An Unproven Linebacking Corps Steps Up Against Buffalo
James Franklin’s Nittany Lions made notable improvements in a few key areas this past Saturday in their 27-13 win over Buffalo. Penn State’s front seven proved too dominant for the Bulls, who gave up seven sacks, a pair of forced fumbles, and an interception.
While a much-improved outing from the offensive line was more than welcome, Bob Shoop’s defense turned in a steady performance as well, seeing as it finally had the chance to catch a breather every once in a while.
Defensive Line Coach Sean Spencer’s “Wild Dogs” were ferocious despite the soggy conditions, but that was to be expected given the depth of talent at that position group. Brent Pry and his linebackers, on the other hand, had to do some shuffling following the loss of Nyeem Wartman-White to a season-ending knee injury.
The Nittany Lions were also without junior Brandon Bell, who was dealing with a minor injury that kept him from suiting up for the home opener. But rather than falter with their two most experienced players on the sideline, Pry’s bunch stepped up in a big way.
Despite the oxymoron, sophomore Jason Cabinda’s status as a young veteran made his transition to the inside all the more vital to the defense’s success. Cabinda notched six tackles (two solo) and added a pass breakup, playing the majority of the game before true freshman Jake Cooper came on in relief. Cooper had himself a solid afternoon as well, finishing with three solo tackles, one of which went for an 11-yard sack.
Fellow true freshman Manny Bowen was a regular on the special teams coverage units against the Bulls, but has the chance to see some spot duty on defense going forward.
Redshirt freshman Troy Reeder put together a stellar performance in only his second college game and first start, registering seven tackles, but was seemingly all over the field. Reeder’s got a nose for the football – a trait that has come to define the Linebacker U moniker – and whether or not Bell is ready to go against Rutgers this Saturday, the Wilmington, Del. native is in line for his second-straight start.
Junior Von Walker, who came to Penn State as a “run-on” under former Head Coach Bill O’Brien, has continued to impress on and off the field. Walker made headlines this summer when Coach Franklin announced he was being awarded a scholarship. The local Mill Hall, Pa. product continued to work hard and earn the respect of his teammates, who in turn voted him one of this season’s five captains. Walker started at outside linebacker Saturday, but was often seen in the flats covering Buffalo’s tight ends and wide receivers due to his speed and versatility.
When Walker wasn’t on the field, Shoop deployed plenty of nickel coverage. Various combinations of corners (Trevor Williams, John Reid, and Christian Campbell) and safeties (Jordan Lucas, Marcus Allen, Malik Golden, and Troy Apke) allowed Shoop to keep everyone fresh and take some of the strain off of Cabinda and Reeder.
The hard-hitting Lucas was also utilized quite a bit in Shoop’s signature “STAR” role, a hybrid safety-linebacker that’s asked to step up into the box and take some snaps on the outside.
Despite all the moving parts, Penn State’s defense gelled remarkably well no matter who was on the field. Watch for the linebackers to turn up the heat even more this Saturday under the lights against the Scarlet Knights.