Penn State Football Defense ‘Having Fun’ As Season Progresses
Penn State football’s defense is red hot.
In a year when the Nittany Lions haven’t always been able to rely on their offense to consistently score points, the defense has held the team together. Through five weeks of the college football season, many college football fans and pundits have made the claim that Penn State has the best defensive unit in the country.
If those analysts are wrong, they aren’t far off. Penn State is ranked third in the nation for scoring defense (9.6 points allowed per game), second-best in yards allowed (201.6 yards per game), best in passing yards allowed (136.4 yards per game), and the list goes on.
The Nittany Lions have been excellent since the start of the season, but defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said he felt it took some time for the group to come into its own. Against West Virginia, where Penn State allowed 15 points, and for parts of the game against Delaware, where Penn State allowed seven points, Diaz wasn’t quite satisfied.
The group, Diaz said Tuesday, was likely feeling the stress of the accolades that came its way over the offseason. Plenty of college football analysts saw Penn State as a defense that could take over college football. Players noticed, and it took some time to shake those pressures out of their heads.
Three games into the season, Diaz said, the group finally came into its own. Penn State totaled five turnovers against Illinois on the road, which included four interceptions en route to a 30-13 win to kick off Big Ten play.
“I think that relaxed us a little bit, and I think from that point on we started having fun,” Diaz said.
Then, Diaz said, Penn State’s defense had an identity.
Finding that identity with a fresh core wasn’t easy. Penn State lost a number of defensive veterans after the 2022 season, with the likes of Ji’Ayir Brown, PJ Mustipher, and Nick Tarburton all heading to the NFL. Now, the group is finding its way with a new group of stars considered team veterans.
“We’re starting to feel the soul of our defense,” Diaz said. “The guys are enjoying playing for and with one another. And you’re seeing our playmaking distributed amongst a wide group of guys, which is kind of what we want. That means everyone’s doing their job.”
When Diaz said that everyone was doing their job, he meant it. Penn State has flexed its depth throughout the season, as it has given second and third-stringers reps that might not normally come their way. True freshmen Tony Rojas, King Mack, Zion Tracy, and Elliott Washington II all shed their redshirts against Northwestern on Saturday. All four of Penn State’s young standouts play in Diaz’s defense.
Beyond the freshmen, Penn State’s tackle and sack counts have been spread evenly throughout the team. Through five games, the Nittany Lions have 10 defensive players with 10 or more total tackles. Linebacker Cam Miller leads the way for the group with 18 total tackles, but 36 different players have contributed at least one tackle this season. Nine different players have tallied at least one sack and another five players have contributed more than one.
“The lesson there is don’t try to force it,” Diaz said. “We’re proud of the depth that we have and we’re proud of the fact that everybody contributes. It’s not just one guy that an offense can scheme for.”
Now, Diaz said, the entire defense is excited to play football. After Penn State beat Northwestern, safety Jaylen Reed said the defense was ready to help out a struggling offense as needed. Wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith said the defense was offering encouragement to the offensive players as the defense ran out on the field to once again bail out an offense that couldn’t put points on the board.
Diaz saw the same thing Lambert-Smith did. He said one of his favorite moments from the Northwestern game was the mentality his defense demonstrated as it ran out onto the field after Penn State had been forced to punt the ball away.
“Before we took the field on defense, they were in a great headspace. They were ready to go have fun and play,” Diaz said. “And that the first drive, the first play was when Zane Durant, D’Von, Adisa, and seven other guys hit the running back in the backfield for a big tackle for loss. And you just see the spirit and the fun we’re playing with.”
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