As Deion Barnes walked back to Penn State’s defensive huddle, he crossed paths with Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl.
The Akron signal-caller had just pulled himself off the ground, the victim of heavy Penn State pressure that forced him to jettison the football earlier than his intended target down the field expected and sooner than Pohl planned. The pass fell incomplete, Pohl was swatted to the grass. He got up and walked back to his own huddle fuming.
The sound of Pohl giving his offensive lineman grief was music to Barnes’ ears. Obscured by his facemask, a smile crept across Barnes’ face.
“You could tell we were frustrating him because he’s cursing at his linemen,” Barnes said.
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And that was just the second quarter. Akron was no match for a pressure-packed, blitz-happy defense at Beaver Stadium on Saturday where the Nittany Lions suffocated the Zips in a 21-3 win in front of 97,354 fans.
Barnes and his teammates annoyed and abused Pohl for much of the afternoon. Penn State rang up four sacks, put three more hits on Pohl and hurried the Akron quarterback 10 times. The defense’s pressure gave their offensive teammates plenty of time and cushion to mount three scoring drives and put the game away despite committing three turnovers and meandering with an inconsistent running game.
“I’m very, very pleased with our defense,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “They’ve done the things they need to do, which is keep people out of the end zone.”
The Zips (1-1) broke Penn State’s shutout with a 28-yard field goal from Robert Stein in the third quarter. For the most part their offensive attempts were futile. The Zips crossed into Penn State territory just two times in their first 10 drives before doing so twice in the last 10 minutes of the game.
By that time, it was too late.
Running back Bill Belton got wide open out of the backfield and caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Christian Hackenberg to cap a four-play, 58-yard drive and start the scoring in the first quarter. Tight end Jesse James added touchdown grabs of 13 and 44 yards to pad Penn State’s lead.
James snagged a Hackenberg pass at the goal line and backed into the end zone with defenders on him late in the third. It finished a 10-play, 79-yard drive that took 5:26 off the clock. Midway through the fourth, Hackenberg faked a handoff and hit James deep in stride down the sideline. The big tight end outraced Akron defenders to cap the scoring.
For most of the afternoon, Penn State’s defenders took turns racing at Pohl. They did so with aggressive blitz packages that helped limit the damage of three Penn State turnovers. Two occurred in the red zone where Hackenberg misfired on throws to the goal line.
Martel Durant stepped in front of a Hackenberg pass intended for DaeSean Hamilton at the two-yard line in the first quarter and Bre’ Ford stole a pass headed for Geno Lewis at the goal line in the fourth.
Penn State’s defense forced a punt following the first interception and stuffed the Zips on downs after the second. It looked like the Zips would make good on their second takeaway as Pohl and the Akron offense got good field position following Ford’s 51-yard interception return.
But the Nittany Lion defense went to work right away.
Barnes — the primary pest on the afternoon with four quarterback hurries — forced another rushed throw when he got got around Akron tackle Tommy Brown and got his hands in Pohl’s face on first down. The Zips picked up nine yards on the next two plays but were foiled on fourth-and-1 when Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop dialed up a heavy blitz that featured all three of his linebackers. Then, linebacker Brandon Bell blitzed around the right side of Akron’s offensive line and wrapped Conor Hundley up from behind. A host of Nittany Lions followed through and pushed Hundley back for a loss of two.
“Our defense pretty much pins our ears back and tries to get after it,” Bell said. “I wasn’t the only one back there, there were a couple of us. So we love it. You can watch the whole game, we were pretty much just cleaning up. Those guys were in the backfield making stuff happen, turning stuff in, turning it up and were were just there to clean it up.”
Cornerback Jordan Lucas and linebacker Mike Hull picked up sacks on blitzes while Anthony Zettel added a sack and Carl Nassib teamed with Parker Cothren for Penn State’s other sack.
The Nittany Lions combined for seven tackles for loss — most of them coming on designed blitzes. Because of its aggressiveness, Lucas said this is the most exciting defense he’s played in yet.
“It’s fun because it’s like the coach has the same mindset that you have,” Lucas said. “You look at guys our age, you play Madden a lot — what do you do? You blitz. It’s like Madden out there for us. And we like having fun. We love playing for Coach Shoop.”
Hackenberg finished with 319 yards on 22-of-36 passing. Hamilton finished with seven catches for 69 yards while Lewis added six catches for 98 yards. Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch combined for 26 carries for 111 yards.