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Penn State Defense ‘Plays Up To Standard’ After Ugly First Quarter Against Illinois

Penn State football’s fourth victory of the season Saturday night couldn’t have gotten off to a stranger start.

Things looked great when Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson connected for a 75-yard touchdown on the Nittany Lions’ first play from scrimmage, and Keaton Ellis stepped up with an interception shortly after that. Clifford then fumbled, however, to hand an easy score to the Fighting Illini.

From there, neither defense could get a stop and the game was tied at 21-21 after the first quarter. While Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense was producing plenty (outside of the turnover), Brent Pry’s defense couldn’t stop a nosebleed.

“Coach Pry came over to us and gave us a stern talking to,” PJ Mustipher said postgame. “He told us ‘we gotta tackle better on the backend, we gotta be more aggressive and play on their side of the line of scrimmage.’ I think that’s what we did after Coach came over and sat us down and gave us a good yelling. Especially for the defensive line, we knew we had to play better and that wasn’t up to our standard.”

Mustipher was a key part of the Nittany Lions’ defensive rebound over the next three quarters of football. He finished with a sack, three total tackles, and 1.5 tackles for loss. As for Penn State’s defense as a whole, the group allowed just 74 total yards and zero points after a first quarter that included 199 yards and 21 points.

“We never want anybody to put points on the board against us. It happened and we had to rebound,” Mustipher said. “I don’t ever think we got off schedule or off track with what we were doing. I think we just kept our head down and kept working. I don’t think it was anything other than us just continuing to be focused on the task at hand.”

Along with Mustipher and several other big fellas up front, Brandon Smith had himself a huge night. The sophomore outside linebacker led the team with eight total tackles, including three for a loss. He echoed Mustipher’s sentiment that Pry helped light a fire under the group after the ugly start.

“I don’t know if there was a specific moment or play, but we knew the game couldn’t continue like that,” Smith said. “Coach Pry was pissed. He talked to us in the huddle, and after that we just had a mindset that we were not being denied. If we make this tackle in the backfield, we’re gonna do that. If we want a sack, we’re gonna do that.”

“That’s what we came out and did from there on out,” Smith added.

The last three quarters of Saturday’s win weren’t unlike how the back end of Penn State’s season has gone. After an extremely slow start, the defense buckled down and executed when it needed to. Thanks to that bounce-back mentality, the Nittany Lions are now 4-5 on the year and firmly in the mix for a bid at a bowl game.

“Really we just said enough was enough,” Smith said. “We were like that one kid that gets bullied. He has enough of it, and stands up to the bully. That was kind of the mindset we had.”

After standing up and grabbing four straight wins, the Nittany Lions now have a chance to play some more football. It’s unclear at the moment whether Penn State will accept a bid at a bowl game, but James Franklin explained after the game that he will meet with the captains and seniors to decide how they’ll go about that.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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