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Perfect Combinations: Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson

For a SBNation-college-wide post opportunity, we were asked to write about our team's perfect combination. Who better on the Penn State Nittany Lions to write about than the best DT tandem in the country?

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

So far in this very short season, we've lauded the defensive play of one lineman--and it's not one that any of us really expected: one Carl Nassib, a former walk-on defensive end, with impressive bloodlines to be sure, but without the sky-high preseason expectations that many predicted for those around (and behind) him on Sean Spencer's wild dog unit.

But, really, why is that? Why has Nassib, whose play has been incredibly effective and impressive to be sure, been so stellar?

It's because of the perfect combination of guys he's lining up next to--the one-two punch of Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson.

Preseason, in this year's version of We Are!, I wrote about the defensive tackles. I spoke about their effectiveness, their athletic prowess, and how game-changing their play could and would be.  I wrote about how any offensive coordinator and line coach worth their salt would have to double (and, in some cases, triple) team one if not both of them--thus freeing up the defensive ends to make plays and look like world beaters. And I wasn't the only one calling for a breakout year for the duo.

So far, after a limited sample size of two games, that is exactly what has happened, and Nassib has been the benefactor of the game planning that opposing coaches are doing to try to mitigate the wrecking ball nature that Zettel and Johnson can have on opposing offenses.

Zettel was Penn State's lone preseason first team All-anything, and he got a ton of accolades headed into the season--for good reason, as he's a freak of nature, on the field and off. Earlier this week, now-disgraced Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood called him out as the best player on Penn State's team, and there's a reason why he's been basically mitigated so far this year (only five tackles per game)--he's not under the radar in 2015 as he was in 2014. Last season, he was an unknown, a mystery; teams didn't know who this wacky converted defensive end was with the quick hands and the ability to grab picks as a defensive tackle, and so they didn't factor him into their game plan.

This was their mistake, of course, as Zettel had an All-Big Ten redshirt junior campaign that saw him log a total of 42 tackles (28 solo), 17 for loss, 8 sacks and a whopping three interceptions--ridiculous for a lineman. And though he's been a comparative disappointment, but only because of our insane expectations and not because of his play, he was literally the reason why Nassib himself had the impressive tight-end-like pick against Buffalo last week when Zettel tipped the ball in the backfield, leading directly to a Joe Julius field goal.

Johnson himself would be getting a lot more love were he not lining up next to Zettel.  As a redshirt freshman, before seeing a single down in live action in the blue and white, Phil Steele listed him as a preseason all-American honorable mention--based purely on his potential. And it's the realization of that potential that makes him the other half of arguably the best defensive tackle tandem in the nation.

Because so many defenses are keyed on Zettel, Johnson's had a little more room in 2015. He's already gotten more sacks than last season--a year ago, he had only one in thirteen games played, and through two this season he's at 1.5.  He's well on his way, too, to destroying his overall tackle for loss number from 2014 as well--he had a good 6 TFLs in 2014, but has already logged 3.5 in just two games in 2015. He's had 15 total tackles on the year, on schedule to make his 49 total tackles he logged last season--but that's with being subbed out significantly this year in the Buffalo game—and still managed to have a career-high nine tackles.

If that's not half of a perfect combination, I'm not sure what is. Big ten offensive lines, watch out--and opposing quarterbacks, you've been warned.