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Penn State’s Defense Finds Its Swagger Against Auburn

When Penn State football’s 2022 schedule was released, many fans identified the team’s trip to Auburn as a heavy challenge. Few expected the onslaught that was the Nittany Lions’ 41-12 victory.

Though the offense produced five touchdowns on the ground, it was the defense’s handling of its opponent’s offense that made the biggest difference.

In the first two games of the season, Penn State’s defense only managed three sacks and a solitary turnover. Against Auburn alone, the Nittany Lions racked up six sacks, two interceptions, and three forced fumbles.

Safety Ji’Ayir Brown was responsible for a sack, forced fumble, and interception in Saturday’s contest. Brown, who led the NCAA in interceptions last season, said the defense found itself against Auburn.

“Today I think we really found our identity,” Brown said. “The Manny Diaz identity.”

When asked to elaborate, Brown said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz preaches the importance of wreaking havoc.

That mentality has certainly been on display this year, especially in the relentless blitz calls and personnel packages featuring up to seven defensive backs. But, there were concerns when it didn’t immediately show up in the stat columns.

In Jordan-Hare Stadium, Penn State defenders did not elicit any of those concerns. Auburn’s standout running back Tank Bigsby was held to just 39 yards, while the Tigers’ quarterbacks spent a lot of the game avoiding loose pass rushers.

Defensive end Chop Robinson picked up a sack, a forced fumble, and many more pressures throughout the day. Robinson said the team’s increase in defensive production came as a result of specific preparation throughout the week by Diaz and his group.

“That team had bad ball security,” Robinson said after the game. “Their running back and their quarterback… We knew coming into this week. Watching film, they run with the ball very loose.”

The team found a glaring weakness in their opponent and concocted a plan to exploit it. Robinson explained the first defenders to make contact focused on containing the tackle, while subsequent defenders would try to punch or strip the ball out.

“All the stuff Manny told us was going to happen, started to happen,” Brown said. “That’s where all the excitement and enthusiasm’s coming from.”

Above all else, Penn State’s defense demonstrated an element of swagger. After the hostile SEC crowd took exception to physical hits against their quarterback, the Nittany Lions seemed to get energized. The squad reveled in the raining hellfire of boos, jumping around and motioning for more.

Diaz is no stranger to swagger. Under his reign as defensive coordinator and eventual head coach, the Miami Hurricanes introduced a diamond-encrusted turnover chain shared by the team’s biggest playmakers. In a similar vein, Penn State has introduced a mallet, given out to the player with the previous week’s hardest tackle.

Even with Saturday’s success, James Franklin and his team are unwilling to get complacent. After the game, Franklin identified individual plays and game-wide trends that the Nittany Lions must work to improve. Penalties, pressures coming up empty, and over-pursuit of mobile quarterbacks were all mentioned by the head coach.

Still, the swagger gives a different edge to the defense than in recent years. Entering the year as the team’s biggest question mark, the defense is now confident, hungry, and having more fun. The result Saturday was a big win against a relevant opponent and it could pay dividends in the future.

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About the Author

Sam Fremin

Sam is a senior from Ashburn, Virginia, majoring in journalism and political science & minoring in German and creative writing. He is a Dallas Cowboys fan who relishes the misery of Eagles fans. All hate messages can be sent to sam@onwardstate.com or @SamFremin on Twitter.

He may or may not read every single comment he gets.

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