Coming into this season, it was a prevailing thought that the Nittany Lions would take a step back defensively. After all, the team lost nine starters from the Fiesta Bowl championship squad. All four of the defensive backs, two of the linebackers, both defensive tackles, and one of the defensive ends. That is a LOT of lost production.
On the upside, Brent Pry likes to rotate players across the defense, so the new starters had seen a good amount of playing time. But being the backup vs. being the starter, being the guy is huge.
And guess what? The defense wasn’t all that great to start the season!
App State scored 38 points and amassed 451 yards.
Pitt only scored 6 points, but still managed to put up 245 rushing yards.
Illinois logged 411 yards, 245 of which came on the ground.
After struggling against the run in the early part of the season, Ohio State came to town. And for the first time all season, the defense actually looked competent! Sure, the Buckeyes ultimately won the game, but it was after the defensive starters ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. Oh, and OSU managed just 119 total rushing yards in the game.
The nadir of the season had to be the Michigan State game. Perhaps demoralized by the late loss to Ohio State, the entire team seemed to sleep walk through the game, with the defense giving up a late touchdown to give the Spartans the victory. There was no energy from the team, no looseness. Just a sense of despair, and doom and gloom. This team will never hold onto a fourth quarter lead.
Then the Indiana game happened. A back and forth affair saw the Nittany Lions outgained both through the air and on the ground. But for the first time in a long time, Penn State got a fourth quarter lead - and held on. It wasn’t a pretty game by any means - the fact that it took until the final drive to put the Hoosiers away caused a lot of complaints from the Nittany Lion faithful.
But something changed for the team during that game. A week after giving up 330 yards through the air, and 224 yards on the ground to Indiana, Iowa showed up and managed just 350 yards total. As our own bscaff broke down yesterday, the defense played like a Penn State defense of yore. Linebackers launched themselves at the point of attack. Defensive linemen shed blocks and got to the ball carrier. The secondary came downhill in a hurry.
And what did you see from the sidelines? These guys having fun. Jumping around, getting each other amped up, something that has been missing for WEEKS.
Yes, the team is still young, and will continue to make mistakes. Penalties, dropped passes, incorrect formations, missed tackles - these are all hallmarks of an inexperienced team. But each week they’re getting better. And most importantly, they’re having fun doing it.