Bob Shoop’s defense has pulled its weight this season.
Penn State ranks at or near the top in most major defensive categories and the Nittany Lions have forced 48 three-and-outs.
But despite forcing six more against Illinois and holding the Fighting Illini to 16 points, it wasn’t enough. Shoop said Penn State’s inability to stop Illinois boiled down to “a few plays.” He’s right.
A final quarter in which Penn State (6-5, 2-5) gave up five plays of 14 yards or more — three came on Illinois’ game-winning drive — did Penn State in. Shoop knows his defense will have to be better against No. 10 Michigan State (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten).
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The Spartans will enter Beaver Stadium with the nation’s sixth-ranked scoring offense and are hanging nearly 44 points per game on opponents. More importantly, the Spartans are tied for 10th in the country with 68 plays of 20-yards or more.
“Michigan State will certainly provide as tremendous of a challenge that we have faced all year,” Shoop said. “Connor Cook is an outstanding quarterback who is playing really well. (Jeremy) Langford is a tremendous running back. They have great depth at running back. They’ve got good tight ends. They’ve got a stable full of wide receivers. And their offensive line is really very, very good.”
Penn State will likely be without linebacker Brandon Bell who sat out the Illinois game. Bell was injured against Temple but returned to that game. He was not seen at the team’s practice session open to reporters on Wednesday.
So far, Penn State has counted on Bell to provide coverage and pressure on passing downs. He’s excelled in both aspects. The sophomore linebacker is tied for fourth on the team with 43 tackles. He’s made seven behind the line of scrimmage, chipped in two sacks, broken up seven passes and intercepted another.
True freshman Jason Cabinda will likely start as he did against Illinois if Bell can’t go.
Penn State played more base defense than usual against Illinois. But that was more due to the game plan rather than having one of its better blitzers out of the lineup, multiple Penn State players said. Shoop still brought pressure at times, using cornerback Jordan Lucas and linebackers Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman to augment the defensive line.
Earlier this week, Penn State’s defense practiced two-minute drills with the starting offense.
Hull will play his last game at Beaver Stadium. He’s still looking to earn respect for his defensive unit. This is an ideal test, he said.
“I think if we win Saturday we can prove that we’re better than what our record shows, especially on defense,” Hull said. “If we hold this high‑powered offense in check that we can show and finally gain a little respect that we haven’t gotten all year.”
Penn State coach James Franklin had plenty of dinner guests for Thanksgiving.
He had 15 freshmen plus handfuls of staff members where he and wife Fumi not only cooked but catered for their guests. In the past, the Franklins had come dangerously close to running out of food thanks to some heavy eaters.
“It’s so many people,” Franklin said. “We learned our lesson. For every 300-pound man, it’s like feeding four normal human beings. We had the offensive linemen over two weeks ago and it worked out okay but I was panicking because food was disappearing fast. That’s the last thing you want to do is invite people over to your house and run out of food.”
Meanwhile, other players within driving distance went home after an early Thursday practice while others were visited by their parents. Hull’s parents made the nearly three-hour drive from Canonsburg and helped cook for Hull and his roommates Brad Bars, Miles Dieffenbach and Jesse Della Valle.
Other staff members also had players over. Penn State resumes practice and will complete final preparations for the regular season finale on Friday.
Franklin hints at Allen’s future role
It’s awfully hard to look at Ryan Keiser’s injury situation and take any positives away from a scary scenario.
The play of true freshman Marcus Allen has been comforting, however.
Allen stepped in for Keiser, made his first start in the Ohio State game and hasn’t looked back. He’s had a few hiccups in coverage but overall has played strongly despite a lack of experience. When Franklin watches Allen on film, he imagines future scenarios where Allen — who’s been used in run support and in the team’s exotic blitz packages — will contribute in more ways.
His size, Allen is 6-foot-2 and checks in at just under 200 pounds, makes him a viable candidate to replace senior Adrian Amos as the secondary’s most versatile piece.
“We want as much flexibility as we possibly can with our systems and with our players,” Franklin said. “If you look at Marcus, he’s a giant as a safety already. I think he’s got a chance to be one of them safeties who’s 210 pounds, 215 pounds. Or we use him down in the STAR. Where I see his versatility coming from as a safety, and then working down and play that nickel linebacker that Adrian has played.”
Allen has already displayed a knack for hitting and was inches away from developing two devastating hits against Illinois. His physicality make him a prime candidate to augment the defense’s cornerbacks, although Franklin said Allen would likely not ever play corner as Amos once did.
“Think about it, how he looks right now as a true freshman,” Franklin said. “What’s he going to look like next year? What’s he going to look like two years from now?”
No Campbell, Belton practices
Christian Campbell and Bill Belton both left the team’s game against Illinois with injuries. Belton was suited up for Wednesday’s practice session open to reporters. Campbell was not.
Franklin said he was hopeful Penn State would have both players, in addition to Bell who did not play Saturday. Franklin does not regularly address player injuries unless they are season-ending and said team doctors would make the calls on all three players.
Akeel Lynch has handled primary running back duties in Belton’s absence before and could be primed to do so again even if Belton is limited. True freshman Troy Apke could see additional time on defense and special teams if Campbell can’t go. True freshman Jason Cabinda started in place of Bell and could be poised to do so again.