Wild dogs got to eat and Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer has been keeping his dogs plenty hungry.
Of course, there are no rabid dogs running around behind Penn State’s Lasch Building, rather a horde of 260 to 300-plus pound defensive linemen Spencer has affectionately nicknamed after a pack of snarling canines. Spencer helped fire them up with a lively pregame talk prior to the Croke Park Classic on Saturday where they played up to their namesake.
They’ll try to repeat their solid performance when Akron visits Beaver Stadium for a noon kickoff on Saturday.
“I think the defensive line had a really good game last week,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “They played on the other side of the ball a lot. It makes the guys on the second level’s job a lot easier.”
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The “Wild Dogs” — er, Nittany Lions — helped stuff Central Florida ball carriers time and time again at Croke Park in Ireland. The Knights managed just 24 rushing yards on 29 carries. Meanwhile, Penn State defensive linemen applied enough consistent pressure to keep UCF first-time starting quarterback Pete DiNovo off balance. DiNovo completed just three passes, was sacked once and hurried another time on eight dropbacks. He was benched midway through the game for Justin Holman.
The final numbers weren’t the only impressive portion of the defensive line’s afternoon on the Emerald Isle. Penn State ran a handful of players onto the field and found success with multiple attack plans. The Nittany Lions used their traditional four-man front in base defense and a five-man look in goal line situations.
Starting ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan and first-string tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson were aided by ends Brad Bars, Carl Nassib and tackle Parker Cothren for much of the afternoon. Meanwhile, Tyrone Smith, Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan also saw action on special teams.
“Having rotations and stuff like that, it’s a good feeling that you have those guys ready to play at all times because they’re on special teams or doing a whole bunch of other things besides playing defensive line,” Johnson said. “They’re ready to go at any time.”
And the “Wild Dogs’” readiness should come in handy more and more this season.
Since spring practice, head coach James Franklin has pledged to coach in a way that will help mask some of Penn State’s perceived weaknesses on offense. For one, the Nittany Lions are short on experienced offensive linemen and Franklin has been adamant about calling certain plays and scheming to keep them from having to handle too much of a burden right away.
The same goes for the defense where the defensive line is deep and experienced while the linebackers — relatively young and green besides Hull — could benefit from strong defensive line play and aggressive coaching calls.
“I think everything we do, people think about on offense, defense and special teams, it’s just about watching the film and what can we do to attack their weaknesses?” Franklin said. “I would say that’s 50 percent of what coaches typically do, and maybe even less than that. Fifty percent of the time, you’re also trying to hide some of your own issues, or maybe your personnel doesn’t allow you to do certain things. On defense, we feel pretty good about the depth that we have on the D-line and the depth that we have in the secondary, so our game plans are going to be based around that.”
In that regard, the five-man front was particularly useful against UCF.
Penn State was forced to defend its goal line on the Knights’ second drive of the game, made shorter by a 68-yard punt return from Jordan Akins. Inside the five, however, UCF ran four plays and got just three yards — all coming on the first run — against Penn State’s front.
UCF offensive linemen couldn’t fight through Johnson, Cothren and Zettel in the middle and Penn State’s linebackers were able to freely attack downhill. Hull was the primary beneficiary as he collected five goal-line tackles and the Nittany Lions were better off as UCF came away with just one touchdown despite having 11 offensive opportunities inside the Nittany Lions’ five-yard line.
“It definitely frees you up and takes up all the linemen so they have to come off of double teams so they’re a little bit slower getting up to you,” Hull said. “I think that’s one of the things about (defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s) defense. He’s always thinking about helping out one particular position group, whether it’s D-line or linebackers, I think we complement each other really well.”
Individually, the “Wild Dogs” play well off one another, too.
Zettel’s versatility — he can play almost any technique along the defensive line thanks to his experience playing defensive end the last two years — was on display as he shifted all across the line Saturday.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him tired,” Johnson said.
Despite being Penn State’s biggest defender, at 6-foot-4, 313 pounds, Johnson still possesses plenty of quickness.
“He’s just a really good player, good hands, good feet,” Hull said. “And he’s a big body so he can eat people up inside and really, you have to double team him if you want to keep him from penetrating.”
Barnes and Olaniyan have had breakout seasons each of the last two years. Both can rush to the outside and drop into coverage if necessary. Meanwhile, Nassib’s 6-foot-6 frame gives him a dangerous reach and his long arms are a threat to obstruct passing lanes. Nassib raised eyebrows of his teammates and coaches through preseason camp. Johnson called him the unit’s most improved player — this compliment coming a year after Nassib earned a scholarship from Bill O’Brien. Franklin has highlighted Nassib’s play numerous times.
Bars is finally healthy after a string of hard-luck injuries limited him to just 20 games over three seasons.
“I think that since these coaches have come in and before we built a culture where we’re trying to constantly get better from freshman year to sophomore year to junior year,” Bars said. “So what you’ve seen is guys that are working really hard for a long time and we have some good depth at that position. Even the freshmen have gotten a lot better since the spring.”
They may stay hungry, but for the “Wild Dogs,” it appears there will be plenty of food to go around. There will be more mouths at the table soon, too.
Franklin expects a handful of younger players to continue to see more snaps in the rotation. Ideally, he wants to use them more to cut down on the amount of snaps players like Zettel and Johnson played in the UCF game. Not only can they help keep the starters fresh, more players can add more versatility to the team’s schemes.
“I’ve been very pleased with them,” Franklin said. “I’m expecting Parker (Cothren’s) role to continue to grow. I’m expecting Tarow (Barney’s) role to continue to grow, all those guys, and I think you’ll see more of that this week.”