Penn State Defense’s ‘Havoc Plays’ Overshadow Weak Second Quarter Against Central Michigan

On the heels of its tone-setting display against Auburn in week three, Penn State’s defense entered another flashy performance in its 33-14 win over Central Michigan – two interceptions, a pair of fumbles, and a couple of sacks. But when the team exited the first half having lost the second quarter 14-7 to the Chippewas, the energy in Beaver Stadium was a negative one.

“At the end of the first half, we didn’t take advantage of some of the opportunities that we got,” sophomore cornerback Kalen King said, in a postgame press conference.

King highlighted missed tackles – especially in the run game – as a key deficiency. King said the defense was allowing opposing ball carriers to pick up “too many extra yards,” especially after contact. With last season’s FBS rushing yards leader, Lew Nichols, on the other side, that flaw was a consequential one.

The Nittany Lions allowed 14 unanswered points in the second quarter off two convincing scoring drives. Between the two drives, the Chippewas had five plays for 10 or more yards.

Heading into the locker room, the team reflected the fans’ dissatisfaction. On the defensive side, veteran leaders took it upon themselves to reset the unit’s mindset. Among those leaders was captain and fifth-year senior PJ Mustipher.

“I was kind of on them a little bit. I was kind of yelling,” Mustipher said. “I probably can’t say what I said to them – lot of cuss words – but, just telling them, this isn’t our standard.”

Last year, the experienced defensive tackle went down with a season-ending injury amidst Penn State’s season-opening undefeated run. The Nittany Lions lost six of their last eight games, including a definitive Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas. Entering the game, Penn State was a 28-point favorite and the Associated Press’ No. 14 team in the country, but appeared to be struggling with unranked Central Michigan – evoking images of last year’s disaster against Illinois.

“I know from my experience, if you take it for granted, the opportunity will slip and you’ll be wanting them back,” Mustipher said.

When asked if the halftime speech had the desired effect, Mustipher left no uncertainty.

“Did they score again?” Mustipher said, with a smile. “Nah, they didn’t score again.”

Allowing zero points (as Mustipher proudly reminded the media), Penn State’s defense was solid after the halftime break. The Nittany Lions continued forcing turnovers, with a fumble recovery in each quarter.

The aforementioned Nichols averaged 142.2 rushing yards per game last season, but the Nittany Lions managed to hold him to 67 Saturday. On the passing side, Central Michigan only managed 147 second-half yards.

Penn State’s pass rush also remained prevalent, as five-star freshman Dani Dennis-Sutton picked up two sacks in the fourth. Though the Nittany Lions failed to log a sack in the first half, make no mistake: the pressure was there.

Blitzes from safety Ji’Ayir Brown were catalysts for both interceptions. Forcing the quarterback to an uncomfortable throw doesn’t always show up in the individual stat columns, but it pays dividends in the team’s success.

One such interception came from redshirt freshman safety Zakee Wheatley. Wheatley was anointed Penn State’s “Takeaway King” in preseason camp. With his first-quarter pick marking the third takeaway of his season, the moniker rings true.

“We practice a lot of turnovers during practice,” redshirt freshman safety Zakee Wheatley said. “When we get in the game, it’s not really much thought. We just go to punch the ball out, or get the ball, and just cause havoc.”

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s constant demands for creating havoc have caused problems for teams so far this season, and they were certainly instrumental in Penn State’s win Saturday. However as the Nittany Lions finish non-conference play, their slate of remaining games boasts matchups with the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, and Minnesota.

In order to foster continued success, the defense will have to prove its penchant for causing chaos isn’t a case of bullying comparatively weaker opponents. Per head coach James Franklin, there is still work to be done on that front.

“Defensively, we got to be better on third-and-long,” Franklin said. “We’ve done a really good job of getting people in the third-and-long situations and we’re letting them out of it or we’re giving up too many yards and creating manageable fourth down situations.”

Still, the Nittany Lions have forced eight turnovers in their last two games. It’s starting to feel like the defense is genuinely clicking.

“We’re in a really good position,” King said. “We got a lot of players from our team making plays for us… We’re ready.

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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 [email protected] or @SamFremin on Twitter.

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

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