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Prying Time? Penn State’s Defense Completes Best 3-Game Finish Since 1985

by on November 24, 2018 9:35 PM

It may be Prying Time at PSU.

Again.

The past two seasons, it seemed like other schools were trying to hire away Penn State’s defensive coordinator to be their head coach.

But, Nittany Lions' defensive boss Brent Pry stayed put.

A recruiting pitch by James Franklin — aka a subtle guilt trip while on a recruiting trip together last December (read about it here) — and a bump in pay certainly helped.

Same goes for defensive line coach Sean Spencer, who stated last offseason he’d like to be a head coach one day.

So, Pry gave his associate head coach title to Coach Chaos.

The way the Nittany Lion defense finished the 2018 regular season — yielding just 20 points over the final three contests, the best such stretch by a PSU D since 1985 — it may be hard for Franklin to keep one. Or both.

And he knows it.

The head coach handed out a series of compliments to his defensive staff after the Nittany Lions’ 38-3 victory over Maryland in Beaver Stadium on Saturday. (By contrast, Franklin has never come close to such praise for his offensive staff in 2018.)

“Brent has been phenomenal,” Franklin said the game. “I go way back with Brent. His dad is in town this weekend, he was out at practice this week. His dad was my college coach (as the offensive coordinator at East Stroudsburg). Me and Brent were just two young guys running around trying to figure it out. He’s been fiercely loyal, and I’m fiercely loyal to him.

“…Brent has done a phenomenal job. Sean Spencer has been a big part of that. Obviously, he’s been with us since Day One (since 2011 at Vanderbilt) as well. (Safeties coach) Tim Banks is an extension of the family. We go way back to when me and Tim were on the staff at Maryland. (D-line assistant and special teams coordinator) Phil Galiano has done a great job and obviously (Cornerback coach) Terry Smith has been invaluable. That whole defensive staff led by Brent Pry has been fantastic. These guys mean a lot to me, more than just coaches but part of my family.”

THE POINT IS THIS

Here’s what the Nittany Lion D, coached by Pry (who also handles the linebackers) and Spencer (who coaches the D-line) has done since it fought gamely against Michigan in The Big House:

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Over the final three regular-season games, Penn State’s defense has played at an historic level, allowing only:

10 points by Wisconsin.

7 points by Rutgers.

3 points by Maryland.

“I think our defense probably as much as any unit just kept getting better,” Franklin said. “We came into the season with a lot of question marks on that side of the ball, at linebacker and at defensive tackle. We kind of just kept getting better. I think tonight was a really good example of that.”

Those 20 points allowed by the Nittany Lion defense over 2018’s final 180 minutes of regular-season play — including a single 26-yard field goal by the Terrapins — were the fewest given up by a PSU D since 1985.

That 1985 finish, when a Shane-Conlan powered Penn State defense yielded just 16 points in its final three regular-season games on its way to an 11-0 regular season mark and a No. 1 ranking: 31-10 in the rain and cold at Cincinnati, 36-6 in the mud against Notre Dame and 31-0 on the road at Pitt.

Similar weather, similar results.

Thirty-three seasons ago.

His squad's stretch-run defensive performance, Penn State's best in a third of a century, didn’t surprise senior safety Nick Scott.

“Not all. Not all,” said the fifth-year safety and two-time co-captain, who played his final game in Beaver Stadium n Senior Day.

“As a defense, one of our goals was to improve each week and be better than the previous week. I think we were able to do that. Our defense has grown exponentially. We’re just reaping the benefits. Guys are playing extremely hard and learning from their mistakes each week. Our D-line has really started going this past couple of games.”

SHELLING THE TERPS: BY THE NUMBERS

Against Maryland, the Penn State defense had a sterling 15 tackles for a loss, and five sacks to boot. Nine of the TFLs were by the D-line, and sophomore defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos had 3.5 for 13 yards worth of losses.

That ups Gross-Matos’ TFL total to 20 for the season, ranking him eighth on Penn State’s all-time single-season list. That company at 20 is pretty darn good — Aaron Maybin (2008), Bruce Clark (1978), LaVar Arrington (1999) and Todd Atkins (1994). The first three were all first-round picks in the NFL Draft, Maybin going No. 11 overall, Clark No. 4 and Arrington No. 2.

PSU defensive tackle Kevin Givens added a pair of sacks and a pair of TFLs, as the Nittany Lions upped their overall season sack total to 43. Sacks became a stat in 1988, and since then this is the first time that Penn State has had fourth consecutive seasons with 40 or more sacks (46, 40, 42 and now 43) — all under Spencer’s tutelage.

The Penn State defense held Maruland to just 74 yards rushing on 36 carries — an average carry of only 2.1 yards. That’s a far cry from the Terps’ previous two games. Last week, in a 52-51 OT loss to Ohio State, the Terps ran for 339 yards and five TDs, with a rushing average of 7.1 yards. And the week before that, in a 34-32 loss to Indiana (which Penn State barely beat 33-28), the Terps ran for 353 yards, with two TDs and a 6-yard average.

In 12 games in 2018, the NIttany Lions gave up just 240 points — an average of 20 per game. Pair that with 2017, when they yielded just 214 points in 13 contests, and over the past two seasons Pry’s defense has yielded just 18.16 points per game.

In a wide-open offense era, that’s pretty stout. Not quite 1968-69, when Penn State gave up 9.5 points per game; or 1985-86, when Penn State’s D gave up just 11.9 points per game; or 2008-09, when it yielded 13.3 points per game.

BYE PRY?

Still, it’s more than enough to establish a two-year track record of strong defense in Happy Valley. Especially considering Pry had just only three starters back from 2017 — four, if you count John Reid, a 2016 starter who missed all of last season following knee surgery.

And more than enough to enhance the marketability of Pry, who has been with Franklin the past eight seasons — three at Vandy and five at Penn State — in addition to seven other stops on the coaching trail, including stints as a D-coordinator at both Georgia Southern and Louisana-Lafayette.

Last December, Pry came close to leaving Penn State. A few days of alone time with Franklin changed his mind. Here’s what Pry said 49 weeks ago:

"It happens every year. You'd like there to be discretions, but it's hard...It's difficult waters to tread. But like anything we do, we want to hit things head-on and be upfront and be mindful of others and do the best we can that way."

And this is what Franklin had to say back then:

"Like I told Brent, he's in a great situation. He's got a great job at a great place that he loves and whenever you have really good people that are talented at what they do, people are going to pursue them to in some way to try to steal some of the success that we've had the last couple years."

Steal, pry…call it what you want.

Penn State’s defensive architect could be a hot commodity.

After Pry’s Guys allowed just 20 points in the final three games, Franklin is the one who could very well be playing defense again.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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