James Franklin pulled no punches about what he thought heading into the season, but after Saturday’s win against Pittsburgh, he had little choice but to concede what has become evident.
Even with what he has called one of the deepest defensive end corps in the nation, and for all their size and length and depth and speed, Penn State’s defense just isn’t making opposing quarterbacks feel uncomfortable enough.
“We came into the season really feeling like that was going to be a strength of ours,” the Nittany Lions head coach said. “It hasn’t necessarily shown up that way.”
Not against actual Football Bowl Subdivision competition, anyway.
After piling up a whopping seven sacks in the season-opening win against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Idaho in the season opener, the Nittany Lions haven’t even sniffed that sort of production in their following two games.
Against Buffalo on Sept. 7, Penn State managed just one sack of Bulls quarterback Matt Myers. While they came up with three against the rival Pitt Panthers on Saturday, all came in the second half and only one came from that vaunted defensive line, and that came when end Shaka Toney dropped Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett on the final drive.
Still, those three sacks of Pickett came on 51 pass attempts and a handful of other dropbacks he turned into rushes.
“We didn’t think we were getting a good enough pass rush in the first half,” said linebacker Jan Johnson, who had one of the other sacks. “I think it was pretty obvious (the quarterback) was sitting back there comfortably having time to look down field and throw the ball. ... We’re not giving our defensive backs any relief on coverage. We focused on trying to get after the quarterback in the second half.”
Over the last two games, Penn State has averaged one sack every 20.8 pass attempts, a number Franklin vowed to study as the team hits the first of this season’s two bye weeks leading into the Sept. 27 Big Ten opener at Maryland.
Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, who was expected to be the leader of the pass rush, did not register a single tackle against Pitt, much less a sack.
Defense strong in other areas: Franklin did add that Penn State is playing strong defense in other areas. Pittsburgh, after all, rushed for just 24 yards on 25 carries, and Buffalo’s running game — which led it to 10 wins last season — averaged just 3.2 yards per carry against the Nittany Lions last week.
One of Franklin’s star defenders said the Nittany Lions defensive front might be a victim of its own reputation.
“When you have the best defensive line in the country, you’re going to get a lot of max protection,” linebacker Micah Parsons said. “That’s exactly what (the Panthers) were doing in the beginning. They were getting chipped, back ends staying in. That’s what happens when you’re the best.”
With conference play nearing, the Nittany Lions will have to find ways to get to the quarterback anyway, and prove that.