How you view Penn State’s season so far is rooted in just how far you want to dig.
On the surface, the Nittany Lions are sitting pretty. They’re 4-0. They’re ranked in the top 10. After a 63-24 win at Illinois on Friday night, they’ve outscored their first four opponents 222-78. And they lead the country with 55.5 points per game, while putting up 515 yards per contest, second in the Big Ten.
But there are cracks in Penn State’s foundation. There are always flaws; if you look at Alabama hard enough, you can find one, maybe. These issues for the Nittany Lions, though, run deep. Four games into the 2018 season, Penn State’s defense doesn’t have a leader, a go-to playmaker or, really, an identity. And that probably won’t change in the next five days, before Ohio State — the country’s second-highest scoring offense — comes to town.
“I don’t think we’re in a situation where we have 11 guys that we know on defense right now, especially at the linebacker position,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said Friday night. “We have starters, and we have guys we’re rotating in, but I don’t know if anybody’s separated themselves from the pack. And I think that’s probably some our challenges there. Having a guy who you know is running the defense and can be an eraser for you in terms of making plays, we’re not there yet.”
With Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes visiting for a game with national championship implications, that’s a problem. But if you paid close enough attention, it also shouldn’t be a surprise.
Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, Troy Apke, Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren are all in the NFL. Losing those seniors, as well as linebackers Brandon Smith and Manny Bowen, was going to be difficult.
But no one expected Brent Pry’s unit to underwhelm the way it has at times this season. No one expected to be in a dogfight with Appalachian State, to surrender 28 points in the fourth quarter. No one expected Pitt to run for 214 yards in the first half. And no one expected Illinois to tally 174 yards on the ground in the first two quarters Friday night.
In those quarters, series and moments, Penn State’s defense has looked lost, without answers.
“We realized it was going to be a work in progress,” Franklin said. “We have inexperienced veterans and a bunch of young guys. At those positions like quarterback and middle linebacker, experience is critical. And we lack it on the defensive side of the ball.”
Because of it, the Nittany Lions lack continuity. Because no one has “separated themselves from the pack,” Franklin and Pry are forced to throw the whole lot out there and see what sticks.
Again on Friday night, the Nittany Lions tinkered with their linebacker groupings. Cam Brown, Jan Johnson and Koa Farmer are the starters, but all three were involved in different pairings with Micah Parsons, Ellis Brooks, Jarvis Miller and Jesse Luketa. In the secondary, redshirt freshman safety Jonathan Sutherland, who rarely played meaningful snaps in the first three weeks, saw the field on Penn State’s second defensive series. On Illinois’ third drive, Penn State surrounded two starters — Brown and safety Nick Scott — with backups. The Illini drove 74 yards on six plays for a touchdown.
Franklin said they are rotating so frequently “to build depth.” The coach also pointed out after beating Illinois that 30 of the 74 players who traveled with the team to Champaign were freshmen or redshirt freshmen. He believes that those reps — even though it may have cost Penn State points on the road in its Big Ten opener — are “critical” for the development of Parsons, Sutherland, Brooks and company.
“I don’t know any other way of getting guys better than getting them on the field playing,” Franklin said. Maybe those reps for the redshirt freshmen shouldn’t come until the second half, when the heavy favorite pulls away. Or maybe getting them in early is the only way of finding out what they’re made of.
Penn State’s players are confident in each other. Redshirt junior safety Garrett Taylor admitted that “starters are starters,” but said a number of Nittany Lions can rotate in and get the job done. Johnson, Penn State’s walk-on starting MIKE linebacker, echoed those sentiments.
And, look, the Nittany Lions rebounded in those iffy games. Pry’s unit held firm in overtime against App State. They shut down Pitt and Illinois, for the most part, after halftime.
But Penn State’s defense can’t afford a lull against the Buckeyes. The Nittany Lions need to play as close to a complete game as they can. And fans need to pray that these rotations, these growing pains, pay off.
A spot in the College Football Playoff might depend on it.
“There are certain plays, certain series, certain quarters that you’re not happy with,” Franklin said. “But I do think we’re getting better, and that’s the thing I focus on. Do we get better individually and collectively every week? I think for the most part you can say we have. Have there been quarters or drives or times where we haven’t played the way we’re capable of playing? Yes.
“But overall, we’re gaining a lot of experience for a lot of different players on a very young football team. ... We’re talented, but we’re young and inexperienced. We’re making mistakes that we’ve got to get cleaned up.”