BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Anthony Zettel may as well have been wearing wrestling headgear rather than his football helmet on Saturday.
At least Zettel and the rest of his teammates along the Penn State defensive line felt like they were engaged in wrestling matches with Indiana offensive linemen who weren’t shy — but quite sly — about underhooking and pulling them around the line of scrimmage.
But as Zettel put it, it’s something he’s learned to accept as a defensive tackle.
In fact, Zettel actually expressed admiration for the Hoosiers’ technique. He guessed they weren’t flagged more than three times for holding infractions because “they kept moving their feet” while they had him and his teammates clinched up.
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“That’s just the game of football,” Zettel said. “As a defensive line you get held a lot. It’s just a simple fact of football and their offensive line really worked hard. They held. They showed up and held their holds really well so the refs couldn’t see them.”
On multiple rushes, Indiana right tackle Ralston Evans had fistfuls of Deion Barnes’ No. 18 jersey and Barnes ceased hand-fighting and threw his arms in the air to show how badly he was being illegally impeded. Austin Johnson was pulled to the ground a few times on the inside and his frustration eventually boiled over.
Penn State’s young defensive tackle appeared to voice his displeasure at the referees as they sprinted toward the locker room at halftime. Moments later, Johnson pulled his helmet off and spiked it to the ground and a shouting match ensued between Johnson and coach James Franklin who insisted Johnson pick up his helmet.
Eventually, with some calming words from teammate Brandon Bell, Johnson picked up his lid.
“He was really angry which I’m okay with that a little bit,” Franklin said. “They’re passionate guys, it’s an emotional game. ... We’ve got to keep our composure. I don’t care what’s happening that you don’t agree with. It’s never okay to lose your composure and act like that.”
Zettel dealt with his frustration in a different way. He just kept going and going and going. It’s become a defining characteristic of the big junior’s playing style.
Late in the fourth quarter, Indiana faced a third-and-10 from midfield. Zettel exploded off the line of scrimmage, immediately gaining leverage on Indiana’s Collin Rahrig. Zettel’s pressure forced quarterback Zander Diamont to roll left. As Zettel continued on, Rahrig had no choice but to yank Zettel to the ground. As the referee reached for his yellow flag, Zettel sprang from his prone position and chased Diamont down from the backside where he exploded into the quarterback for Penn State’s lone sack of the day.
Zettel playfully confirmed after the game that no, he does not drink Red Bull on the sideline. He did express regret that Penn State didn’t get to Diamont more, however. The Hoosier quarterback’s quickness and elusive running abilities surprised Penn State’s defensive line.
“Coach Spencer gives us a good amount of rest during the game with rotations,” Zettel said. “When the fourth quarter comes around, money downs, you’ve got to get those. I know I have to make a play. I really want to really make a play for our defense to get them off the field and overall try to win the game for our team.”
They contributed heavily toward that, even if they were held up for most of the afternoon.
“There was a lot of holding going on, but from a defensive standpoint you just have to keep playing through it,” Zettel said. “You can’t let emotions take over. You just have to keep working hard and the plays will come. It’s a long game. It’s not just one play. You have to keep fighting.”
Penn State’s defense has been near perfect all season. That trend continued against Indiana despite the Hoosiers’ break-neck offensive pace, a tempo that gave the Nittany Lions fits in a 44-24 loss at Memorial Stadium last season.
Indiana, which ran 80 plays in 24:49 against John Butler’s maligned 2013 defense, got just 68 chances in 28:55 against Bob Shoop’s packages. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers put together drives of eight or more plays four times last season and managed one nine-play drive, two seven-play possessions, but nothing else longer than six plays on Saturday.
Shoop and Spencer’s penchant for using a lot of players paid off. Penn State’s second-team defensive line was quite effective while the secondary never got burned. Penn State forced six three-and-outs on 16 drives.
“We knew that they were going to run that stuff and as a defense you get those three-and-outs and turnovers and it really changes the game and allows the defense to get some rest,” Zettel said. “That was our key emphasis, to get those three-and-outs.”
For as many reasons as Penn State’s defense is as good as any, the Nittany Lion offense is stinking up the conference.
The constant use of wide receiver screen passes as a substitute for the running game finally backfired in a big way when Indiana safety Mark Murphy turned in the Hoosiers’ lone score by intercepting one of Christian Hackenberg’s telegraphed sideline throws. Without Bill Belton’s 92-yard run, Penn State’s offense averaged just under two yards per carry.
Hackenberg spoke for the rest of the offense when he said he was grateful that the defense continues to give Penn State’s offense chances to not only stay in games, but to have chances to improve.
“Obviously we do have some deficiencies,” Hackenberg said. “It’s tough but we work through it every day. We put together the best plan that we can approaching every game and we put forth everything we can to win the football game. Football is truly the ultimate team sport so I think when you have a defense like that, that just adds confidence and understanding of what your strengths are as a team and they do a great job.”
With three games left, time is running out for an offense that has been bad all season.
Thank goodness for Sam Ficken because Penn State’s offense has been dreadful in the red zone.
A pattern that’s seen Penn State score just three touchdowns in its last 13 trips inside opponents’ 20-yard lines continued as Penn State went 0-for-3 against Indiana. The Nittany Lions had a primo chance to come away with seven points in the second quarter but failed to run the ball over the goal line with three-straight rushing plays inside the Indiana three-yard line.
After Akeel Lynch failed to get in, Hackenberg was brought down on a quarterback draw to end the chance. Ficken had a chip-shot field goal blocked and Penn State came away with nothing.
Day to Remember
Nyeem Wartman had an important job on Saturday — keep a watchful eye on the nation’s most efficient running back Tevin Coleman. Wartman may have earned Employee of the Week laurels.
Coleman finished with a season-low 71 yards on 20 carries and Wartman tied Mike Hull for the team lead with seven tackles. More importantly, Wartman’s fourth-quarter interception of Diamont pretty much sealed the Hoosiers’ fate and led to Ficken’s insurance field goal.
“He’s been making plays all season and that’s just a huge play by him and something that really helped out our team as a whole,” senior safety Jesse Della Valle said of the sophomore linebacker.
Day to Forget
Early in the season the offense’s major flaw was an inability to run the ball. Now, Penn State can’t throw it either.
Hackenberg was sacked five more times to push his season total to 35 and his receivers did little to help him out. Hackenberg’s targets dropped six passes — Akeel Lynch, Bill Belton, Jesse James and DaeSean Hamilton all dropped balls — and couldn’t get much separation against a Hoosier secondary that had given up 18 passing touchdowns and entered the game as the worst statistically in the Big Ten.
After the game, Hackenberg — who completed just 12 of 29 passes with two interceptions — admitted he should’ve gotten rid of the ball or checked it down instead of holding onto it to try and make a play down the field. But for a quarterback with a gunslinger mentality, that’s hard to do he said. Especially when time to throw has been rare this season.
“You’re trying to take advantage of it but I think they did a great job of being able to cover downfield,” Hackenberg said. “Give Indiana a lot of credit. They came out and played a great game. It’s one of those things you’ve got to go down to the check-down. It’s tough in those types of situations and it’s part of the game.”
Key Play You
The Hoosiers faced a third-and-four from their own 22 and had Penn State’s defense spread out. Diamont fired quickly to his right where an uncovered Dominique Booth caught the pass in the flat. Booth had plenty of room to run until Jordan Lucas flew at him from the middle of the field and exploded through him, bringing him down after just a gain of two and forcing Indiana to punt.
Hidden Stat That Matters
Five — as in Penn State punter Daniel Pasquariello pinned Indiana inside its own 20 five times.
It was a rare field-position battle win for Penn State. On average the Nittany Lions started at their own 34-yard line while Indiana’s average starting field position was its own 23. It was long-awaited aid for Penn State’s defense which allowed Indiana’s offense to cross midfield just four times and just once in the second half.