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Penn State Football’s Run Defense Prepped To Avenge Last Season’s Dismal Showing Against Michigan

Penn State football’s front seven unit has traditionally represented one of college football’s most feared defensive facades. 

Since James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley in 2014, his squads have given up roughly 120 yards per outing on the ground, firmly cementing his group within the top 25 of all run-stop cohorts throughout the span. 

While Manny Diaz’s first-year unit surrendered just 111 rushing yards per matchup en route to the Nittany Lions’ finishing No. 10 nationally in total defense, his typically physical trench core couldn’t withstand Michigan’s talented tandem in Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards a year ago. 

The pair of projected early-round NFL talents helped the Wolverines accumulate a season-high 418 rushing yards behind 7.1 yards per play in Ann Arbor last October. 

While both bell-cow weapons have stalled in production compared to their breakout campaigns from last season, Franklin recognizes the Nittany Lions need to stop the game wreckers early by beating Michigan’s offensive line up front.

“I think Corum has the ability to have tremendous vision and balance behind the line because they are able to get a hat on a hat,” Franklin said Monday afternoon. “He’s patient. Once he does decide to go, he has the ability to burst through the hole… And then, obviously, they have a change of pace back as well who’s made some huge plays in the passing game and is explosive in Donovan [Edwards].”

Although rush defenses under Franklin have largely been steady for the majority of his reign, Diaz’s bunch has nearly doubled its production at the line of scrimmage in his second go-around manning Linebacker U. 

Through nine contests, Penn State ranks first nationally in its ability to stop opposing ground attacks, surrendering just 60.3 yards per game. For reference, Chip Kelly’s UCLA unit ranks second in the category but is giving up over 14% more rushing production than the Nittany Lions. 

Without the veteran interior presence of defensive tackle PJ Mustipher entering the current campaign, many pegged the Nittany Lions’ front four to take a step back, especially on the inside. 

However, according to Franklin, the defensive line’s overall ascension in size, while maintaining competitive speed, has allowed Penn State to expand physically at the point of attack in accordance with the Big Ten’s most prolific offensive fronts. 

“I think we’re a little bit bigger,” Franklin said of his defensive line. “I think the size has helped us as well. We’re a little bit bigger across the front, specifically the D-line, [but] not to the point where it’s affected our ability to move. I think that’s a big part of what we do as well, is our movements and our games.”

Both Franklin and Diaz constantly preach the importance of gap integrity, allowing the former Miami head coach to maintain his patented, aggressive play-calling approach. 

Currently, Penn State resides at No. 2 in team sack percentage among all FBS squads. Per NCAA analytics, the Nittany Lions find opposing quarterbacks in the backfield on 12.55% of all defensive snaps. 

With just a quarter of the regular-season slate remaining, Franklin’s crew also leads the country with 38 sacks. Additionally, Penn State ranks No. 4 in total tackles for loss with 76 total takedowns behind the line of scrimmage for 8.6 per matchup. 

Per Diaz’s philosophy, if the Nittany Lions’ linebackers can anchor their individual assignments, the more leeway the talented defense will have in bringing unique pressures by blitzing defensive backs off the edge. 

Against Ohio State, secondary mainstays Kalen King, Johnny Dixon, and Zakee Wheatley combined for 4.5 tackles for loss. If the Nittany Lions can consistently pressure Michigan gunslinger JJ McCarthy early, the more aggressive Diaz can become in bringing five to seven defenders home. 

“I think we have been much more disciplined and consistent in gap responsibility,” Franklin said. “There have been times where we have tried to make plays and get out of our gap, and against good teams, the ball will find the open gap.”

After knocking off Maryland 51-15 in College Park, Franklin mentioned that with his program’s sustained success, many “take winning for granted.” But, through nearly 10 full seasons at the helm in Happy Valley, Franklin possesses a well-documented 4-15 record against the league’s “big two” in Ohio State and Michigan. 

If Franklin’s defense can continue its historical run-stopping tear in the face of Michigan’s back-to-back Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line, the outspoken leader’s track record against top-10 foes could take a drastic short-term shift. 

As a result, onlookers who “take winning for granted” might be few and far between come Saturday afternoon. 

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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