When James Franklin took control at Penn State, one of the biggest question on the minds of fans was how he would replace longtime defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
Johnson, considered by many to be the best defensive line coach in the country, was not retained and opted to join Urban Meyer on staff at Ohio State.
In steps Sean Spencer.
Spencer, who served as Franklin’s defensive line coach at Vanderbilt, followed him to Penn State and while it was evident from the start that he was a charismatic leader, there were questions about whether he’d be able to produce the kinds of results that Johnson had.
It didn’t take long for Spencer to show the Penn State fan base that he was up to the task.
In his first season in charge, Penn State ranked third nationally in rushing defense (100.5) and second in total defense (278.7) and Spencer helped Anthony Zettel become a breakout star.
The next year, the Nittany Lions led the FBS in sacks per game (3.54) and was sixth in tackles for loss (8.2) while former walk-on Carl Nassib recorded 15.5 sacks in his first year as a starter and won the Lombardi Award as well as being named a consensus All-American.
Spencer’s “Wild Dogs” have continued to excel since, topping 40 sacks in 2016 and 2017, marking the first time since 2005-07 that Penn State had done so in three consecutive seasons.
Heading into the 2018 season, expectations were mixed for the defensive line. The Nittany Lions had a ton of talent at defensive end, but with Ryan Buccholz and Torrance Brown forced to retire with career-ending injuries, it was a young unit that lacked depth both at the end and tackle spots.
With Shane Simmons out do to injury and some of the younger defensive tackles struggling to acclimate, Penn State was gashed by a number of teams early in the season.
It took until the Ohio State for Spencer’s unit to really show up.
The Nittany Lions held the Buckeyes to just 4.0 yards per carry constantly harassed quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
Things looked encouraging heading into the bye week, but then old issues crept back up. With Ellison Jordan already missing due to injury, redshirt freshman Fred Hansard went down for the year against Michigan State and offensive guard CJ Thorpe was forced to take reps at defensive tackle.
The unit seemed to get back on track against Iowa, but struggled to get going late in the game as the Hawkeyes made a comeback bid. Then Michigan dominated the line of scrimmage in Ann Arbor.
Last week, however, seems to have been a turning point.
With their backs against the wall, the Wild Dogs came up huge in a must-win against Wisconsin.
Spencer’s unit recorded five sacks against a Wisconsin offensive line that had allowed just 13 all season coming into the game. Both Shareef Miller and Wisconsin native Robert Windsor recorded a pair of sack, while Yetur Gross-Matos had a sack and a forced fumble. Subtract Jonathan Taylor’s 71-yard touchdown run on the first drive that was in large part due to a bad angle by a Penn State linebacker and the Nittany Lions allowed the Badgers just 4.1 yards per carry. That’s more than two yards less than the 6.19 yards per carry they average on the year.
The next two games could be an opportunity for the Wild Dogs to feast against a pair of one-dimensional offenses.
Rutgers comes into Saturday’s game with a rush offense that ranked 107th in the country, while true freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski has thrown for just four touchdowns to 16 interceptions.
Maryland, meanwhile, has a solid rush offense that ranks 19th in the country, but will be forced to faced a stacked box as starting quarterback Kasim Hill is out for the season with a torn ACL and backup Tyrrell Pigrome is just 17 of 31 for 195 yards on the year.
With the season quickly winding down, it appears the Wild Dogs may be on the prowl.