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Will Penn State’s Defense Have to Carry Its Offense In 2019?

by on July 18, 2019 6:40 PM

Penn State’s defense is carrying the Nittany Lion football narrative at the Big Ten Media Days on Friday in Chicago.

(Repping PSU are fifth-year cornerback John Reid, senior linebacker Cam Brown and senior punter Blake Gillikin.)

Will it have to do the same on the field in 2019 as well?

Some would say it was the Nittany Lion defense that came to the rescue in 2018.

Over a 15-day, three-game mid-October stretch — Michigan State, Indiana, Iowa — the Penn State defense was on the field for a staggering 277 plays (92.3 per-game average) compared to just 201 (67 ave.) for the PSU offense.

Overall in 2018, the Nittany Lions gave up just 20.5 points per game, selling out only once, when it yielded 42 in The Big House. And even that was misnomer. The Wolverines were up only 14-0 with 57 seconds left in the third quarter, when they then scored 14 points in 46 seconds, thanks in part to a pick-six.

Meanwhile, Penn State’s offense averaged just 24.2 points over its final nine games in 2018, dropping to a paltry 22.1 after October — including seven in Ann Arbor.

And that was with Trace McSorley, Miles Sanders, Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins and Tommy Stevens. All gone.


In their stead are the likes of presumptive first-starters quarterback Sean Clifford, running back Ricky Slade and wide receiver Justin Shorter. All are big on potential.

But their collegiate game-day experience is limited, shall we say: Clifford has thrown only seven passes, Slade ran for more than 13 yards in just four games and Shorter had more DNP’s (9) in 2018 than receptions (3).

It’s no wonder James Franklin will be bringing Reid, Brown and Gillikin with him on the Penn State private plane to the Windy City. (Although CJF has a propensity to take defensive guys to the B10 Media Days — his six-year tally is now 2 kickers, plus 5 from offense and 11 from defense.)

Defense represents the core of his 2019 squad, as Franklin enters Season 6 of his Penn State tenure. PSU’s halcyon days of the RPO and JoeMo are no ’mo.

Reid and Brown enter 2019, their ninth combined year of college, with 41 starts and 216 tackles, while Gillikin has punted in all 40 of Penn State’s games since he stepped foot on campus — a span of 177 boots, 7,668 yards, a 43.3-yard average and 42 punts over 50 yards.

These guys are grizzled vets. Reid started his first game at Penn State in the 2015 season opener, that 27-10 loss to Temple at The Linc. Brown, who had 10 tackles in a 49-10 loss at Michigan in 2016 in his fourth college game ever. He’s gained over 40 pounds since.

They may be busy all season long. Or, at least beginning when Purdue comes to Beaver Stadium for Homecoming in Week Five.


Like 2018, the first three or four games of Penn State’s early-2019 schedule could be offensive. Penn State came out of the gate fast last season, hanging 45, 51, 63 and 63 points on the opposition to lead the country in scoring.

The Nittany Lions open 2019 with four opponents that had a propensity for surrendering big points in big losses in 2018. Idaho collapsed several times, giving 62, 63 and 79 points in its three biggest fails, while Buffalo (42, 42, 52), Pitt (42, 45, 51 vs. Penn State) and Maryland (38, 42, 52) were known to give up a point or 50.

Since Franklin came to campus in 2014, the Nittany defense has usually been very good and even great at times, first under coordinator Bob Shoop and since 2016 under Brent Pry, whose D yielded an average of just 16.5 points per game in 2017.

Pry’s Guys have been stingy.

Ten times over the past two seasons the Nittany Lion defense has given up 10 points or less. That’s strong defense, right up there with the Penn State defenses of 1962-63 (13 games giving up 10 points or less), 1968-69 (13), 1985-86 (10) and 2006-09 (21).The Penn State defenses of 1973 and 198 were especially stingy, points-wise, holding eight opponents each year to 10 points or less.

It is very unlikely that the 2019 Nittany Lions will be as reliant on its defense as it was in 2004, one of the most unheralded PSU season-long defensive performances in school history.

Although Penn State went just 4-7 that year, it could have been worse. The Nittany Lions never gave up more than 21 points in a single game — as five times Penn State’s offense failed to score in double digits. That includes the nadir of Penn State’s offensive history, that infamous 6-4 loss to Iowa in Beaver Stadium.

Since 1950, only three times has Penn State gone an entire season without giving up at last 20 points in a single game: 19 in both 1954 and 1986, and 14 in 1958.

That 1986 season included the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, one of the greatest performances by a Penn State defense. Penn State beat Miami (Fla.), 14-10, for the national title even though the Hurricanes had a 93-to-59 offensive play advantage. Five picks of Vinnie Testaverde didn’t hurt, either.

The point?

Score points — and if you can’t, then have a great D.

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