The battle in the trenches mostly belonged to the defense Saturday.
Penn State had one of the nation’s top defenses last fall, and despite several key losses to graduation or NFL dreams, the unit showed during the Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium it is ready to pick up where it left off in December.
The group also knows they are ahead in the game right now, with much more experience, than on the offensive side.
“Definitely in the Spring Game,” redshirt sophomore defensive end Garrett Sickles said. “You’ve got new faces on the offense, and really (the) offense is trying to make everything perfect. The defense comes in, to a certain extent, we’ve learned the same defense, but I just think we’re so deep.”
Aside from a few highlights here and there for the offense, the day belonged to the defense.
Combining the two sides, the defense picked up six sacks Saturday, five on quarterback Christian Hackenberg. It should be noted, a sack was recorded and play was stopped as soon as someone was close to the quarterback.
In all, the White defense had six tackles for a loss of 44 yards, including those five sacks. Two sacks each were turned in by defensive ends Evan Schwan and Curtis Cothran.
“I probably haven’t had that many in a game since high school,” Schwan said.
Defensive tackle Tarow Barney had the other sack.
The Blue defense had one sack, by Torrence Brown, and three more tackles for a loss.
Also, take away Nick Scott’s 51-yard highlight run in the second half, when he escaped being tackled for a big loss in the backfield before finding running room, and all the running backs combined for 64 yards on 32 carries.
It was a difficult balance for the defense to push as hard as it could, but the coaches had to be aware the offensive line was still breaking in new starters.
“That’s tough,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “We work together, we really do, and ultimately that probably more falls on Coach (James) Franklin than me. He sets the parameters for practices and scrimmages and we just try to adhere to them.”
Shoop said those lines will now work together in the coming weeks to help prepare both sides, with offensive and defensive linemen expected to watch game film together and picking each others’ brains about why something happened — or didn’t happen.
Shoop also had instructions Saturday for his defense on both teams, knowing of what each side was capable.
“The Blue team, we talked about being a championship unit today,” Shoop said. “The White team we said, ‘Make something happen. Get noticed.’”
The defense was playing a little handicapped from injuries, missing linebackers Nyeem Wartman, the likely starter in the middle this fall, and Ben Kline. It meant there were only two middle linebackers available all day — Gary Wooten for Blue and Brandon Smith for White.
Still, the defense had a few noteworthy plays.
A soft pass to the outside by Hackenberg in the second half was intercepted by junior safety Bryant Harper.
There also were some near-misses.
In the fourth quarter, freshman quarterback Tommy Stevens sent a pass to the sideline that redshirt freshman linebacker Koa Farmer read well and knocked down.
On the last play of the first half deep in the red zone, a Hackenberg pass on a quick strike instead found the hands of junior linebacker Vonn Walker. The Central Mountain product juggled it briefly before dropping it, but there was enough space for a potential 100-yard return.
“He had an exceptional spring,” Shoop said. “Vonn Walker is, arguably, the most improved player on the defensive side of the ball.”
While the defenses did well to stuff the run a number of times on both sides, one strong play was turned in by senior linebacker and former State College standout Matt Baney, who raced to his right, shedding a blocker, to drag down Akeel Lynch for just a one-yard gain.
It was pretty obvious Saturday the defense was still in good shape, now heading into a second season with this coaching staff, as a new season approaches.
“Second year under the system, definitely knew it more,” linebacker Brandon Bell said, “so we were able to just fly around and play.”