Penn State Football

End of a trend? Penn State defense hoping to avoid familiar pass-rush woes

Defensive ends talk Browning

Penn State defensive ends Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz talk about Washington quarterback Jake Browning
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Penn State defensive ends Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz talk about Washington quarterback Jake Browning

Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer doesn’t want to see Saturday follow a familiar trend.

Almost a full year ago, the Nittany Lions’ pass rush struggled as USC quarterback Sam Darnold helped define a wild Rose Bowl by extending plays and killing the defense’s left-on-an-island secondary. That storyline continued into the 2017 season, when Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke both exploited the lack of a pass rush to the tune of 728 total passing yards.

Washington quarterback Jake Browning, a 2016 Heisman Trophy candidate, presents a similar challenge. And with prior losses to shifty quarterbacks etched in his mind, Spencer is hoping his “wild dogs” can avoid the unwanted trend again Saturday.

“In the last three years, only Alabama and Clemson have more sacks than us total. So that’s the expectation when we go out on the field,” Spencer said Thursday. “But clearly those types of quarterbacks present a problem. ... Anytime you’re rushing a quarterback with great feet, you’ve got to be conscious of it. But what you can’t do is, you can’t be afraid to go get him. If you played scared, that’s when they really hurt you.”

Penn State players didn’t concede that’s what happened in the past. But whatever the Nittany Lions did in Pasadena, Columbus and East Lansing wasn’t enough.

Darnold, who wasn’t sacked in USC’s 52-49 win, racked up a Rose Bowl-record 453 yards and five touchdowns. On Oct. 28, Barrett led a riveting comeback, completing 13 of 13 passes for 170 yards in the fourth quarter with minimal to zero pressure. A week later, Lewerke threw for 400 yards — and ended Penn State’s playoff hopes.

At Ohio State and Michigan State, Penn State recorded four sacks on 95 passing attempts.

That lack of pass rush can’t happen again on Saturday, and defensive end Shareef Miller doesn’t think it will.

“We want to pressure (Browning) all game,” the redshirt sophomore said. “We want to sack him a lot, too. That’s what we’ve been focusing on the last couple of weeks.”

During bowl prep, the Penn State coaching staff actually put running back Josh McPhearson at quarterback for certain drills. The defensive linemen were tasked with a game of tag, trying their best to bottle up the shifty 5-foot-10 senior.

The thought process there? If Miller, Ryan Buchholz, Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons and company can corral McPhearson, a slower Browning should present no problem.

Still, Browning is a threat worth considering in the Darnold category. The Washington signal-caller aired it out for 3,430 passing yards and 43 scores in 2016 while throwing 18 scores and completing 68.8 percent of his passes (third-best nationally) this season.

Perhaps most importantly, Browning has been sacked only 16 times this season — tied for the fewest allowed in the Pac-12 and fourth-fewest among Power 5 schools.

“It’s kind of funny,” said Coleman Shelton, Washington’s center and first-team all-conference selection. “When you look at the guy, you don’t think he can scramble around like that. But he’s pretty mobile in the pocket.”

Penn State defensive end Ryan Buchholz sees it, too.

Buchholz — who was hurt on the first play of the Ohio State game and missed several contests after the fact — will be at 100 percent Saturday. The Nittany Lions will need him, too.

“He can see things without looking,” Buchholz said of Browning. “Someone would be coming from his blindside, and you can see him step up a little bit. You can tell he has a good sense of the pocket.”

Added Shelton: “It’s great having him back there directing traffic. We just have to give him confidence and make sure he’s secure back there.”

But if the Nittany Lions have their way, that won’t be the case. Penn State — which ranks ninth in the country with 3.17 sacks per game — is determined to pressure and pounce on Browning.

The Nittany Lions don’t want to suffer a fate similar to the Rose Bowl.

“This is why you play in New Year’s Six bowls,” Spencer said. “This is what you coach for. We’re excited about the challenge.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9