Sean Stanley made an internal decision last week.
He wasn’t going to let a lackluster performance at Iowa linger.
So, like most things involving Stanley, he quietly prepared for last Saturday’s Ohio State game. He didn’t notice or indulge in the pregame hullabaloo.
The game presented the defensive end a chance to make amends. No way, Stanley figured, would he squander this opportunity.
The senior displayed resolve in the 35-23 loss, constructing an effort that could spark a memorable ending to his career. Stanley nicked the Buckeyes for a season-high seven tackles and combined with Pete Massaro to sack slippery Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller in the first quarter.
The sack demonstrated the 6-foot-1, 243-pound Stanley’s pass rushing abilities. He quickly reacted to the snap, dashed around the right side of Ohio State’s line and overpowered running back Carlos Hyde.
Stanley never relented, making bold moves throughout the game. On consecutive snaps in the second quarter, Stanley chased down tailback Rod Smith and then approached Miller from the right side, allowing senior defensive tackle James Terry to plow through the middle and notch his first sack. Stanley also nearly blocked a punt.
“I was kind of upset the week before because I was pretty much non-existent in the Iowa game,” said Stanley, who didn’t have a tackle in the 38-14 victory over the Hawkeyes. “It was definitely one of my goals to play better, and I think I did a better job of that. I took advantage of my opportunities.”
Before the game, Stanley said he watched more film and thoroughly examined his assignments. The exhaustive preparation included regular chats with defensive line coach Larry Johnson, the man responsible for monitoring Stanley’s progress. Stanley and Johnson have a close relationship, one that started when Stanley’s family moved to Maryland, one of Johnson’s recruiting territories, in 2006.
Johnson said he has witnessed physical and personal growth from Stanley, who was charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession as a sophomore in 2010. Stanley was just 19 years old at the time. The incident forced him to miss multiple games, but he still played 320 snaps, a high total for a teenager competing against the 300-pound brutes filling Big Ten offensive lines.
Playing perhaps the deepest position on Penn State’s roster, Stanley has started 13 games since 2010. Johnson said Stanley has developed nicely away from the field. Stanley, a crime, law and justice major, is scheduled to graduate next May. He will be just 21 when he graduates.
“I call him the quiet storm,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t talk too much. He will smile and crack a joke, but he’s pretty serious about being a football player. He has matured so much in the last few years. He’s really doing some nice things, not only on the field, but also off the field and in the classroom. He’s a complete player. That’s what you want to see. You want to see guys grow into young men and that’s what Sean has done.”
Stanley also demonstrated he can play through pain. Stanley hurt his back this past summer, an injury he said “came out of nowhere.” After starting the first three games, he endured a temporary shutdown, missing a Week 4 game against Temple. He returned for the Big Ten opener at Illinois. Stanley said he’s “feeling better each week.”
Coach Bill O’Brien said fighting through a back injury isn’t easy.
“If you know anything about back issues, to play defensive end in the Big Ten Conference and the way he plays it, it’s a credit to him,” O’Brien said. “He’s a tough guy. I have enjoyed watching him and getting to know him. I wish we had him for longer than what we do.”
The injury has prevented Stanley from reaching some individual goals. He said last spring he wanted to notch double-digit sacks as a senior. He will enter Saturday’s game at Purdue with just one.
Stanley seeks to parlay last week’s strong performance into another strong outing against Purdue. In Johnson’s mind, Stanley played one of his best games against the Boilermakers last season.
“We were watching the Purdue game from last year and he had some great plays,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Man, Sean you had a great game in that Purdue game.’ I thought he played very well in the Ohio State game. I thought he played physical. That’s Sean. You can’t count him out. You just can’t count him out.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.