Here’s what Penn State’s defensive line knows about this Saturday’s top-ranked opponent:
Ohio State is big.
Ohio State is fast.
Ohio State can run.
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Ohio State can pass.
Simple as that, right?
The Nittany Lions’ strongest and most consistent position group on the field is defensive line coach Sean Spencer’s “Wild Dogs,” led by defensive ends Carl Nassib and Garrett Sickels, and defensive tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson, and they’ll have to step up in a big way when facing both of the Buckeyes’ options at quarterback: big Cardale Jones with his big arm, and speedy dual-threat J.T. Barrett.
Nassib leads the team (and the nation) in sacks, Johnson is second in tackles and sacks, and first in defensive touchdowns, Zettel picks up wherever Johnson gets double-teamed (and vice-versa) and is a pass-swatting, quarterback-rushing force, and Sickels is the Swiss Army Knife with the Energizer Bunny battery pack.
Spencer often touts the unique set of skills of each individual on the line, and its cohesiveness, despite that variability. He’s great, Sickels said on Wednesday morning, at figuring out what a player is good at, and “maximizing that potential” while still finding a place for that player on the line.
So what is Sickels good at?
“The thing that separates me (on the line), I guess, is that I’ll never give up on a play,” he said. “I play sideline to sideline, give great effort. … If a play is made across the field, I’m there chasing it down.”
Where Johnson, Nassib and Zettel are national names, Sickels, a redshirt sophomore, hasn’t been mentioned so much. He’s consistent in all facets of play — he has 15 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, a pass breakup, a pass deflection, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble (the latter set up Johnson’s Big Man Rumble to the end zone) — but isn’t quite the headliner that his counterparts have become. No matter to the guy who spent much of his teleconference with media this week happily talking about his teammates and sharing his favorite “Crazy Carl Nassib” stories (the 6-foot-7, 278-pound Nassib is apparently terrified of cockroaches).
But this season, Penn State’s defensive line has shown a specific pattern, one that Sickels himself summed up two weeks ago.
“(Other teams) only have five offensive linemen in the back, so they have to worry about Zettel, A.J. and Carl,” he said. “So the way those guys have been playing, I’ve been able to get some one-on-ones and make plays. But vice-versa, if I get double-teamed, they’ll get free. So I think it just depends on who is getting double-teamed each play.”
Sickels said on Wednesday morning that by his observations, he thinks the defensive tackles (Johnson and Zettel, on the inside) get double-teamed the most. It makes sense — it’s easier, considering pace of play, to cluster two offensive linemen for that purpose than sacrifice coverage by bringing a double-team to a defensive end. Many teams have tried to bring a back up to Nassib in the process, but it’s clear that hasn’t had much effect thus far.
It’s accurate, then, to assume that opportunity for Sickels will increase, and soon. Maybe even as soon as this weekend, against the Buckeyes.
“I think that’s a valid point,” head coach James Franklin said Wednesday after practice. “I think in general, even the emphasis on Zettel last season and in the offseason has helped Carl Nassib. I think the emphasis on Nassib and Zettel has helped A.J. (Austin Johnson). So I think, just like you’re saying, a byproduct of those three having success is going to create some advantageous opportunities for a guy like Sickels. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.
“And he’s also practicing really, really well, and working really, really hard.”
Against the massive, experienced Ohio State offensive line what might become even more important are the players behind the front four on the depth chart — Evan Schwan, Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren, Tarow Barney, Antoine White and Torrence Brown.
Defesive coordinator Bob Shoop employs a rotation scheme among the ‘backers and d-linemen, so reps vary between players to keep them fresh. Of course, the starters are playing the most, but every so often they’ll head to the sideline in exchange for another guy. Sickels’ lowest snap number, for example, was 30 (to his estimation), but he’d guess he plays much more throughout the course of a game.
“I think the rotation definitely helps our defensive line, we’re just so fresh every time we’re in there,” he said. “We’re always fresh and ready to go, and ready to work against offensive lines. I definitely think that helps. And we’re deep, as you already know, with talent (so) it definitely helps with the defense.”
Sickels said when a player isn’t in, he’s on the sideline both studying, and yelling checks and calls.
“(I’m) also trying to verify what I see, or what I think I saw,” he said. “If I see this play, (I’ll) sit on the sideline and see if they run the same type of play (and) see what the offensive line does.
“We’re all talking about what we see. ... We all just kind of communicate what we’re seeing and all kind of help each other out, whatever we’re going against.”
This week, the Nittany Lions’ offense will face top defensive end Joey Bosa, whose athleticism and frame Franklin likened to that of Nassib’s at his press conference on Tuesday.
There is, however, a difference in the two, according to the head coach.
“One of the things that’s interesting, just different kind of philosophies … Bosa has played 329 plays this year in one less game, in five games, and Carl has played 280 plays in six games,” he said. “Just different philosophies. We try to rotate our guys. I think in our model it’s helped Carl stay fresh and make plays, but yeah, there’s a lot of different ways to do it. ... I completely understand why they don’t take Bosa off the field.”
On Wednesday after practice, Franklin agreed that Nassib is playing more efficiently than Bosa.
“I wouldn’t say that — the numbers say that,” he said. “If you’re playing less reps, and you’re having a lot of big plays and statistics, I think that shows up.”
The rotation that is, according to Franklin, a big part of the reason the line has been able to stay fresh enough to make big plays, and it could pay off on Saturday. Ohio State has incredibly athletic offensive weapons — and 60 percent of the Buckeyes’ 221 total points scored so far this season have come in the second half, including 70 fourth-quarter points.
Penn State’s defense, however, has held opponents to 27 total fourth-quarter points this season, and 31 total in the third (of course, the Nittany Lions have scored just 13 points themselves in the third quarter through six games).
Keeping their endurance through the second-half surge that has been the Buckeyes’ statistical pattern this season will be a tough test for the Wild Dogs and company — and the most trialsome “opportunity,” as they call it, that the defense has faced yet.
“I think we came out in the second half and just really did our thing (last week),” said Sickels. “I think if we play the way we did, you know, come out early and make plays, and then finish strong the second half, it’s going to help.”