Penn State Defense Posts B1G Shutout After Two Shaky Showings
Penn State’s defense has always been renowned for its dominance. It ranked among the nation’s best last year and at the beginning of this year. Things started to change two weeks ago, when Penn State allowed 38 points to the No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes, then followed it up by allowing 30 points in a one-point win over Maryland. There were reasons for the lapses (Ohio State is elite, Maryland’s quarterback is a bad matchup for Penn State), but the numbers don’t lie — it was a bad two weeks for the Nittany Lions. With doubt starting to mount, Penn State’s defense responded in the best way it could — pitching a shutout against Big Ten foe Illinois.
“We knew what we had to do, we wanted to have a shutout this game,” said Anthony Zettel, who addressed the media in his Halloween costume. “Even when they had their backup quarterback, a bit of a run threat came in, the young guys did a great job crashing the pocket and getting after him.”
The win came with every unit playing a part, and most notable may have been the defensive line. Illinois allowed eight sacks in its first seven games this season, then Zettel, Austin Johnson, Carl Nassib, and Garrett Sickels rose hell while their team totaled four sacks.
“We just preach getting to the quarterback and pressuring him,” Johnson said. “Obviously, he’s not gonna throw as well if he’s pressured, and/or sacked in general. It was just a good day for the whole defense. Got a goose-egg finally.”
“I think our defensive line really likes the challenges,” Zettel said on Illinois’ few sacks allowed. “I think we have a lot of skill and talent, and getting those challenges every week really motivates us.”
“We knew if we made the game one-dimensional — stop the run, they like to pass a lot — that’s what we tried to do, we kind of made the game one-dimensional, we rushed the passer as much as we could, stuff like that, and it worked to our advantage,” Johnson added.
The defense held Illinois to 167 total yards of offense (Penn State had 400). It averaged 1.4 yards per rush, and completed 14-of-37 passes for 130 yards. The line made the rushing attack a complete non-factor, but the secondary did its job in allowing what felt like zero big plays and limited Wes Lunt, Illinois’ impressive passing quarterback.
“I think that we match up really well,” Johnson said of Illinois’ pro-style offense. “I think the guys on the back-end played very, very well today, they didn’t really give up any big plays or anything like that. It was a pretty good game for us, on the back-end, and up front, just sacking the quarterback, getting pressure, making him uncomfortable.”
One statistic that may have left the unit wanting more was turnovers. Despite a thoroughly dominant performance, it only forced one turnover from Illinois. It came in the first quarter, when Penn State linebacker Troy Reeder read Lunt’s eyes and tallied his first career interception before returning it 44 yards.
“We got the play in, they were going pretty quick,” Reeder recalled.” I felt the route working behind me, I read the eyes of the quarterback, and was able to get in the passing lane. Something we work on all the time is our ball skills and stuff like that, even though it rarely happens, we were ready for it, and we just had a good play. The entire defense was throwing blocks all the way down the field. Hopefully I get in next time.”
All in all, it was a dream performance from the defense. Three games remain on the regular season slate, all against solid teams — Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State. With crucial results pending, Penn State’s defense picked the right time to get red-hot.