Penn State Football

Does Penn State have one of the nation’s top defensive lines? Here’s how it made the case Saturday

After a 10-sack performance Saturday, the most by Penn State in two decades, smiling defensive end Shaka Toney yelled over to his teammate for some light trash-talk.

Toney, known for being every Nittany Lion’s “big brother,” finished with three sacks. Future first-round NFL draft pick Yetur Gross-Matos had two. So, before they shook hands with Purdue, Toney just wanted to remind the younger defensive end about Saturday’s sack count.

“We all know how dominant Yetur is,” Toney told reporters after the 35-7 win over Purdue, “so little old me is just trying to go out there and give him a run for his money, make sure he competes.”

The defensive line combined to contribute eight of Penn State’s 10 sacks, the most since former All-American LaVar Arrington led the Nittany Lions to a school-record 11 sacks against Illinois in 1999. Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer — filling in for the injured Elijah Sindelar — couldn’t find a moment to relax in the pocket Saturday afternoon.

And even head coach James Franklin came away impressed.

“Defensively, we’re doing some special things right now,” Franklin said. “It starts up front. When your defensive line can stop the run and pressure the quarterback from four-down, when you can get 13 tackles for loss and 10 sacks and hold someone to minus-19 yards rushing, we’re playing championship-level defense right now.”

Nationally, as it stands after the noon games, the Nittany Lions would be tied for first nationally in sacks per game (5.0) and tied for second nationally in tackles for loss (10.4). And Gross-Matos, even if he was beaten out by Toney on Saturday, doesn’t think many defensive lines could beat out his Nittany Lions.

“I believe in those guys and I think we can achieve anything, so I’d put us at the top,” Gross-Matos added.

The sacks came early and often Saturday. On Purdue’s first drive, on third down, Toney was rounding the corner before the right tackle got a hand on him — and earned the first sack of the day. On the next drive, again on third down, Toney’s twitch was no match for Purdue’s offensive tackle — and he chased Plummer down for another sack.

And, when Purdue started paying more attention to Toney, that opened up several opportunities for his teammates. When Purdue double-teamed Toney in the second quarter, on another third down, Gross-Matos stunted inside and brought down the quarterback. Again.

“Those guys are unblockable,” safety Lamont Wade said, referring to Toney and Gross-Matos. “They’re really unblockable. They’re carrying this team.”

Whenever Purdue tried to seal one crack in its offensive line, Penn State’s defensive line poked a hole elsewhere. The Boilermakers kept experimenting, but the Nittany Lions — especially Toney and Gross-Matos — kept finding other ways for sacks.

Plummer tried to step up in the pocket, but then defensive tackle Fred Hansard stuffed him in the backfield. Instead of going outside-in, Toney stutter-stepped the lineman and went inside for the next sack. Then Gross-Matos got another, and then Jayson Oweh. Seven sacks at halftime.

“I was like, it’s getting crazy out here,” linebacker Micah Parsons said. “Everyone’s getting sacks out here. Sacks for everyone.”

For a team that’s starting to garner chatter in the College Football Playoff discussion, boasting such a talented defense — especially the defensive line — only strengthens the debate. Gross-Matos has been projected as high as a top-10 NFL draft pick, Toney has one of the fastest get-offs in the conference, and defensive tackle Robert Windsor was named a top-5 prospect at his position by NFL exec Gil Brandt.

Combine that with the depth, and it’s hard to find a weakness on the defensive line. Oweh, who had one sack Saturday, reportedly runs a 4.33-second 40-yard dash — which would make him the fastest front-seven NFL player in at least two decades — and he’s a backup.

Gross-Matos may have given the victory bell a hearty tug on his way inside the locker room, and Toney lingered in the tunnel, but the two didn’t necessarily focus on their dominance. They walked shoulder-to-shoulder to the locker room and, in the media room, the two talked more about the plays they didn’t make than the sacks they did.

“We got to get better; it was an OK day,” Toney said. “And people might think I’m being modest, but we hold ourselves to a little bit higher standard. ... I had a couple that I let get away from me. I should’ve laid out or done something a little more.”

Added Gross-Matos: “You got to go out there and keep your foot on the gas. You can’t let up.”

Among the Nittany Lions who finished with sacks Saturday: Toney (3), Gross-Matos (2), Parsons (1), Wade (1), Hansard (1), Oweh (1), Windsor (0.5) and DT Antonio Shelton (0.5).

On paper, it was one of the defensive line’s most dominant efforts this century. Plummer opened the game with seven straight incompletions and didn’t hit his first target until 20 minutes into the game — on a 1-yard pass. Purdue also averaged minus-0.7 yards per rush.

Better offenses are on the horizon for the No. 12 Nittany Lions. But the soft-spoken Gross-Matos said his team isn’t about to back down now. This is exactly where they hoped to be in early October.

“We’re 5-0,” he said. “I’m feeling really confident about this team — and this unit.”

Said Toney: “Our defense got a lot more to showcase.”

Big Ten offenses, consider this game your notice.

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