The vibe at the Lasch Football Building on Sunday afternoon was not one of disappointment or disaster, discouragement or distress. Yes, Penn State’s defense was exploited just a day earlier by a team it paid $1.2 million to face. But heads didn’t hang, and bodies didn’t slowly slide down in their seats.
The Nittany Lions, less than 24 hours after escaping an overtime upset bid by Appalachian State, watched film with a level head. In order to recognize the good (holding App State to 175 yards in three quarters) and the bad (allowing 28 points in the fourth), Penn State’s defense needed to take a mindset fixated on setting a tone in practice and avoiding another season-threatening meltdown at Heinz Field.
“There’s no yelling, there’s no chewing guys out. There’s just getting better, looking at the details of what we did,” fifth-year linebacker Koa Farmer said. “(Defensive coordinator Brent Pry) clips the plays that we did really good and clips the plays that we did bad on. And I think that’s good when he does both because it shows guys what’s the right thing to do. It’s just another opportunity to get better.”
And there is certainly room to improve before facing Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
Against Appalachian State, cornerbacks John Reid and Amani Oruwariye looked vulnerable. Linebacker Cam Brown, who head coach James Franklin said had “differentiated himself” at linebacker, seemed to get caught in the shuffle, making only four stops. Safeties Garrett Taylor and Nick Scott were forced to make 17 tackles, 11 of which were solo stops. The front four created little pressure, especially late. As a team, the Nittany Lions managed only two sacks and six tackles for loss — both below Penn State’s 2017 per game average.
And missed tackles, boy, were they an issue. Mountaineers running back Jalin Moore and App State’s receivers ripped through arm tackles and breezed by out-of-position defenders throughout the afternoon. KJ Hamler’s heroics, Trace McSorley’s dime, Miles Sanders’ power running and Oruwariye’s pick bailed the Nittany Lions out, a relief for the fans and players who entered Saturday’s game with College Football Playoff hopes. But those defensive woes loom large as the Nittany Lions face Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett and a Pitt offense that ran for 238 yards in their 33-7 season-opening win over Albany.
Farmer believes the Appalachian State scare is “what we needed to practice harder, to see what we need to do better” against Pitt and the Nittany Lions’ upcoming Big Ten slate. Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller said the defense’s tackling troubles and porous fourth quarter were a result of poor form and execution. But he vowed that the unit would “clean all that up this week” before visiting the Steel City.
“We didn’t really put our foot on their neck and the close the game out,” Miller said. “I believe with the talent we’ve got, even with young guys, I really think we’re gonna be one of the top defenses in the nation.”
There’s no question that Penn State has the raw ability. Miller should be drafted in April’s draft if he leaves, sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos is a freight train at the opposite defensive end spot, Reid could be an All-Big Ten selection when he shakes the rust off, and five-star Micah Parsons headlines a group of contributing true freshmen.
And yet, it will take time for Gross-Matos to get used to starting. It will take time for Reid to return to form. And it will definitely take time for those freshmen to acclimate themselves with Power 5 football.
What Saturday showed was a promising defense, until it totally fell apart. What it showed is that the unit has a ways to go.
But those players — Farmer, Miller, Oruwariye, Reid and more — who watched film at the Lasch Building on Sunday also saw three quarters of inexperienced, yet talented players flying around and playing lockdown defense.
In short, something to build on before facing the Panthers.
“In my eight years now (as a head coach) .... we’ve been able to correct issues on tape and learn from them and grow from them,” Franklin said after Wednesday’s practice. “We have to force feed that maturation. We have to force feed the experience as much as we possibly can so we can play fast.
“The last couple years here and then the years before that, we’ve been able to do it. We’ve been able to evolve and grow and correct mistakes and typically not make similar mistakes over and over again.”