Penn State Football

Nittany Lions defense overcome depth concerns, limit Terrapins

Franklin thanks fans for braving weather to support team to a win

Penn State football coach James Franklin talks to the media after the 38-14 win over Maryland on Saturday, October 8, 2016.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin talks to the media after the 38-14 win over Maryland on Saturday, October 8, 2016.

Koa Farmer shot off the left edge like a man possessed, spearing through the back of Terrapins quarterback Perry Hills to force a game-altering fumble.

In the first quarter, redshirt junior defensive end Garrett Sickels hunted Hills down, hitting his arm and forcing a wobbly pass that would be picked off by former walk-on Brandon Smith.

On Maryland’s first series, Sickels and Evan Schwan each recorded crowd-juicing sacks.

And those were just some of the highlights.

Two forced turnovers, four sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 25 different players recorded a tackle — for an injury-weakened and recently battered defense, the Nittany Lions showed depth and resolve in Saturday’s 38-14 win.

“I think our defense has handled some really, really challenging situations and stepped up,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said.

From a statistical viewpoint, it was arguably Penn State’s best defensive performance of the season.

The Nittany Lions held Maryland to 270 total yards, Penn State’s lowest mark of the season, and allowed only five yards per play.

Even though it was against Howard, Florida International, Central Florida and Purdue, the Terrapins entered Saturday averaging 43.3 points and 466.3 yards per game this year.

At no point did Maryland’s offense resemble a consistent threat like it had in previous weeks, and the credit goes to Penn State’s banged up defensive unit.

Smith tallied a game-high 14 tackles, followed by Marcus Allen (seven) and Malik Golden (six).

Smith, a redshirt junior, also had the game’s lone interception, one of a few major moments that stuck in a cohesive performance.

The linebacker said the interception was made easy by the pressure from Sickels and the rest of the defensive line. “It was a pretty easy ball to catch,” the linebacker said with a grin.

It was also easier for Smith to have fresh bodies surrounding him.

Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry and defensive line coach Sean Spencer rotated a plethora of players into the action, hence the highly-diversified tackle sheet.

Along with starters Sickels, Evan Schwan, Kevin Givens and Parker Cothren, Spencer made sure the likes of Torrence Brown, Curtis Cothran, Tyrell Chavis, Antoine White and Robert Windsor got ample looks on the front four.

“And it’s not just him throwing them in at the end of the game because we’re up by a big margin,” Schwan noted.

With Nyeem Wartman-White, Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell out, among other linebackers, Smith, Manny Bowen and Cam Brown manned the middle of the field, helped out by rotated secondary help.

It’s not necessarily ideal to have to scheme with injuries in the first place, but the frequent switching worked.

“We found a way to get it done,” Smith said. “No matter who’s out there, we’re going to find a way to make it happen.”

Koa Farmer, a former safety who’s moved to linebacker, was one of those players who filled in nicely, making a key strip-sack in the second quarter.

He, too, believes in Penn State’s depth.

“The guys that come to Penn State, those are the guys you can count on,” Farmer said. “We keep going with the guys that are healthy.”

While Wartman-White is done for the year, the upcoming bye week could provide the Nittany Lions defense some much-needed time to recoup.

Could guys like Cabinda or Bell be back for Ohio State on Oct. 22? Nothing is certain.

Either way, Franklin is pleased with how his team’s defense has stayed focused on what’s ahead with who’s on the field, avoiding the worry of who’s not.

“I don’t know if there’s another defense in the country that’s had to overcome all the different personnel and adversity that we have,” Franklin said. “It’s a step in the right direction. We’re making progress. I see it very, very clearly.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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