Saturday may have been a time to bid farewell to Penn State’s seniors — but it also may have been a time to welcome an underclassman into the ranks of the elite.
Sophomore defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos walked off a frozen, muddy field with a clean backside and the most season tackles for loss by a Nittany Lion in a decade. His 3.5 tackles for loss against Maryland on Saturday gave him 20 for the year, the most since former first-rounder Aaron Maybin hit the same mark in 2008.
“It’s a great honor, I guess,” the soft-spoken Gross-Matos said with a smile. “What does it mean to me? I don’t know; it feels good. I don’t know how else to say it.”
The 6-foot, 5-inch, 259-pound Gross-Matos likes to let his play do the talking, and it had a lot to say in Saturday’s 38-3 win. The second-year player disrupted any run that tried to bounce outside and put a halt to any sweeps. Maryland, which rushed for 693 yards over the previous two weeks, managed just 74 yards on the ground against Penn State.
And while the entire defensive line deserved a hearty tug on the victory bell, it was once again Gross-Matos who led the team in backfield stuffs. And, for the third time in five games, he once again led all defensive linemen in tackles (4).
“Yetur is just a freak athlete,” senior cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “The scary thing is, his ceiling is through the roof.”
Added senior linebacker Koa Farmer: “Yetur’s just a monster. Maryland was a big jet team, and the way he stopped the jet — it was like taking candy away.”
Entire defensive line set to return: Fans chanted for Trace McSorley under the bowels of Beaver Stadium. And it was the seniors who took a final victory lap around the field. But if that was the last hurrah for Penn State’s past, it was a glimpse into the future for Gross-Matos and the line’s potential.
The sophomore sat on the sideline in the game’s waning minutes, next to linemen who all have eligibility next season, and stared at the big screen. His day was done with a handful of minutes left after he ran the Maryland running game into the ground.
He was able to kick back and enjoy himself. After the game, he dutifully accepted a green ti leaf lei from Farmer, a Polynesian, to ward off evil. He put it on — even if he wasn’t quite sure what it was — and carried his aw-shucks demeanor into the interview room.
Did he know he was closing in on Penn State history? “I had no idea actually. Coach mentioned it to me two weeks ago.” And what did he tell his coach once he found out? “I’ll get there.”
Head coach James Franklin put him in the same category as legendary athletes Saquon Barkley and McSorley, in terms of players who never question anything and just work. Gross-Matos, after all, was still sporting Farmer’s lei because, well, Farmer told him to. “I’m pretty obedient,” Gross-Matos said with a laugh.
“He’s got all the things you’re looking for,” Franklin added.
Joins elite company: Gross-Matos’ TFL mark comes around less often than senior day, although it’s a milestone that could be overshadowed with McSorley’s final home game. Since 1975, only 11 Penn State players have reached 20 tackles for loss. (Even sack leader Carl Nassib mustered just 19.5 in 2015.)
The names are well-known; some legendary, some great. There’s Bruce Clark and LaVar Arrington, Courtney Brown and Maurice Evans. With three more stops in the backfield, Gross-Matos will tie Brown’s 1998 mark of 23, which is good for third all-time. As it stands, he’s in a five-way tie for eighth on the single-season list — with players like Todd Atkins and Arrington.
Starred over last seven games: Gross-Matos’ development this season has been nothing short of extraordinary. He felt lost at times last year, but the game gradually slowed down for him this season. Although he couldn’t pinpoint an exact moment, he’s been a different player in these last seven games. Over that span, he has 16 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks to go along with 41 tackles.
He can reportedly run a 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds. And, even on senior day, those who have been with Penn State the longest couldn’t say enough about him.
Said fifth-year senior safety Nick Scott: “He could be one of the best to ever come through here.”