Penn State’s Defense Must Persevere In The Face Of Adversity
Many were skeptical of how Penn State’s defense would perform this season.
Bob Shoop left for Tennessee and brought his genius defensive coordinating skills with him. It was uncertain how Brent Pry would perform in the new role and how the defensive line would produce after the departure of Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson, and Carl Nassib to the NFL.
In their absence, the defense would have to rely on the experience and leadership of its linebackers: Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda, and Nyeem Wartman-White. That didn’t last too long.
Cabinda was unavailable for the Pitt game with an undisclosed injury and Bell was injured in the game, thus unavailable for the Temple game. Wartman-White was healthy through the first two games and had seemed to return to his 2014 form. He was leading the defense in the absence of veterans in the Temple game when he went down with another season ending knee injury on a punt return.
We wish we could say these were the unit’s only significant injuries. Defensive tackle Kevin Givens went down in the opener against Kent State, as did defensive end Evan Schwan. Both would both get re-injured against Pitt. Junior cornerback Grant Haley was hurt early in the Pitt game and we haven’t seen him since.
If that wasn’t enough, safeties Marcus Allen and Malik Golden both got hurt in the Temple game. Thankfully, both returned for the rest of the game, which bodes well for their prospects of playing, but that’s what we all thought when we saw Wartman-White jog off the field on Saturday.
As for how all these injuries translated to the field performance? It could be worse, but it could also be a whole lot better.
This was most obvious in the Pitt game. Wartman-White slid to Cabinda’s middle linebacker role and Bowen took his place on the outside. Bowen is a physical player with a bright future ahead of him at Penn State, but he just doesn’t bring the same leadership and experience Cabinda does. This, combined with the loss of Bell, Haley, Givens, and Schwan made for a pretty poor defensive showing for a while.
Penn State gave up a whopping 341 rushing yards against Pitt and 432 total yards leading to 42 points. The key to winning Pitt was going to be stopping the run and forcing them to throw, playing into the strength of the Penn State defense — the secondary. That didn’t go as planned.
Pitt’s James Conner ran for 117 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Quarterback Nate Peterman didn’t look like a quarterback at all that game simply because the defense couldn’t stop the run. He threw only 15 times for 91 total yards and three touchdowns (which all came within the red zone). Peterman also ran the ball eight times for 52 yards. The defense couldn’t stop the run in the absence of so many players and Pat Narduzzi knew that, so Pitt ran the ball early, often, and effectively. The defense did have a great recovery in the second half which was a good sign, but the first half proved the future would be tough.
Against Temple, it rediscovered its form, holding Owls running back Jahad Thomas to only 38 yards rushing on 28 attempts while playing three back ups at linebacker. While it did give up 27 points, 14 of those came on extremely short fields, so when you put it in context, the defense gave a solid performance against a good quarterback considering all the injuries. Penn State showed it still has a few tricks up its sleeve that game in the emergence of walk-on linebacker Brandon Smith who recorded eight tackles while not even playing the whole game.
Unfortunately it wasn’t all great — the Nittany Lions gave up 286 passing yards against a mediocre Temple offense. This can certainly be attributed to the loss of experienced starters, but injuries are going to happen and it’s next man up in that case.
The Penn State defense has a daunting task ahead of it entering Big Ten play. The Nittany Lions face some of the best offenses in the nation in the form of Ohio State and Michigan. If it can regroup, prepare, and shut down the run like it did against Temple, Penn State might have a fighting chance this weekend. However, if it lets these injuries get the best of them and reduce morale, it could be a very long season. Here’s to hoping all injured Nittany Lions make a speedy recovery.