Penn State’s defense finds its identity in 41-12 victory over Auburn
After defeating Auburn 28-20 in Happy Valley a year ago, Penn State traveled down south to Jordan-Hare Stadium for a major test just three games into the season.
However, the Nittany Lions passed the test with flying colors as they were in control the entire game en route to picking up a 41-12.
While the offense played extremely well, totaling five touchdowns on the ground, the defense shutting down the Tigers' offensive attack made the biggest difference.
In the first two contests of the campaign, the blue and white had recorded just three sacks and one turnover, but against Auburn, it exploded for six sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles.
One player who was all over the gridiron on Saturday was safety Ji’Ayir Brown, who tallied a sack, forced fumble and an interception.
After the game, Brown mentioned the defense found its identity under new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
“Today, I think we really found our identity,” Brown said. “The Manny Diaz identity.”
Diaz’s identity is predicated around wreaking havoc, and it has been displayed all the season with relentless blitz calls and personnel packages featuring up to seven defensive backs.
Fans were concerned when the defensive line failed to record a sack against Purdue and Ohio, but those concerns were quickly erased on Saturday.
The blue and white’s front seven finished the battle with five sacks with five different players recording them.
Defensive end Adisa Issac racked up his first sack of the season and his first in nearly two campaigns.
“It was a weight off my back that I’ve been waiting for,” Isaac said. “It was great. Great energy, everybody fed off of it.”
Issac missed the entirety of 2021 with a torn achilles, and after the game, he noted he still doesn’t feel 100 percent, he played his best game yet, tallying three tackles for loss in addition to his sack.
After Penn State’s week 2 46-10 victory over Ohio, Issac mentioned he felt 80-85 percent healthy, and a week later, the number hasn’t changed.
“I'm still playing through little nicks and bruises, but my guys keep me going,” Isaac said. “I didn't even think about what's going on with me, I just wanted to be out there on the field with my guys, and that's what happened.”
Along with Issac, defensive Chop Robinson and linebacker Abdul Carter were all over the field making plays, and after the game, the duo of Robinson and Carter are called twins because they look alike.
The similarities between the two grow deeper than their looks as they both are in their first season in Happy Valley, and on Saturday, they both had sacks and forced fumbles.
“He's so mature, picking things up quickly. He's fast, he's aggressive,” Franklin said about Carter. “There’s something about that No. 11.”
Carter was given a huge opportunity early in the game when linebacker Curtis Jacobs went down with an injury, and he took it and ran with it.
The confidence the Nittany Lion coaching staff has in Carter to throw him right into the fire in the first quarter of one of their biggest games of the year doesn’t happen often.
“I was just on the sideline, getting loosened up a little bit,” Jacobs said. “Obviously, you don’t want that to happen, but it’s great to have a guy that’s just ready. He's running in there as soon as his opportunity comes.”
While the pass rush was a concern entering Saturday, the main question on many fans' minds was how would the Nittany Lions’ defense fare against the run.
The Tigers came into the contest ranking No. 14 in the nation in rushing yards per game, averaging 247.5, with the ground game led by junior running back Tank Bigsby, who racked up 102 yards and two touchdowns when the two teams played in 2021.
To the surprise of many, the blue and white defense completely shut down Auburn’s rushing attack.
The Tigers tallied 119 yards on 36 carries which is good for 3.3 yards per carry, while Bigsby was held to nine rushes for 39 yards.
“We emphasized it all week long to make them one-dimensional,” James Franklin said. “There's some things we have to get cleaned up in the passing game, but overall, that was the plan. We wanted this quarterback to be put in a position to have to beat us, and I think we did that.”
The quarterback Franklin mentioned was T.J. Finley, who struggled mightily, completing 58 percent of his passes for 152 yards while adding 21 rushing yards on nine carries.
Finley was replaced midway through the contest by Robby Ashford, who didn’t fare any better, throwing for 144 yards and completing 10-19 passes.
As the game progressed, it was apparent the confidence of the defense was rising, and it looks to play at this level every week.
“All the stuff Manny told us was going to happen started to happen,” Brown said. “That’s where all the excitement and enthusiasm’s coming from.”
Alex Rocco is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.