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Penn State’s Defense On ‘Edge Of Greatness’ Following Dominant Rutgers Performance

Manny Diaz sat down with his defensive unit ahead of Penn State’s matchup with Rutgers and talked about Kobe Bryant.

Safety Ji’Ayir Brown said the defensive coordinator, over team breakfast, specifically mentioned Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality”: He’s Kobe Bryant on the court, but “Black Mamba” off the court.

“The aggression he had. You can just feel it when Kobe’s on the court,” Brown said on the field postgame. “Where’s your Black Bamba? Where’s your switch?”

It might be a silly comparison, but Diaz’s defensive schemes show that same aggression. Penn State blitzes a lot, causes havoc, and forces plenty of turnovers. It embodies aggressiveness. That was on full display against Rutgers.

The Nittany Lions came away with two scoop-and-scores and one interception, which was returned for a touchdown before being called back on a penalty. When the offense struggled early on, the defense was able to find its footing and put blue-and-white points on the board.

The Scarlet Knights didn’t score after the first quarter and Penn State’s defense is now allowing just eight points per game since its loss to Ohio State. James Franklin said postgame that his team is “getting better each week.”

While Ohio State and Michigan’s games against Maryland and Illinois, respectively, came down to the white, Penn State left no room for error against Rutgers. That’s clearly not so easy this late in the season.

“You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to want to do this, to want to play this game,” linebacker Curtis Jacobs said. “Normal people, they get to this point in the season and they probably would have quit.”

You have to be crazy to want to “bang heads every day,” as Jacobs mentioned postgame, but at the same time, you have to “stay sane,” as Kobe King said. Staying sane, level-headed, and consistent holds especially true as more and more players are missing due to injury.

King mentioned staying in a state of flow at this point in the season. He was one of Penn State’s defenders who scored against Rutgers, taking a loose ball 14 yards to the house. He said it was his first touchdown since little league football.

“It felt fake to me,” the linebacker quipped.

King’s scoop-and-score was one of many “havoc plays” the Nittany Lions pulled off against the Scarlet Knights. Four players had sacks, 15 tackles for loss showed up on the final stat sheet, and three turnovers were forced.

It felt like a whirlwind of big defensive plays.

“Coach [Diaz] actually said it this morning: We’re on the edge of greatness and we’re playing with greatness,” Jacobs said. “We’re getting to that point where we can call ourselves elite.”

“Elite” is a touchy word in Penn State’s program. But Jacobs was quick to add that the Nittany Lions need to continue to prove they’re at that level, mainly with consistent performances. Albeit not against the Ohio States of the world, the defensive has put together truly dominant displays over the last three games

Penn State’s 30 total sacks are now second only to Michigan in the conference. Sixteen different players now have a sack — a stat Franklin said he doesn’t know if he’s heard before. If you take away the 40-plus-point spots against Michigan and Ohio State, the Nittany Lions are allowing just north of 13 points per game.

Rutgers managed only 32 net yards on the ground and was four-for-19 on third down. It held the ball for nearly half of the game but managed just 10 points. Gavin Wimsatt completed 34% of his passes. Diaz’s game plan was suffocating, especially after adjusting following the first quarter.

It might not be at that “elite” level yet, but Penn State’s recent defensive performances show that it’s, as Jacobs said, “playing with greatness.”

With just one regular-season game left, maybe the defense is peaking at the wrong time. It’s playing with greatness, but what does that mean if just Michigan State and an unknown bowl opponent will be subject to it?

Well, for starters, the future is incredibly bright. Freshman Abdul Carter is a force to be reckoned with and, like the rest of his teammates, is only improving each week.

“He’s a great football player. He picks up stuff fast, he’s not scared, and he always wants to learn more and do more,” King said. “And he had No. 11, so I knew they believed in him.”

Carter had four total tackles against Rutgers, two of which were tackles for loss and one of which was a sack. In a defensive scheme that focuses so much on havoc, he’s the right man for the job.

Penn State also continued to flash its depth against Rutgers, rotating in skilled player after skilled player and emptying the reserves once things got out of hand. An impressive 30 players registered defensive statistics. Well, 31 if you count kicker Jake Pinegar’s tackle on a kick return.

We’ll see if the Nittany Lions can defense can prove that it’s great or even elite in the coming month or so. A New Year’s Six bowl appearance is certainly in play, especially after a chaotic week of college football.

But even if these flashy performances don’t fully pay dividends this season, a laundry list of impressive prospects will be waiting to pick up where this crew left off.

“We’ve got some depth,” Franklin said. “We’ve got some young, talented players.”

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected].

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