Sean Spencer’s ‘Wild Dogs’ Reload, Wreak Havoc By Committee
Penn State’s defensive line wasn’t supposed to be this dominant after losing three starters to the NFL. Rather, its 12-deep rotation is taking the Big Ten by storm.
Through 11 games, Sean Spencer’s “Wild Dogs” have racked up 24 of the defense’s 33 sacks. For comparison’s sake, Michigan State’s defensive front heads to Beaver Stadium with seven of the team’s lackluster 10 sacks on the season. Garrett Sickels has almost as many sacks as the entire Spartan line with six. Michigan State even had a 284-minute stretch without getting to the quarterback this season.
Despite having to replace Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson, and Anthony Zettel, and Tarow Barney, Penn State is making big plays with surprising efficiency. Michigan State had to replace a star of its own in Shilique Calhoun, while also dealing with an injury to stud junior Malik McDowell, who’s missed the last two games and remains not listed on the depth chart. Four freshmen have had to step up in his absence.
This year’s Nittany Lions, on the other hand, sub in and out with little to no noticeable drop-off in production. More dogs are simply getting a chance to eat. Sickels said after the 45-31 comeback win at Indiana that the whole unit recognized it needed to put the pedal down in the fourth quarter.
“We knew the game was on us,” Sickels said. “That’s something that Spence always preaches with the defensive line. How disruptive we are in a game and how many plays we make really has an effect. He thinks the way we play is infectious and I believe that too.
“Our goal each week is to get three turnovers and we’d like to score on defense,” the redshirt junior said. “The constant pressure — that’s the big thing with our d-line, we’re just relentless and we always try to make plays.”
Of course, redshirt sophomore end Torrence Brown did just that, putting the icing on the cake in Bloomington with a scoop-and-score — the first of his Penn State career. “It was really special. I hadn’t scored a touchdown since high school,” Brown said with a touch of Tuscaloosa twang.
The Alabama native, who has a pair of forced fumbles and recoveries, discussed the benefit of rotating so many linemen, especially during late-game situations. “It helps us cause we’re always fresh. Every group that goes in, we have the same expectation. Each group is ready to make big plays and I think that’s helpful for us.”
The Nittany Lions have received big contributions from a four-man contingent of redshirt freshmen in Kevin Givens, Shareef Miller, Ryan Buchholz, and Robert Windsor. “Kevin Givens has been playing well all season, he’s a big factor on our defensive line,” Brown said. “He’s always locked in in meetings, always asking questions, so I feel like that’s helping him on the field.”
The quartet boasts a combined 18 tackles for loss heading into an enormous 3:30 p.m. showdown with the Spartans in Beaver Stadium. But they aren’t the only youngsters turning heads around these parts. Penn State has a group of five linemen who are redshirting right now that could make a big splash next fall. Shane Simmons, Shaka Toney, Daniel Joseph, Ellison Jordan, and Antonio Shelton will join Spencer’s already-deep rotation in 2017. Evan Schwan, who’s enjoying an excellent sendoff season with 5.5 sacks, is the only Wild Dog scheduled to be honored on Senior Day.
“I roomed with Shane in camp,” Sickels said. “He’s a strong kid, he’s got great explosion. Shaka, same thing. They’re very quick off the ball and they’ve been using their hands well. It’s gonna be exciting to see those guys, where they’re at down the road with their careers. The technique stuff that they’re focusing on with Spence is really paying off for them.”
Sickels and Schwan are the unquestioned leaders of a group that also features a host of veterans. Fellow starters Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran, both redshirt juniors, have done an impressive job of creating disruption at the point of attack from defensive tackle. JUCO transfer Tyrell Chavis provides a different type of run-stuffing presence on the interior, seeing action in all 11 contests. The Richmond, Va., native has another year of eligibility remaining, while redshirt sophomore Antoine White continues to improve each weekend. Walk-on Colin Castagna has even seen the field in four games, adding some fresh legs off the edge.
“We have a big group of veterans to keep the ball rolling no matter what’s going on,” Sickels said. “Those young guys are buying into that same mentality, everyone do their job and relax and we’ll come out with a win.”