Defense Delivers, Turns in Best Performance of Season in Second Straight Victory
It took seven games, but the Nittany Lions defense has finally found a rhythm.
A week removed from holding Michigan to 17 points, Penn State (2-5) defeated Rutgers (2-5) 23-7 on the heels of an excellent defensive showing. Linebacker Jesse Luketa, who led the Nittany Lions with 10 tackles, said he and the rest of the defense tried to keep things simple against the Scarlet Knights.
“Just trust in your abilities and everything else will take care of itself,” Luketa said. “[If] we do that, have fun and play reckless, we’re going to have the outcomes that we want.”
Luketa and company held Rutgers to 205 yards of total offense, including just 43 yards in the first half. Cornerback Joey Porter Jr., who tied for the second most tackles in the game for Penn State with seven, said the defense has stopped playing as individuals the last two weeks and more as a team.
“We’re just all playing together as a unit,” Porter Jr. said. “We’re all flying around to the ball, making that tackle and making that play while working together.”
On four such occasions, the defense was asked to step up and get Rutgers’ offense off the field on fourth down. The Nittany Lions came up big three times, turning over the Scarlet Knights on their own 45-yard line in the first and second quarters with stops on fourth-and-1.
The first quarter change in possession allowed Penn State’s offense to march down the field and for quarterback Sean Clifford to find a streaking Parker Washington for a 29-yard score. The touchdown put up Penn State 7-0, a lead from which it would not look back.
The second fourth-down stop by the Nittany Lions defense resulted in a Devyn Ford 7-yard touchdown run and a 17-0 lead for Penn State. Porter Jr. said the defense understands what is at hand when an opposing offense elects to go for it on fourth down, and he is more than confident in his teammates’ ability to finish the job.
“People want to keep going for it on us on fourth-and-1,” Porter Jr. said. “We’re going to be here to stop it every time.”
Not only did the Scarlet Knights struggle on fourth down, but they were hardly successful in third-down situations. Rutgers was 3 of 15 on third down and faced long conversions frequently due to an inability to establish a running game.
Head coach James Franklin credited his defense’s ability to stop the run, as the Scarlet Knights failed to eclipse 100 yards on the day—32 carries for just 83 yards and a measly 12 yards rushing in the first half. With faith in his front seven, Franklin’s Nittany Lions dominated the line of scrimmage defensively.
“We were able to be disruptive,” Franklin said. “I thought we had a chance with our defensive line on their offensive line.”
Franklin was especially pleased with his defense’s discipline, as the Nittany Lions had just one penalty: an offside call on Shaka Toney. Though Franklin would like to see more consistent pressure on the quarterback (the Nittany Lions sacked Rutgers’ Noah Vedral just twice), he was happy to see the defense return to playing more like it has the first six years of his Penn State tenure.
“It’s hard to argue with what we’ve done the last two weeks, specifically on the defensive side of the ball,” Franklin said.
After an 0-5 start, Porter Jr. said people outside the program stopped believing in Penn State’s defense. But after holding its opponents to a combined 24 points in the last two victories, the redshirt freshman said losing five straight games and learning to play without injured starting cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields taught the team how to fight through adversity.
“It really helped when everybody turned their back on us,” Porter Jr. said. “We had to just look at ourselves and look at our team and just be like, ‘We’re the only ones that could pull us out of the situation that we’re in.’”
By avoiding problems against Rutgers which have plagued Penn State all season, like allowing “explosive plays”—the Scarlet Knights had no offensive plays of over 20 yards—and missing tackles, Porter Jr. said the Nittany Lions will continue to work on being more consistent as a defense. After a brief reflection on Saturday’s victory, it is onto Michigan State for Porter Jr. and the rest of the defense.
“We showed up, we balled out,” Porter Jr. said. “We move on to next week.”
Andrew Destin is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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