest difference between this group and the more highly ranked units that propped up a putrid offense for the past couple of years. While those units excelled at keeping other teams off the board, they weren’t quite as good at taking control of the game with big plays themselves.
This team has shown that knack. And while that’s no promise the second half of the season will play out the same way as the first, it is a good sign.
Perhaps Penn State will get a little healthier in the next couple weeks and bring back Cabinda, Bell and some of that experienced leadership that has been lacking on this team at times.
Until then, though, it’s the big plays that will make the difference for this defense They’re hard to make, but if the Pitt and Michigan games taught us anything, it’s that trying to go mano y mano with teams of this caliber is a bad idea. Solid opponents will win that battle eventually.
The key is flipping the table over when it most needs to be flipped and demoralizing opposing offenses to the point that mismatches become the dogfights we’ve seen the past couple weeks at Beaver Stadium.