The large majority of the focus has been on Penn State’s offense this season — and for good reason. As we said a couple of weeks ago, this was a unit that returned quite a bit of talent, including a three-year starter at quarterback and an experienced offensive line. There were questions for sure, but the overwhelming feeling was that this Penn State team wouldn’t have much trouble scoring points.
Obviously, that hasn’t been the case. The Nittany Lions haven’t surpassed 35 points since September 21 against Illinois — something that didn’t seem possible prior to the season, and certainly didn’t seem possible after Penn State put up 45, 51, 63, and 63 points to open the year.
Remember when Franklin talked about becoming “uncomfortable?” Well goodness, this offense has done a fantastic job of putting uncomfortable decisions right in front of him. Because whatever the reasons are for the struggles, it’s something Franklin (plz stay) will have to iron out over the offseason.
But stagnant offense or not, Penn State has found a way to an 8-3 record and the No. 12 ranking. A big reason for that? Brent Pry and the defense.
Going into the year, the Nittany Lions were tasked with replacing nine starters: Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren, Ryan Buchholz, Jason Cabinda, Manny Bowen, Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, Troy Apke, and Marcus Allen. Of course, non-starters like Amani Oruwariye, Kevin Givens, and a healthy John Reid meant Penn State wasn’t totally lacking experienced players, but by and large, this was a defense that was seeing an abnormal amount of turnover.
When the season began, it certainly looked like a unit that was still figuring out what it was. The fourth quarter collapse to Appalachian State and the shaky three quarters against Illinois didn’t give way to much confidence, but two months later and somehow, the defense is the strength of this Penn State team.
The defensive line has been borderline dominant in recent weeks. Of course, we expected a strong season from Shareef Miller, but how good has Yetur Gross-Matos been? Whether it’s racking up tackles for loss when defending the run, or getting after the quarterback on passing situations, Gross-Matos has taken that “next step” as a complete defensive end.
Similar things could be said on the inside. Kevin Givens continues to be Kevin Givens, but let’s give props to Robert Windsor too. Sure, Windsor has always been a solid depth option, and someone that you knew was going to go 110% all the time, but like Gross-Matos, he’s turned himself into a complete defensive tackle. 6.5 sacks and 10 TFLs? Those are numbers defensive line coach Sean Spencer has to be excited about.
The strides this season can be seen throughout the defense. John Reid overcame his early season struggles to be the John Reid of old. Garrett Taylor continues to round out his game, and should enter next season receiving All-Big Ten consideration. Cam Brown is slowly but surely become somewhat reliable! Cam! Brown! Reliable! All in the same sentence!
And of course, there is double-sticks: Micah Parsons.
I will be honest, I wasn’t sure how the Parsons-to-linebacker move would work out. And by “wasn’t sure” I mean I was pretty adamant that he would end up back at defensive end. As it turns out, I was very wrong as Parsons has been extremely productive this year. The true freshman has totaled at least 5 tackles in 10-of-11 games, and has really taken his game to the next level in recent weeks. While he isn’t at Gross-Matos’ all-conference level of play (yet), it’s a similar trajectory where Parsons has clearly taken that next step since mid-October. As a result, the defense has flourished.
Of course, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Rutgers aren’t exactly the crème de la crème of offenses in college football, let alone the Big Ten. But for what many expected from the Penn State defense this season, it has surely surpassed expectations. In a season where it has felt like expectations haven’t been met, the defense is a good reminder that there is still much to be thankful for from this season.