It was supposed to be Penn State’s strength this season, the stalwart that would carry it through the tough times, be the difference when things got sweaty.
For most of the season, the Nittany Lions defense had been that good. Its last two performances have generated plenty of cause for concern, though.
No. 9 Penn State survived upstart Indiana, 34-27, on Saturday at Beaver Stadium mostly because of what its offense mustered at key moments, namely a more than nine-minute drive in the fourth quarter capped by quarterback Sean Clifford’s 1-yard touchdown plunge that put them up 10 with 1:44 to play.
Coming into their Nov. 9 battle of then-unbeatens with Minnesota, the Nittany Lions ranked in the top 15 in the nation in most every major defensive category, including scoring defense (No. 2), rushing defense (No. 2), team sacks (No. 7), total defense (No. 9) and third-down defense (No. 15). Since, the Golden Gophers and Hoosiers have attacked their secondary, throwing for a combined 710 yards and piling up 58 points against a defense that had allowed just 47 in its first five conference games.
Powerful Ohio State looms: And coming up Saturday for the Penn State defense: No. 2 Ohio State, which leads the nation in scoring offense (51.5 points per game), and quarterback Justin Fields, who is fifth in the nation in pass efficiency. Not surprisingly, the Lions have been installed as 19 1/2-point underdogs.
“There are a lot of areas for improvement,” senior safety Garrett Taylor said Saturday. “We came out a little bit slow in that first quarter, but then we turned it around. I think we had a couple plays here and there where one guy wasn’t doing their job, so I think we shot ourselves in the foot a little bit.”
Penn State’s struggles the last two weeks, coaches and players say, are centered in two areas: Once-sure tackling that has gotten sloppy, and increased miscommunication in the secondary.
Communication issues: The latter showed on several occasions against the Hoosiers. Twice, junior receiver Ty Fryfogle beat the Penn State secondary for long catches; on a game-tying 38-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, Fryfogle was largely uncovered after safety Jaquan Brisker blitzed, running past linebacker Cam Brown and leaving cornerback John Reid to try desperately to chase him down as he ran unimpeded to the end zone.
“I think we’re one of the best defenses in the country when we communicate, when everybody is on the same page,” cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said. “That was just miscommunication.”
But, Fryfogle later beat freshman cornerback Marquis Wilson for a 46-yard gain to the Penn State 4-yard line on a desperation fourth-and-8 play in the closing minute of the game.
Tackling problems: Penn State looked like one of the most sure tackling teams in the nation over the first two months, but head coach James Franklin conceded Saturday that it has become an issue for Penn State, particularly on the perimeter against teams that have found quick passes to gifted receivers can counteract Penn State’s pass rush.
“I think we’ve got some guys that are throwing shoulders, and against a lot of competition, that will work,” Franklin said. “But as you continue to play really good players, that’s not going to get the job done. That’s an issue in college football, that’s an issue in the NFL and that’s an issue we’ve got to get better at. I can guarantee you, we’ll get plenty of work on it.”
High-scoring era: Franklin did add that, in the current era of college football, high scoring games are the norm; while Penn State doesn’t want to give up 31 and 27 points, those aren’t exactly egregious point totals.
Four other teams in the top 10, in fact, have allowed 27 or more points in at least one of their last two games, and No. 1 LSU and No. 10 Oklahoma have done it in both. Franklin also pointed out Indiana’s passing offense has been one of the hottest in the nation, and despite allowing four pass plays of 38 yards or more, Penn State’s defense allowed just 206 yards on quarterback Peyton Ramsey’s other 37 pass attempts.
“There were just little miscues,” linebacker Jan Johnson said. “We just have to make (teams) earn it a little more.”