ORLANDO, Fla. — Flash back to Aug. 4, almost a month before Penn State played a meaningful football game, on the day James Franklin met the media for the first time to preview a season that held so much promise.
Penn State would be OK, the fifth-year head coach said, if it could overcome its three biggest question marks: It’s defensive tackles and linebackers were two of them.
Flash forward to Sept. 18. Penn State just beat up on Kent State a few days earlier, and the Nittany Lions were preparing to open Big Ten play against Illinois. Franklin talked about what Penn State needed to improve to be competitive during the conference season, and the same theme emerged.
“I think we can be better at defensive tackle. And I think we can be better at linebacker,” he said.
He went on to talk about being “more reckless” on blitzes and “more aggressive” when rushing the quarterback.
The Nittany Lions are in the heat and humidity of Florida this weekend, preparing to cap the season in the Citrus Bowl against No. 14 Kentucky on Tuesday, and all anybody can talk about outside of Trace McSorley’s impact on the program is a defense that carried it down the stretch.
Emerging standouts: With Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens emerging as standouts at defensive tackle, the Nittany Lions’ front four that led the nation in sacks per game and finished fourth in tackles for loss.
With true freshman standout Micah Parsons seeing more playing time, the Nittany Lions’ linebackers helped solidify a run defense that got better as the season went along and allowed a shade less than four yards per carry.
How Penn State went from an offensive-minded program with a suspect defense in the first half of the season to a team carried into its bowl game by a resilient group of defenders can best be described as a tale of two halves, and the fact that only one starter doesn’t have eligibility next season might set up a change in identity for a team hoping to contend for a Big Ten championship again in 2019.
“We had seven or eight guys playing a bunch of football for the first time,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “We had some highs and lows this year, obviously. I think it was those guys dealing with some of that adversity and working through it, understanding where they really needed to get better and embracing that. That was a big piece of it.
"You know, it took a couple of setbacks to really right the ship.”
Righting the ship after losses: Guess where those setbacks fit in.
In back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions’ defense got torched, especially in the fourth quarters of those nip-and-tuck affairs. The Buckeyes piled up 389 total yards against Penn State, and a Spartans offense that proved to be sluggish down the stretch wound up with 418. The following week, even though the Nittany Lions wound up winning the game, they allowed Indiana to move the ball up and down the field, to the tune of 554 yards.
Through seven games, Penn State looked like it would have to win in shootout fashion if it wanted to turn its season around. But in the fourth quarter of that game against Indiana, there were glimmers of hope. Defensive end Shaka Toney had four sacks. Sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos added another. From that point, the Nittany Lions became a team that didn’t just rely on making plays behind the line of scrimmage; it proved it could change the game plan to consistently get it done.
“We’re a high-pressure team,” Pry said. “We want to give guys opportunities to make plays, and we do that through getting guys on edges. We talk constantly about playing on their side of the line of scrimmage and we’ve got to do things systematically to give them a chance to do that as well.”
In the first 27 quarters of the season, Gross-Matos had three sacks. In the 21 quarters since, he has five. His turnaround toward becoming a focal point of offenses has been a catalyst for the defensive line, which has seen its tackles-for-loss per snap ratio rise from 8 percent in the first six games to 11 percent over the final six.
“I think that we’ve tightened it up throughout the year,” linebacker Jan Johnson said. “I think it’s just people getting more comfortable with what we’re doing. The communication has gotten a lot better from the start of the season, and people have been executing better.”