Penn State coach Bill O’Brien had fielded mostly questions about the Nittany Lion offense after Saturday’s 34-0 triumph over Kent State and he’d had enough talking about one side of the ball.
“You guys need to ask me some defensive questions. They’re all offensive questions right now,” chided O’Brien in the Beaver Stadium media room Saturday night. “Our defense just pitched a shutout and you guys were all over them last week. Can we get some defensive questions or what?”
If there was a sunny side to the rainy Saturday afternoon, it certainly was the defense.
A week after surrendering more than 500 yards of total offense and 10 plays of 20 yards or more in a 34-31 loss to Central Florida, the defense was stout in Week 4.
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Kent State netted just nine first downs and only one play gained more than 20 yards.
The Golden Flashes finished with just 56 yards on 20 rushing attempts and gained 134 yards in the air. The shutout was Penn State’s first since blanking Kent State 24-0 in 2010.
“I thought the defense played a hell of a football game today,” O’Brien continued. “They pitched a shutout. I think (defensive coordinator) John Butler and that crowd of coaches over there and that crowd of players did a hell of a job.”
While no one will confuse Kent State’s offensive prowess (the Golden Flashes came in averaging about 17 points a game) with Central Florida (averaging more than 35), the Penn State defense made a solid rebound.
The unit, which had played well in wins over Syracuse (23-17) and Eastern Michigan (45-7), took the brunt of the criticism for the loss to the Knights. UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, an NFL prospect, seemed to have the answer at every stage.
The Knights’ 34-point effort had Penn State fans in an uproar, but no one felt worse than the members of the Beaver Stadium locker room.
“It’s tough,” safety/linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said. “Nobody likes to lose in any sport. It hit us hard. Those games come every season for every team. Ours happened to come that day.”
“It was a hard pill to swallow last week,” added linebacker Glenn Carson. “Deep down, a lot of people were feeling the loss.”
Players said they didn’t need outside critics to tell them how poorly they played or remind them of how many tackles they missed as UCF piled up big chunks of yardage.
“We knew as a defense that we didn’t play our best game,” defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said. “It wasn’t about UCF being dominant; we didn’t come out and play our best game.
“We don’t too much attention to what people on the outside are saying. It’s all about what’s in the locker room. When we watch film, we know what we did right, what we did wrong and what we need to do to improve.”
So, the improvement started at practice and in the film room. Small technical things, such as alignment, were noticed and changed, but mostly the week of practice was about resolve.
“As a defense, we have a lot of pride, man,” Olaniyan said. “We just don’t quit. We go out each day punching the clock, punching the clock to make sure when it’s game time we’re ready to play. One thing they can say about us, we will never quit.”
“It comes down to the character of the guys,” said Carson, who led the Nittany Lions with seven tackles against the Golden Flashes. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that want to win, want to do good and love the game. It was obviously hard for guys like that to take a loss, but we stayed focused and continued the mission. It’s good to see that we have guys who can bounce back after taking a tough loss like that.”
The attitude impressed O’Brien as well.
“Those guys took it to heart,” O’Brien said. “You’d have to ask them what they read, but I know this — they came out and they practiced hard every single day. John did a great job putting together a great game plan for this team. I don’t know what the stats were, but it looked like to me that it was a struggle to move the ball offensively for Kent State. I thought our defense did a whale of a job.”
Kent State had a short field in its first possession, but the Nittany Lions held and kicker Anthony Melchiori missed a 31-yard field goal.
The Golden Flashes didn’t come close to scoring from there. They did not cross the Penn State 40 for the rest of the game. When Kent State got a break with an interception of Christian Hackenberg at the 50, Nittany Lion safety Ryan Keiser returned the favor with a pickoff on the next play.
“We did play better,” Carson said. “We made tackles that we didn’t make last week. We got back to playing that Penn State defense.”
Golden Flashes quarterback Colin Reardon had a miserable day, going 12 for 28 for 100 yards.
Reardon faced the Nittany Lions’ best pass rush of the season. Coming in with just five sacks, the Nittany Lions had three Saturday and were in Reardon’s face often, forcing wild throws.
“After you give up 34 points, you’re always going to take that to heart,” said defensive end Deion Barnes, who recorded his first sack of the season. “We definitely wanted to go out here and prove ourselves.”
The shutout certainly was a lift heading into a bye week before a brutal stretch of games. The Nittany Lions open the Big Ten schedule at Indiana on Oct. 5. The Hoosiers entered Saturday night’s game with Missouri averaging 50 points per game.
No. 15 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State follow the Hoosiers on the schedule.
“You never want to go into a bye week with questions,” Obeng-Agyapong said. “I feel like we have our identity and we need to keep on rolling and make it better.”
If they do, the questions may come few and far between.