Maybe the ultimate irony is that even Penn State’s defense feared they had found another way to blow a game.
A defensive end with a bead on a defenseless quarterback. The time winding down. The end of the game and inarguably the Nittany Lions’ biggest win of the season in sight.
Then there went an Iowa offensive lineman, with the ball, up the field.
It worked out well for Penn State, of course. Defensive end Shareef Miller’s crushing hit on Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley might not get remembered as a sack, and the ball offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs somehow picked out of mid air and returned desperately upfield will go down as a near-heart-attack-inducing play for Penn State players and fans alike. But in the end, the Nittany Lions got to celebrate the end of a wacky 30-24 win over the No. 18 Hawkeyes at Beaver Stadium.
“All I know is, when I hit him, the guy I beat, he ended up with the ball,” a somewhat angered, somewhat confused Miller vented. “I don’t even know how. I’ve got to watch the film. They’re talking about, he pitched it. I’m like, ‘There’s no way he pitched that.’”
Miller lay on the ground after the play, to the point some believed he must’ve been injured. He denied that after the game, simply saying that’s where he camped out while he wondered what was going on.
“That last play confused me too,” fellow end Yetur Gross-Matos said. “He hit the quarterback, and I looked up, and there was this huge offensive lineman running with the ball. I was saying, ‘He better not score. If he scores ...’”
PSU defense slams door for second straight game: It’s a long story to tell you this shorter one: Penn State’s defense had pretty much the same feeling in that moment that fans have had in the fourth quarters of every game the Nittany Lions have played for the last month. Something that can go wrong typically does, and it does so in dramatic, almost unthinkable fashion.
For what it’s worth, this is two consecutive games, two consecutive chances for the opposition to put together a late drive and win, and two consecutive games in which coordinator Brent Pry’s defense slammed the door for the Nittany Lions.
That should be a much bigger story than it is in Happy Valley.
They were supposed to be the side story in 2018, and here’s guessing that many around Penn State would have been happy enough if it stayed that way. But with the offense continuing to struggle with the game on the line, the Nittany Lions’ young defense has overcome most every difficult situation it has been put into in the last few weeks.
Playing well enough to win: Except for that final eight-minute stretch against Ohio State in which Penn State’s tackling abandoned it, this defense has actually played well enough to win. It allowed just 21 points against Michigan State, a number the Nittany Lions offense has topped every time but one in the last 30 games. It withstood a stretch in the clutch against Indiana on Oct. 20 in which it was on the field for all but a few seconds in the final half of the fourth quarter, picked up a devastating pass rush, allowed the Hoosiers to get within a score only after a 15-play drive and then slammed the door on them as time expired.
Against Iowa, they were even better. The Hawkeyes somehow scored 24 points without scoring a traditional offensive touchdown, and even before that last burst by Miller forced Stanley to do something desperate on that last play, the Nittany Lions made a huge play to keep Iowa out of the end zone, when safety Nick Scott picked off a pass at the 1-yard line.
“I think the biggest thing young guys have to understand is, regardless of what (ranking) is next to your name, week in and week out — especially in the Big Ten — it is hard to win,” Scott said. “Everybody is on scholarship. Everyone is well-coached. You can’t make silly mistakes, and you have to play harder and smarter each week. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Really, that’s been the foundation for Penn State’s defensive resurgence.
"Gutsy job:" Head coach James Franklin called it a “gutsy” job by that defense, and it’s an interesting choice of words. Coaches use it often when they know not everything was perfect, that not everything was dominant, but that, perhaps, they played for stretches better than maybe they were expected to play. Penn State’s defense certainly falls in that category.
This was a year the offense was supposed to dominate and the defense was supposed to not put them in positions where they had to do the superhuman. But as the offense has struggled to find its rhythm in October, Penn State has been able to rely somewhat on a defense that will return nine starters next season and likely get to add more playing time from two potentially impactful backups in 2019, linebacker Micah Parsons and safety Jonathan Sutherland. Gross-Matos had two more sacks and four more tackles for loss this week, Miller played the run as well as he rushed the passer, and cornerbacks John Reid and Amani Oruwariye led the way in the secondary.
“I think the biggest difference for us has been the effort,” Gross-Matos said. “Early on in the season, coach Pry talked about 11 guys flying to the ball all the time. We weren’t really as consistent with that as we are now, with the effort away from the play. We know now you can make something happen if you get there that wouldn’t happen if you couldn’t.”
Defense leading way: It all came to fruition on that last play, with a quarterback nearly sacked but not, and a lineman running for daylight. But for those who wondered what Penn State had to play for after losses to Ohio State and Michigan State took them out of the national championship hunt, the defense is proving that 2018 can be a foundation for something bigger on that side of the ball, a return to Penn State’s roots, perhaps, when it needs it to get where it wants to go.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.