In statistically the most dominant performance a Penn State defense has authored against a Big Ten opponent, on a night in which 13 of its opponents’ 14 drives were finished within five plays, in a game he admitted might be the most impressive stifling of an offense he had ever been part of, Jason Cabinda had a whopping three tackles.
Three. For a guy who was averaging more than 10 per start.
“And that’s fine with me, man, as long as it’s a win,” Cabinda laughed. “There were plays where I don’t think I even got to engage with blocks because our guys got in the backfield so fast, making plays happen.”
Talk about the offense as the big reason for Penn State’s turnaround if you choose, because so many stories have been written and fan discussions conducted about that reality. It has grown increasingly difficult, after all, to ignore Joe Moorhead’s scheme or that running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley are face-of-the-program type of players.
Talk also about confidence from a monumental upset over Ohio State, or the motivational stylings of head coach James Franklin that have kept his team focused ever since as other possible catalysts for a seven-game win streak that has the No. 8 Nittany Lions seventh in the College Football Playoff rankings and a win and some help away from the Big Ten Championship Game.
But ask players, and the rapid improvement of a defense that entered the season young, untested and breaking in a new coordinator is just as big a reason the Nittany Lions will be striving for their first 10-win season since 2009 on Saturday against Michigan State.
“I think Brent Pry has done a great job the whole year long, as well as the defensive staff and then the players,” Franklin said. “We had some question marks going early in the season. We had some challenges with depth at the linebacker position with injuries. (Rutgers) was a mental toughness game, a physical toughness game. And that’s really what we’ve been all year long.”
Key stats: There is no obvious statistical measure valued by coaches in which Penn State’s defense hasn’t improved since September.
— In their first four games, the Nittany Lions allowed 387.5 yards per game. That number dipped more than 14 yards in October. In three November games, they’re allowing just 258.3.
— Opponents gained 5.4 yards per snap in September. That number dropped to 4.9 in October, then 4.2 this month.
— In September, when the Nittany Lions were embarrassed by Pittsburgh’s James Conner and Quadree Henderson and overwhelmed by Michigan’s physical rushing attack two weeks later, they allowed a whopping 4.9 yards per rush. That number dropped nearly a full yard in October, to 4.0. In November: 1.8.
— Perhaps most importantly, in September, opponents averaged 32.8 points per game. That number fell to 21.3 in October and is at 15 in November.
Franklin concedes the domination against Rutgers — the Lions allowed only 87 yards — was exacerbated by the wind and snow showers that made moving the football difficult. But in fairness, Penn State’s offense didn’t seem to have much difficulty piling up 549 yards in those same conditions.
The Nittany Lions have also seen quarterback sacks rise, from 10 in September to 13 in October. Statistically, they are on pace to top that in November with a strong finish against the Spartans.
Health, defensive line lead way: Franklin and players say there are two big factors contributing to that improvement.
First is health. They played three games in September without Cabinda and two more without him and the cerebral strongside linebacker Brandon Bell, decimating the linebacking corps.
Second is the defensive line. It lost three starters to the NFL after last season and had little in terms of experienced depth to help out the lone returning starter, defensive end Garrett Sickels. But fellow end Evan Schwan emerged as an effective edge pass rusher, as has redshirt freshman Shareef Miller.
The Lions now have a deep, and effective rotation at defensive tackle, with veteran Parker Cothren leading the way.
“Everything is clicking right now,” Cothren said. “We’re definitely playing at a higher caliber, and I think that’s a testament to our team not giving up at the beginning when things were shaky. Now, things are going good, and instead of being complacent, we’re working harder now. That’s taking us to the next level.”