Penn State’s Defense Continues Trend Of Dominance In Commanding Victory Over Rutgers
Heading into the 2021 season, James Franklin had coached 49 games against Big Ten opponents as the face of the Penn State football program. While Franklin holds a favorable record in matchups facing conference foes, his squads have never come close to holding a Big Ten team to zero points on the final scoreboard — that is before the current defense came into semblance ahead of his eighth campaign in Happy Valley.
In eight conference games, Brent Pry’s defensive unit has pitched two shutout performances, with its latest coming in Saturday’s 28-0 rout of Rutgers on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium. With the addition to the first onset, a 24-0 victory over Indiana on October 2, the Nittany Lions defense now is the first group responsible for two conference shutouts since the program first joined the Big Ten in 1993.
The Nittany Lions needed defensive stability more than ever on Saturday, with 35 players in-and-out of the lineup throughout the latest week of practice with flu-related symptoms. Furthermore, an injury-riddled offense that has consistently struggled to sustain drives has hindered the unit’s ability to maintain its bend-don’t-break mentality for a full 60 minutes.
Despite the constant challenges, the defense forced seven three and outs and one turnover, even without key pieces, including starting linebacker Curtis Jacobs.
“Our defense played unbelievable,” Franklin said postgame. “Curtis was one of these guys, that literally at breakfast, [Tyler] Elsdon starts to throw up, and Curtis starts to throw up. They hadn’t had [the flu], so it was like the defense got hit with it early in the week, and then they were able to get through it, and then the offensive got hit late and weekend.”
“I literally have never been through something like this especially at this point in the season when you’re already banged up,” Franklin continued. “So, just a ton of respect for our guys and how they handled it. They never flinched and never panicked. Our defense has been playing great all year long. I’m just I’m really proud of the guys. There’s not a whole lot more to say than that, but that’s as much adversity as I’ve seen a program withstand in one week.”
Heading into the matchup with the Scarlet Knights, it was no secret that Greg Schiano’s run-heavy offense would rely on veteran running back Isaih Pacheco. In his fourth season as the feature back in Piscataway, the senior totaled 554 yards on the ground through 146 carries heading into Saturday. With a 107-yard performance against Michigan, Pacheco has proven that he can hang with the some of the nation’s most ferocious run defenses.
On six carries, Pry’s crew limited the shifty back to just seven yards, good for a measly 1.2-yard per carry average. As a team, Rutgers accounted for only 67 yards on the ground, a far inferior number compared to its season average of 146.3 yards per outing.
“Every time the defense steps on the field, we know what it takes to get the job done,” defensive end Arnold Ebiketie said. “We have to be more physical than them, and we have to look at the other team, and what they want to do. With Rutgers, they wanted to run the ball, and we were not going to allow them to run the ball. We knew we had to stop the run, and that’s what we did. They had to scramble and try to come up with new things. At that point, we dominated the game.”
After forcing a late-game fumble for the second time in the same number of games, Ebiketie’s maturation has led to his quick development as of one of the most disruptive pass rushers in the Big Ten. With five tackles, including a sack and 1.5 hits for a loss, the fifth-year transfer took it upon himself to pick up some of the slack caused by early offensive hurdles.
“The offense was struggling early on, and the defense was doing pretty well and going three and out consistently,” Ebiketie said. “I think it’s big for us to have the offense’s back just showing them if the defense dominated, we don’t even have to score that many points to win. They were able to pick it up a little bit more in the second half, and at that point, we were playing complementary football, offense, defense, special teams.”
Derrick Tangelo, a fellow transfer who plays alongside Ebiketie at defensive tackle, also felt the same token of responsibility early in the matchup. Knowing that the season-hurrah at Beaver Stadium possibly marked the final time 32 Nittany Lions would have the opportunity to don the basic blues at home, Tangelo didn’t want to conclude in shutout fashion just for the defense, but for the entire senior class as a whole.
“This was our last game in Beaver Stadium, you know, for a lot of the seniors,” Tangelo said. “We just really wanted to send the guys out, such as myself, the right way. So, you know, the whole week, we just [were] preparing and preparing. In the game, we were saying ‘this is our last half in Beaver,’ ‘this is our last fourth quarter in Beaver,’ you know, how do we want to go out? I just feel like everybody just really locked in on that moment, locked in on different moments throughout the game, and we came out with the win.”
For Franklin and Pry, another defensive shutout clearly displays the progress the side of the ball has made throughout their tenures at Penn State. If the season were to end today, the defense would finish as the most productive unit in the post-sanction era of Nittany Lion football.
Without taking its most recent matchup into account, Penn State ranks ninth in the country in scoring defense, and fourth in the nation in red zone defensive efficiency. To the coaches, the steady improvement and signs of progress are rewarding. But, to many of the players who actually get the job done, the success is just a product of sticking to the process.
“I didn’t know that, but that sounds cool,” Coziah Izzard said about the program earning its second conference shutout of the season. “I guess it doesn’t really mean much to us. We played the game, did our jobs, and came out with a win.”
“It’s always good, you know, having a donut on the scoreboard,” he added. “But, we got the win and we’re just happy it came out well.”
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“To any current underclassmen reading this: learn the fight song, cheer loud, and tailgate early. You’re lucky to be a Nittany Lion.”
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