Penn State Football

Aggressive Lion defense big concern for UMass

Penn State’s Bill Belton (1) may be looking for more running room today when the Nittany Lions battle Massachusetts at 4 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State’s Bill Belton (1) may be looking for more running room today when the Nittany Lions battle Massachusetts at 4 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium. CDT file photo

Jordan Lucas picks up his video game controller and carefully considers his play call.

Facing either one of Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s sons — Tyler or Jay — in a game of Madden, Lucas knows the blitz is coming. So he chooses a quick pass, anything to neutralize the Shoops’ relentless pressure. As defensive tackle Anthony Zettel put it, the apples haven’t fallen too far from the tree.

There will be no controllers or flatscreen TVs on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. The blitzes will be real and Massachusetts head coach and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple will be the one making the play calls on the other end, trying to defuse Shoop’s aggressive tactics when Penn State (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten) hosts UMass (0-3) at 4 p.m.

“I’m not sure if we had Jim Brown that we’d be able to run the ball against Penn State’s front,” Whipple said.

No team has done so with effectiveness thus far.

Penn State has yet to allow an opposing running back to eclipse the 100-yard threshold and is holding opponents to just 65 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions have taken advantage of a dominant defensive line and have been able to apply pressure with freed-up linebackers. Shoop has also brought pressure from the secondary. Middle linebacker Mike Hull and cornerback Lucas have each contributed one to Penn State’s sack total of nine.

When Whipple watches film of Penn State’s defense, he sees a foursome up front that’s getting the job done every snap.

“(Anthony) Zettel’s playing out of his mind. (C.J.) Olaniyan’s a great player, (Deion) Barnes is a great player and can rush the passer,” Whipple said. “Bobby Shoop’s done a great job. They’ve got the guys up front and they play coverage really well, but those guys up front are making it happen.”

It’ll be up to Blake Frohnapfel to make plays down the field with his arm. The former Marshall quarterback will make his fourth start. With Whipple’s guidance, Frohnapfel has taken over a multiple-set UMass offense and guided it to some solid outputs in recent weeks.

The Minutemen are averaging five points more per game than Penn State but haven’t been able to turn points into wins.

“They run a lot of formations and they have a lot of great athletes,” Penn State cornerback Trevor Williams said.

Williams and his teammates are quite familiar with one of them. Williams, who was a receiver for Penn State two years ago, used to drill with UMass senior Alex Kenney every spring, late summer and fall behind the Lasch Building.

Kenney, a former State College High standout, played sparingly at receiver for Penn State and transferred to UMass in the winter. Kenney said his decision to transfer was based on recommendations from Penn State coaches who wanted to go another route.

“They’re very solid on both sides of the ball and they definitely execute defensively,” Kenney said of his old teammates.

So far that execution has paid off.

Shoop’s aggressive pledge has earned him trust and high praise from his players. Lucas said he’s having the most fun he’s ever had playing football under Shoop.

It’s what head coach James Franklin envisioned when Shoop joined his staff.

“I’ve been on the headset with the defense where Bob’s called out 75 percent of the plays before they have been run,” Franklin said. “He’s called out, ‘We are going to get an interception here’ and things like that. It’s pretty impressive at times, it really is.”