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A Special Defensive Performance Leads The Way For Penn State Football

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Brent Pry had his troops ready to play versus the Hoosiers.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Penn State offense has gotten the lion’s share of attention this season. On Saturday it was the defense and special teams that held steady as the offense searched to find its groove.

Saquon Barkley is special anywhere that he stands on the football field. His first touch was the first play of the game, the opening kickoff, which he took to the house. It was a special teams touchdown, which took away the opportunity for Penn State’s offense to take the field. For many Penn State fans that were on the fence about Barkley’s involvement in the kick return game this was the point where the apprehension subsided.

It took just three plays for the Penn State defense to make its presence known. Troy Apke and Christian Campbell combined on the tackle. Campbell stripped the ball out officially, but both he and Apke were after it. Jason Cabinda was there to pick up the fumble and run it back to the Indiana 39 yard line.

The defensive play set up a short field for the Penn State offense. Six plays later Trace McSorley ran the ball in from one yard out to score the second touchdown of the game. It took just 39 yards from scrimmage, and 2:45 seconds of offensive possession, for the Lions to take a 14-0 lead early in the game.

On the next possession Indiana held the ball for six plays before punting. The Lions responded with a six-play drive that ended with a punt as well. However, on the punt by Blake Gillikin, dangerous punt returner J-Shun Harris was stripped by Irvin Charles. Nick Scott scooped the ball up and ran it into the end zone. It was a recurring theme for the Lions on the day; one player makes the play, a host of others waiting in the wings to assist. PSU had a 21-0 lead with fewer than nine minutes expired from the game clock.

On the next series Brent Pry’s defense forced a three and out and once again the ball was in the hands of Joe Moorhead’s offense with a head full of steam and momentum on its side. Initially the drive was stopped after three plays, but during the punt Indiana roughed Blake Gillikin, giving the offense new life. With the extra set of downs, Trace McSorley guided the team down the field and into the end zone, stamping the effort with an 8-yard touchdown pass to DaeSean Hamilton. It was Hamilton’s first of three touchdown receptions on the day, along the way to becoming the all-time leader in receptions at Penn State as well.

The special teams and defensive plays masked some inconsistencies in the Penn State offense early in the game. The team got off to a nice 28-0 lead, quickly, but still drives were not being sustained by McSorley and company. There were grumblings in the crowd concerning the effort in the first half.

Luckily the defense never stopped coming. Jason Cabinda made a great play around the edge to stop a drive in the first quarter.

For the game Cabinda finished with 14 tackles, one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. Playing opposite one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten, Tegray Scales, Cabinda showed once again that he deserves to be in the conversation when discussing the best defensive players in the league. Scales finished with 11 tackles, 3 sacks, and three tackles for a loss on the day.

As the offense remained in neutral for most of the first half, the defense continued to swarm the Indiana offense. Check out this reaction to a pass behind the line of scrimmage. The first wave of defenders includes one of each from the secondary, linebackers, and defensive line with a few other blue jerseys circling for leftovers. It was the type of effort that the defense gave all day.

Following a couple of late scores for the Hoosiers to end the first half, it seemed as though Penn State was tied or behind to some people even though the team led 28-14. Once again the defense helped calm this anxiety in the stands. Amani Oruwariye, back from an injury that kept him out of action for the past two weeks, got his second interception of the season on the opening drive of the second half.

Tyler Davis missed a 21 yard field goal wide right on the next possession. Davis went on to make a 45 yard try later in the game, and then had a 42 yarder blocked after that. Davis was one of the most reliable kickers in the country last season but has struggled of late. Some of his issues have been with snaps and blocking, but his foot has been less than perfect as well.

With the Lions leading by 17 in the third quarter it was once again the defense that gained the advantage for the team. Marcus Allen was among a swarm of defenders, causing another fumble, and Parker Cothren was there to grab the ball for Penn State.

Four plays later Trace McSorley hit DaeSean Hamilton for another touchdown, extending the lead to 24 points and all but ending the game with a couple of minutes left in the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter the Lions began to hit on the long balls, with Juwan Johnson adding a 24 yard grab, Saeed Blacknall chipping in with an 18 yard reception, and Hamilton snagging his third touchdown of the day. The Indiana defense never stopped overloading to stop the run, and the Lion offense was able to make a games worth of plays in the final quarter.

Quick Hits

  • A high number of players registered a defensive statistic on the day for Penn State. 29 total players showed up in the stat sheet. Some young players got significant minutes throughout the game. Shane Simmons had a quarterback hurry, Shaka Toney had a tackle, Antonio Shelton recorded three tackles on the final drive of the game, including one for a loss. The three freshmen lineman will be a major part of the Lion’s defense in the coming years and as this season moves on.
  • Nick Scott saw extended time at safety and Ayron Monroe saw the field more than he has this season thus far. It is nice to get the reserve safeties as much playing time as possible to add depth and comfort to the back layer of the defense. Lamont Wade and Yetur Gross-Matos played meaningful minutes long before mass substitutions were made at the end of the game. The subtle wrinkle of youth is beginning weave its way onto the field for Brent Pry, which can only help the team in the future.
  • On a day where the team had great contributions from the special teams side of things, and also Jason Cabinda and Saquon Barkley had extra-special performances in spurts, it is becoming clear that the Penn State team are not pretenders when it comes to being contenders for a national title. Add to that the fact that quarterback Trace McSorley has a couple of chunks of brass in his pocket, coach Franklin and his staff have the making of something special.