After Shareef Miller tugged on the victory bell a few times and walked through a tunnel of screaming Penn State fans, one thought crossed his mind Saturday afternoon.
This defensive line is getting closer.
It’s getting nearer to dominance. It’s bouncing back after showing cracks against Pitt’s rushing attack. And, maybe most importantly, it’s drawing closer to the three goals it’s discussing every day: Get 50 sacks, become the nation’s No. 1-rated run defense, and record 50 tackles-for-loss.
“It feels really good,” said Miller, one of the Nittany Lions’ starting defensive ends. “We’re going to reach that, but we just got to keep working and keep being consistent. That’s all we can do.”
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Those three goals were typed up, printed out and stuck to the dry-erase board in the defensive line room at the Lasch Football Building. The line is reminded of those goals every time they step foot in the room — and Miller’s sure to remind his teammates every time they’re about to play a game.
Against Kent State in Saturday afternoon’s 63-10 drubbing, that was no different. The line wasn’t perfect — it jumped offsides on a critical fourth down — but it was still impressive. Miller boasted two sacks and three tackles-for-loss, despite standing near the bench the entire fourth quarter and cheering on his younger teammates. Overall, the defensive line accounted for six of Penn State’s seven sacks and 8.5 of its 15 tackles-for-loss Saturday.
“Playing with the wild dogs in front of you is great because you’re getting energy out of them,” linebacker Cam Brown said, referring to the line. “Playing with that in front of you makes your pass responsibility a lot easier when you know the quarterback isn’t going to throw it. So you’re just kind of waiting for that sack and, when it comes, it’s lovely.”
Numbers don’t tell the complete story, but they tell enough. Through three games so far this season, Penn State has recorded 31 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. At that pace, it’ll hit its TFL goal before the end of October and its sacks goal in the regular-season finale.
Attaining the top-rated run defense will take some work. After struggling against Pitt, the Nittany Lions are allowing nearly 150 yards per game — but at least took a step forward by limiting the Golden Flashes to 41 yards on 37 carries.
“I don’t think there’s a day where we don’t talk about our goals on the defensive line, and we’re trying to take steps toward that,” defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos said. “So we talk about the 50 sacks and everything every day. There’s not a day where we don’t have our mind on that.”
Added Miller: “We talk about it a lot to bring it into existence. Every day.”
Outside of one quarter this season — Appalachian State’s 28-point fourth — the defensive line has waffled between bend-don’t-break and just don’t-even-bend. It surrendered 245 rushing yards to Pitt but allowed just six points. Against Kent State, where it barely bended, it held strong when 32-year-old coach Sean Lewis faced a first-and-goal situation just 7 yards from the end zone.
The Golden Flashes settled for a field goal there.
“We just don’t fold under pressure,” Miller said. “We love that as a defense.”
There were some lingering defensive questions heading into this week. Was Appalachian State’s fourth quarter an aberration or the new norm? Was Pitt’s success on the ground an anomaly or a new Penn State weakness?
Kent State is no Ohio State or Wisconsin. But the defensive line responded by dominating at just about every turn. True freshman Jayson Oweh made his debut in a Penn State uniform and recorded two sacks — on the same drive in the third quarter. Ellison Jordan recorded his first career solo sack. Gross-Matos registered a career-high two TFLs. DT Kevin Givens once again freed up his teammates to make plays.
The starters were pulled in the final quarter. At the end of the third? The line had held Kent State to minus-11 rushing yards.
Miller and Gross-Matos both walked through the tunnel Saturday afternoon feeling the future is bright — and they both have their eye to the board in the DL room. Especially that sacks number.
“We’re going to sack the quarterback every game,” Miller said. “That’s something we want to do. That’s something we’re going to stand on. And that’s something we’re going to work on every day in practice so when Saturday comes, we’re going to achieve that goal.”
Added Gross-Matos: “It’s motivating, you know? We set that goal, and right now, we’re on the road to achieve it.”