Penn State Football Preparing For Defensive Adjustments As New Big Ten Dawns

Tom Allen never had to gameplan against Caleb Williams. He will, however, have to gameplan against Miller Moss.

Penn State will travel west to face USC on Saturday, October 12. Even more than the UCLA game the week prior, that matchup will bring plenty of off-the-field storylines: a rematch of the 2017 Rose Bowl, an exhibition of two college football giants, a team hailing flashy Los Angeles playing one from central Pennsylvania, and more.

On the field, October 12’s game in the Coliseum will bring USC’s high-flying offense, one of college football’s best last season, against the stalwart defense that Penn State used to reach a New Year’s Six game last season.

Those types of games will be ones college football will have to get used to in these next few years. The offenses of the late Pac-12, known for its late-night offensive slugouts, will be in the same conference that provided a glorious 6-4 final score.

Adjusting to playing the offenses of Illinois and USC two weeks apart will feel like whiplash for Penn State. It’s a transition that Allen, the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator, will have to get used to.

“You got four new teams now that are offering up another style of offense, and it does change the game, and you just think about the team that you have to beat, to be who you want to be,” Allen said Thursday. “You have to have a system that’s versatile enough to adapt to different styles.”

Not every newcomer to the Big Ten will present the same challenges for Penn State. UCLA, which went 7-5 last season, is still finding its footing with a new quarterback and head coach. The same goes for Penn State’s November 9 opponent, Washington, who lost head coach Kalen DeBoer to Alabama and Heisman finalist quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to the NFL Draft. Even USC is dealing with the loss of Williams, a Heisman winner and one of the NFL Draft’s more obvious No. 1 overall selections.

However, Penn State is dealing with similar issues on the defensive side of the ball. Even ignoring the two defensive ends drafted in the first three rounds of the draft, plus the five other defensive players drafted or signed to contracts, Allen is still a first-year coordinator at Penn State.

While he’s new to Penn State, Allen isn’t new to being a defensive coordinator. He ran Indiana’s defense before earning a quick promotion to head coach. He previously ran the defense at South Florida, coached linebackers at Ole Miss, and had a slew of other roles on defense between Temple Heights High School and Arkansas State.

Allen’s already coached against plenty of schemes, and he felt he’s more than prepared to take on the challenge West Coast football brings.

“I just feel like that’s just the world that I’ve been coming from,” Allen said. “Being in the Big Ten, I’ve had to have the ability to adapt to seeing 12, 13 personnel and I formation at times and being able to stop the downhill run game from the teams that do that. I feel we do have a system that’s built for that and that’s really critical for future success.”

Penn State’s defense was critical for its success in 2023. Discounting their bowl game, the Nittany Lions didn’t give up more than 24 points in a single game. However, those performances came against the No. 69 and No. 101 total offenses in the country in Michigan and Indiana, respectively.

Per cfbstats, USC’s 10th-ranked offense recorded a whopping 7.39 yards each play. Washington had the No. 12-ranked total offense, and UCLA clocked in at No. 39. The old version of the Big Ten doesn’t show up on that list until Ohio State, whose 407.9 yards per game were good enough to make it the 48th-best total offense in college football.

Regardless of who’s on the schedule, Allen said his team will simply have to adapt. Even past the gauntlet of Big Ten scheduling, Allen’s team could face teams from the Big 12, SEC, or ACC in the new 12-team playoff. Versatility, Allen noted, will be crucial as Penn State pushes to be top of the pack.

“You obviously want to create, make sure you have a system that’s best for the conference that you play in and be able to beat the best teams on your schedule to get where you want to be, which for us is to win a national championship,” Allen said. “You obviously have an idea of the types of teams that will be there and you know what you’re dealing with. So bottom line is, the game has changed. And we got to be able to adapt to it, and we will.”

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About the Author

Joe Lister

Joe is a senior journalism major at Penn State and Onward State's managing editor. He writes about everything Penn State, especially its 10-2 football team. If you want to find him, Joe's usually watching soccer with his shirt off or at the gym with his shirt on. For dumb stuff, follow him on Twitter (iamjoelister). For serious stuff, email him ([email protected]).

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