Penn State isn’t the only Big Ten team that hopes it can pull more consistency from its running game in the early part of the season.
The Nittany Lions’ upcoming opponents have dealt with an up-and-down ground attack through the first two weeks as well.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2-0) will make their Big Ten debut against Penn State on Saturday at 8 p.m. having averaged just under three yards per carry against Football Championship Subdivision foe Howard in Week 2. The Scarlet Knights managed just 109 yards on 38 carries against the Bison.
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood knows his offense won’t have it any easier against what has been a sturdy and aggressive Penn State defense thus far.
“They’re really good on defense and they’ve got more than 11 guys that they play throughout the game and play at a really high level,” Flood said. “Very difficult to run the football on.”
So far, Penn State (2-0) has given up just 93 rushing yards through two games. Central Florida rushed for just 24 yards on 29 carries and Akron had just 69 yards on 25 carries.
The Nittany Lions’ have foiled rushing attempts with a big, athletic defensive line and an active, aggressive set of linebackers. Penn State’s defensive line has been busy occupying blockers and getting penetration around the edges while Nittany Lion linebackers have been mostly free to roam and attack downhill.
They’ll get another chance to do that against a team that has shown a run-first tendency so far. Rutgers has lined up and run the ball on 60 percent of its snaps.
“Their running backs are physical, they get downhill,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “They’re more of a traditional formation, they’re not as much spread as Akron or some of the teams we’ve faced so I think it will be a real challenge for us and we’re looking forward to it on Saturday night.”
While linebacker was a spot of concern for Penn State before the season began — only Hull and Nyeem Wartman played deep snap counts last season — it has become a position group of surprise for the coaching staff, Franklin said.
Franklin said early preseason defensive game plans were going to focus on shifting the front four around and activating players from the secondary to help out with pressure. But defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has been able to coax plenty of strong play from Hull, Wartman and new starter Brandon Bell.
Hull, who played on the outside in every season prior to this one, made the move to the middle where he leads the team and is second in the Big Ten with 22 tackles. Wartman and Bell have proven to be flexible options, with each player seeing time at the Sam (strongside) and Will (weakside) spots. Wartman has 12 tackles, Bell has five and the starting three have combined to make 33 percent of Penn State’s stops.
“(Bell) gets ample time at both Sam and Will (at practice) and he’s a really, really knowledgeable guy, he studies the game,” linebackers coach Brent Pry said. “And he provides some depth too at the outside positions because he can play either spot. And then we have the same situation with Nyeem. Nyeem can easily move out and play the Sam position if needed. Those positions mirror each other to a degree.”
Bell’s quickness and ability to shed blocks have made him an asset in coverage and in space, Pry said. Meanwhile, Wartman has thrown his 6-foot-1, 236-pound frame around much more effectively than toward the end of last season when injuries slowed him and limited his effectiveness. They also forced him Wartman start the Wisconsin game on the sideline where he spent much of that game as Bell made his first start and finished with a solid performance.
“It definitely slowed the game down for me,” Bell said. “Starting the game against Wisconsin and pretty much playing the whole game, that, feeling confident as a freshman coming into my sophomore year told me that I can do this, Division I football and play with anybody pretty much.”
And like last season, the linebackers haven’t been alone on game days. They’ve gotten help from the back end and could get more as the season wears on. Shoop has used nickel and dime packages, with five and six defensive backs on the field respectively, a lot so far.
Penn State has also moved safety Adrian Amos up into the box in what Shoop calls his Star package where Amos lines up like a linebacker. He’ll replace Bell or Wartman in those situations, a wrinkle made possible by the fact that Bell and Wartman can switch between Sam and Will spots with ease.
“(Wartman is) a very good communicator, he does a great job helping Mike Hull run the defense,” Pry said. “There will be that time or two where Mike is making a mistake and Nyeem will get him right. Those guys go hand-in-hand in the box very well. Brandon plays out on the perimeter more. he’s got really good savvy. He kind of has a good feel for what’s happening out there to the big field. He’s a smart, instinctive player, he’s got a pretty good reaction to things. he can pay screens and quick game out there and he’s physical. You talk about a guy who’s 230 pounds and lines up out there on receivers. He’s got long arms and he’s learned to play with his pads rolled over. He’s hard to block out there on the perimeter and that’s what we’re counting on.”
But this week, Penn State’s linebackers figure they’ll face a more North-South surge from the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers running back Paul James is fifth in the conference in rushing and most likely would’ve posted a much better junior season had an injury not cost him four games through the mid-point of 2013.
“They’re a team that’s going to run the ball no matter what so they’re going to try to impose their physicality on us and we’re going to try to impose it on them,” Bell said. “It’s going to be a hard-nosed game.”