This time vs. Indiana, dominant Penn State defense leaves no room for error or debate

CRAIG MEYER
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State defenders Tariq Castro-Fields (5) and Ellis Brooks (13) tackle Indiana wide receiver Ty Fryfogle (3) during the second quarter of their NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 02, 2021. Penn State defeated Indiana 24-0. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Depending on one's rooting interests and interpretation of a series of images that were meticulously analyzed with Zapruder-like regularity, the Penn State defense did its job last season against Indiana.

With the Hoosiers trailing, 35-34, and attempting a two-point conversion to win the game in overtime, quarterback Michael Penix was forced out to his left and dove for the corner of the end zone, stretching his arm forward every inch he could toward the pylon. The referees ruled it a successful conversion and the Nittany Lions were off to a 0-1 start in an ill-fated season in which they would finish 4-5.

Facing Indiana for the first time since that infamous evening, Penn State's defense didn't leave much open for debate or painstaking review this time around.

In a 24-0 victory Saturday night, a win that pushed them to 5-0 on the season, the Nittany Lions were suffocating and overpowering while recording their first shutout since 2019. The Hoosiers finished the evening with just 264 total yards and averaged 4.6 yards per play. On the ground, they were limited to 2.9 yards per carry.

Their quarterbacks combined to complete only 48.5% of their passes, with Jack Tuttle replacing Penix in the third quarter after the Indiana starter was rushed to the locker room with an injury after being brought down hard on a tackle. It was the first time Indiana had been held scoreless since 2000.

Under the bright Beaver Stadium lights and in front of a primetime, national television audience, the Hoosiers were unable to gain traction. Penn State made sure they didn't.

"Defensively, I just think we're playing really good complementary defensive football," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "I don't know if we're overwhelming in any area, but the defense is doing their job, the linebackers are doing their job, the secondary is doing their job and I think the coaches are doing a tremendous job."

Another strong outing by the defense: Indiana didn't get its second first down, which came on a six-yard pass from Penix to Ty Fryfogle, until there was 9:27 remaining in the first half. Five of its first six drives went for a combined 49 yards, none of which went farther than 13 yards. Its offense didn't work its way into the Nittany Lions' red zone until the waning minutes of the third quarter. Penn State's defense was disciplined, too, going without a penalty for the game's first 53 minutes.

It was a continuation of what has been a strong season for the Penn State defense thus far. No team the Nittany Lions faced in their first four games compiled more than 367 yards, with two of them getting held below 300, or averaged more than 4.7 yards per play. Heading into Saturday, they were 15th among the 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards per play allowed.

The meaning of the complementary football Franklin referenced is relatively simple to his players.

"Everybody's doing their job," senior defensive end Arnold Ebiketie said. "The d-line is where they're supposed to. So are the linebackers and corners. We have confidence in each other. We know everybody's going to be where they're supposed to. At the same time, we're playing physical. That helps us do what we're supposed to do at the end of the day and the result shows."

Standing tall when needed: On two occasions, Indiana got into inside the Penn State 40, but in both instances, it came away empty-handed — once on a blocked 30-yard field goal attempt and then on a diving interception from redshirt sophomore Joey Porter Jr., the first of the North Allegheny graduate's college career.

Despite losing to the Hoosiers last season and giving up 36 points in the process, Penn State fared well defensively that night. Indiana gained just 211 yards on 62 plays, an average of 3.4 yards per snap, while rushing for just 1.6 yards per carry. Penix, for all of his late-game heroics, completed barely half of his passes and averaged 4.7 yards per attempt. The point total was the product of a sloppy offense that turned the ball over deep in its own territory, not a defense that was left to make the best of those unenviable situations.

Even when offensive miscues gave their opponent a short field with which to work, the Nittany Lions stood tall. After a Sean Clifford interception in the first quarter was returned to the Penn State 13, Indiana gained just nine yards, a drive that finished with Ebiketie stuffing running back Stephen Carr for no gain on a 4th-and-1.

"That's the standard," Ebiketie said. "That's what we do. We believed we were going to do so."

After a breakthrough 6-2 campaign in 2020, the Hoosiers have languished at times offensively this season. Entering the night, they were tied for 65th among all FBS teams in scoring offense and in their other game this season against a ranked conference foe, they were limited to 233 yards and six points in a 28-point season-opening loss to Iowa. Of the five teams Penn State has played this season, only Auburn (at No. 11) was ranked among the top 60 scoring offenses entering Saturday.

Good reason to feel confident: Still, given what they showed Saturday night and in the weeks that preceded it, the Nittany Lions have every reason to feel confident about not only their Big Ten championship aspirations, but also a defense that could guide them to those goals.

"What you're seeing in the red zone is what you're seeing out in the open field — we're playing good defense," Franklin said. "I know there are some people out there in the country that may be playing more suffocating defense overall, but our defense is something I hope all our fans and lettermen are really proud of."