Penn State Football

How Penn State’s defensive line dominated the Big Ten’s best OL

Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller sacks Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan during the game on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018.
Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller sacks Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan during the game on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. adrey@centredaily.com

James Franklin interlocked arms with his defensive line — two on one side, two on the other — as they walked toward the Beaver Stadium tunnel. “It starts up front!” the head coach shouted at them minutes before kickoff.

It was a theme hammered into the heads of the front four all week. Wisconsin’s offensive line boasted three preseason All-Americans. The front collectively weighed 16 pounds more than the Green Bay Packers’ starting five. And the coaching staff reiterated their strengths every day, until they started to sound like a fight song stuck on repeat.

“We respect Wisconsin’s offensive line,” defensive end Shareef Miller acknowledged Saturday, “but some of us were tired of keep hearing it.”

Miller and Co. proved in Penn State’s 22-10 win over Wisconsin on Saturday that they didn’t need a reminder. They dominated in a way no other team has this season.

Michigan’s defense managed just two tackles for loss against the Badgers’ big uglies. Iowa had three, and Northwestern recorded four. Penn State’s defensive line alone? Five sacks and a half-dozen stops in the backfield.

“It was a big statement,” said Miller, who had two sacks and a fumble recovery. “We kept hearing offensive line this and that. We understand it was a great offensive line, and we were just ready for the task.”

The Nittany Lions were mostly business-like in their approach. After the game, defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos — who had two tackles for loss and a hand in two fumbles — walked right past the victory bell without so much as glancing at it. Miller, whose back was covered in grass stains, remained stone-faced and stopped briefly to chat with fans.

And defensive tackle Robert Windsor? Well, the Wisconsin native just couldn’t stop smiling.

“Winning always feels great,” said Windsor, who had a career-high two sacks. “But I feel amazing now.”

This was supposed to be one of the game’s key matchups — and one that was projected to break in Wisconsin’s favor. Miller was set to face right tackle David Edwards, ranked as the 2020 draft class’ No. 4 prospect at his position. And Penn State’s defensive tackles went up against two preseason All-American guards.

But Penn State dominated from the midpoint of the first quarter on. Half of their six sacks came on crucial third downs, meaning those plays essentially ended 25 percent of the Badgers’ offensive drives.

Although Wisconsin was forced to start backup quarterback Jack Coan, the pressure was constant and unrelenting. Near the end of the third quarter, Miller crashed the edge and just missed the strip sack — but Windsor was nearby, brought Coan down and pounded his chest like Tarzan.

“I just felt like I kept getting in the backfield,” Windsor said, “but that’s because the guys next to me were, too. That took the attention off of me.

“Personally, I think we get overlooked. I think we’re one of the best defensive lines in the country.”

The only real hiccup came early in the game, on Wisconsin’s third offensive play, when college football’s leading rusher in Jonathan Taylor sprinted through a seam up the middle for a 71-yard touchdown. After that play, and trailing 7-0, Franklin and the staff’s message was clear: It’s one play. Keep your head up, keep your composure, and go get it on the next drive. On the next drive, Gross-Matos dove on a fumbled exchange between the quarterback and center.

At that point, about 10 minutes into the game, Penn State allowed 115 yards. For the last 50 minutes? Try 154 yards. Take away that long run, and the Badgers averaged just 3.8 yards per carry.

“I think people were probably doubting us,” Miller said. “But we came out today and had a good gameplan, and we executed.”

Added Gross-Matos: “Besides the one run, I don’t think they had much else.”

Miller said this was the best offensive line Penn State faced all season. Franklin stressed their strengths all week, and he challenged his front four to be more physical than ever before.

They all stepped up, from defensive tackle Kevin Givens, who ate up space but didn’t post big numbers, to the forgotten Windsor — whose Wisconsin parents flew in for the game. He tied a career high with six tackles in addition to his career-high two sacks.

After the game, while the defensive linemen each took a pizza box from the locker room and plopped it aside of them in the media room, they took turns using words like “pride” and “statement” and “confidence.”

This was one of the line’s best performances of the season. And it came at a time when the trenches were going to decide the game.

“Them being known for their offensive line and us doing what we did to them,” Windsor said, summing up the line’s performance. “There’s no better feeling.”

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