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The Penn State Defense That Might Have Beaten Ohio State

by on October 04, 2018 8:40 PM

There have been no Crying Brent Pry memes.

And to his credit, James Franklin hasn’t said a word about it.

But the 2018 Nittany Lions defense — which has yielded just 105 points, albeit 41 in the fourth quarter — could have been a Dream Team.

An elite group, even.

In fact, if circumstances had been different, that 14-point run of Buckeye fourth-quarter points against a tired and depleted D may have had never happened.

As far back as 2015, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to envision a Penn State defensive lineup last week against Ohio State that included Torrence Brown and Ryan Buchholz at ends (with Buck at DT at times), and a starting linebacking trio of Troy Reeder, Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper.

Wow.

Instead, for myriad reasons, those visions were whited out.

WHAT HAPPENED

Brown and Buchholz took medical retirement in August. Brown had 30 games and seven starts under his belt before tearing up his left knee against Georgia State last season. Buchholz, who was gamely fighting chronic back problems after a couple of surgeries, had played 23 games, with six starts, but left the 2017 Ohio State game after one snap and was never the same.

Reeder transferred to Delaware, where his brother Colby also plays linebacker and where his dad Dan was once captain under Tubby Raymond, after the 2015 season. Reeder started 11 games for PSU as a redshirt freshman that season, and was Penn State’s No. 4 tackler. (Delaware’s head coach is Dan Rocco — brother of former PSU QB Frank and son of retired football assistant Frank — who began his playing career at Penn State. Dan was in my Penn State freshman English class, along with Jeff Hostetler. They both transferred. I stayed.)

Bowen led the Nittany Lions in special teams tackles in 2015, then started 12 games in 2016 as a true sophomore, but was suspended for the Rose Bowl, where he was dearly missed. He started the first nine games of 2017, then was suspended again. He was still the Nittany Lions’ No. 5 tackler in 2017 — with nine vs. Ohio State and seven vs. Michigan State — and would have entered 2018 as the No. 1 returning tackler. He briefly rejoined the team for summer drills, but that was an ill-fated comeback.

Cooper played 12 games and started one as a true freshman in 2015 — against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl, where he had six tackles  — but was beset by injuries in 2016 and played just six games with two starts. In 2017, he appeared in only seven games.

As it turned out, only Cooper was in uniform for the Nittany Lions’ loss to Ohio State on Saturday, and he didn’t play, according to the official participating statistics. No one would have expected any of that a few years ago.

Or as recently as the start of the 2017 season.

PRY, PRY AGAIN

As defensive coordinator, Pry has had to rebuild, reload and react on the run.

Much has been made of Ricky Rahne’s ascension to the offensive coordinator position, but the fact that Louisiana didn’t pry Brent away in the off-season may have been Franklin’s best — or luckiest — coaching move/recruiting success.

Although the No. 9 Nittany Lions lost to No. 4 Ohio State by one point for the second straight year, and the PSU D surrendered 13 points in a 4-minute, 39-second stretch deep into the fourth quarter that played a big hand in the game’s outcome, Pry has reason to feel good moving forward.

Penn State’s defense held the much-hyped Buckeye offense led by QB Dwayne Haksins to zero points on their first eight drives, and only yielded a score on Drive No. 9 when they were forced to play with a short field when Miles Sanders fumbled on Penn State’s own 25 with under three minutes left in the first half.

The second half didn’t go as well, as Ohio State scored TDs on four of its eight possessions, and also missed a 48-yard field goal. Still, through 53 minutes, the Buckeyes scored only 14 points.

When all was said and done, Penn State’s defense had halved what the Buckeyes’ high-powered offense had averaged in its first four games in several key categories. Here’s a breakdown, with their first-four games average (including 40 points and 526 yards against TCU) vs. what it did against Penn State:

Points: 54.5 (second in the nation) vs. 27

Total offense: 599 vs. 389 yards

Rushing: 233 vs. 119 yards

Passing: 366 vs. 270 yards

3rd/4th down conversions: 33 of 55 (60%) vs. 5 of 19 (26%)

Save for the 262-second tackling and concentration lapse, that’s proof of the quality of depth of the Nittany Lions’ young roster as well as the coaching job that Pry and his staff — especially Pry as LB coach and Sean Spencer as the D-line Wild Dogs guru — have done.

They have retooled on the fly, numerous times, and put unseasoned yet talented players in key positions and roles before it was their time. Joe Paterno used to say that he’d rather play someone two games too late rather than one game too early.

Pry has not had that luxury.

YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS

Linebackers Micah Parsons and Jesse Luketa have played in all five games in 2018 as true freshmen. Redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks is the No. 2 middle linebacker. D-end Yetur Gross-Matos is a starter in his second season, while true freshman Nick Tarburton is No. 3 on the PSU depth chart at both defensive end slots.

That was not in Pry’s original plans when white boarding future lineups a few years ago in Lasch Building.

Franklin admitted as much, when he addressed the early retirement of Brown, Buchholz and few others during summer drills.

“The hardest part is, these guys all have a vision in their minds of how this all is going to play out,” he said. “It just doesn’t always play out that way.”



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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