So much has changed for Penn State since its humbling 49-10 loss at Michigan on Sept. 24, that it actually seems like that game occurred in an entirely different season. Since the moment the Nittany Lions walked out of the Big House, the team has won five consecutive games thanks in major part to an explosive offense finding its identity and the play of Saquon Barkley rising to the level of a legitimate Heisman candidate.
While I could wax poetic about the newfound success of Penn State's offense under the tutelage of first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead (and trust me, I will), there's one person who has been a major part of the stunning turnaround who continues to fly under the radar- defensive coordinator Brent Pry.
While watching the Wolverines score at will in week four, I couldn't shake the thought that this was the worst Penn State defense I had seen in recent memory. While trying to conjure up some of the more poor defenses I had watched over the years, I began to realize that we may be in the midst of the worst Penn State defense of my lifetime. With this in mind, I began to wonder if the Nittany Lions would even make it to bowl eligibility, and began wondering which teams remaining on the schedule that Penn State could defeat in a shootout. While the defense was missing a few key components at that time, no one could have predicted the type of results from the past stretch of the season with the return of a few key components.
The complete turnaround since the last Saturday in September has been nothing short of remarkable. Not only have we witnessed continual improvement on a weekly basis, the defense now seems downright dominant. An undefeated Maryland team rolled into town with a high-octane offense, and left with their tails between their legs and only 14 points on the scoreboard. Ohio State came to Happy Valley with an offense littered with playmakers that averaged just under 50 points a game (the same offense that just dropped 62 on a top 10 team, mind you) and managed just 21. A physical Iowa rushing attack was completely shut down, managing a meager 32 yards.
Frankly, Penn State's defense has no business being this good at this point. The line is dominated with players in their first year of eligibility, along with many others with little to no experience entering the season. It seemed to be a reasonable conclusion this group would get shoved around by the physical Big Ten offensive lines until they had at least another offseason in the weight room to develop. But in a few short weeks, they have become an absolute strength. Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran have become a nasty duo in the trenches, while elders Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan have both reached their potential as productive edge rushers. Redshirt freshman Kevin Givens is showing the potential to develop into an All-American during his time at Penn State, and ends Shareef Miller and Torrence Brown are both poised to be the disruptive forces we've become used to in along line of elite pass rushers. That’s without mentioning the likes of redshirt freshmen Ryan Buchholz and Robert Windsor, valuable members of a deep rotation that oftentimes wears down the offensive line by the fourth quarter.
The linebackers have been banged up throughout the season, yet the players being forced into action only continually get better as they prepare to become the leaders in 2017 and beyond. The secondary is quickly become one of the best in the Big Ten, and with so much youth in the back four, it may not be long until they are considered one of the best in the nation.
It's obvious Pry is doing wonders in developing players throughout the defense. But what makes moving the ball on this defense such a difficult chore for opposing offenses is the disciplined, yet aggressive play of the Nittany Lions. Watch this defense closely and something becomes stunningly obvious- the members of the defense are almost never out of position. That takes an extraordinary amount of focus and discipline for such a young group of players. While everyone wants to chase down the ball and try to make a big play, they are always exactly where they should be to ensure a complete lack of holes for the offense to attack.
No one on this defense seems to ever be caught taking plays off. They play with tenacity each down, swarming to the ball with a punishing style. At times, opposing offenses seem to just want to get on the bus out of town, far away from the punishing blows that forced them into submission.
Focus. Intensity. A complete commitment to get better with each play. These qualities all start at the top, and it's time for Brent Pry to get his fair of credit for the Nittany Lions remarkable turnaround this season.
Things should only get better from here. In the second half of the Iowa game, I began shouting the eligibility of all the players on the field for the defense. There were times when the entire front four was comprised of freshman, with mostly freshman and sophomores in the back seven.
While Pry has done a masterful job in building a stout defense, he's only getting started. The offense has transformed into a high-powered attack led by a human highlight reel that gobbles up the headlines. But don't forget about the young defense, which could be on the verge of something truly special.