Penn State Football

Penn State football: Nittany Lion defensive front holding its own heading into Michigan game

Penn State's Anthony Zettel and the Nittany Lion defensive line have yielded an average of 60.2 yards per game on the ground this season when they visit Michigan on Saturday.
Penn State's Anthony Zettel and the Nittany Lion defensive line have yielded an average of 60.2 yards per game on the ground this season when they visit Michigan on Saturday. CDT file photo

Opposing coaches have heaped praise on Penn State’s defensive line throughout the season.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke became the latest, crediting the unit for the team’s defensive success as he prepares the Wolverines for their matchup with Nittany Lions at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Nittany Lions defensive line coach Sean Spencer has taken a more measured approach than others have in assessing his group’s play after five games.

“That group right there is doing a good job,” Spencer said. “I wouldn’t say great, but we’re doing a good job and they know the level of expectations has risen every week. We want them to continue to get better.”

The numbers say the Penn State defense, led by the line, has been dominant. The Nittany Lions have allowed 60.2 rushing yards per game — the fewest in the Big Ten and second-fewest in the country. Opponents are averaging two yards per carry against Penn State. The Nittany Lions are also giving up just 14.6 points per game, good for first in the conference, and rank second in the conference in total defense.

Hoke pointed to the defensive line as the reason for the impressive statistics.

“I think No. 1 their front,” Hoke said during the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference Tuesday. “I think they’ve got a very salty front. I think they do a nice job. I think when they need to bring pressure, they’ve been able to do that and be successful. I think getting off blocks and the integrity of your defense is gapping out things, I think that’s a real important part and I think they do a nice job with it.”

Penn State’s front garnered compliments from opposing coaches as they started the year 4-0.

Heading into its game against Massachusetts, Minutemen coach Mark Whipple said he wasn’t sure his team could run the ball if it had Hall of Famer Jim Brown. UMass ran for three yards and fell 48-7 to Penn State.

A week earlier, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood singled out Penn State defensive tackle Anthony Zettel for his play in the Nittany Lions’ 13-10 win, saying Zettel controlled the second half. The Scarlet Knights recorded just three first downs in the final two quarters.

Spencer said his defensive line got off to a fast start, specifically Zettel. The defensive tackle is tied for second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss with seven and leads the team with three sacks, including one in the closing minutes of the win over Rutgers that brought out his intensity.

“I know he’s going to be a little bit cuckoo sometimes, but I love that about him,” Spencer said. “And I think the guys feed off of that, they know Anthony’s going to come with great energy. He’s so intense. After he got that sack at Rutgers, he was on the sideline and he was just screaming and yelling and his eyes were bubbling up and that’s those moments as a coach you just love when you see that that guy just got it in that moment.”

Zettel hasn’t been the only standout on the line.

Penn State coach James Franklin has said defensive tackle Austin Johnson’s contributions may not show in the stats, but his play often leads to opportunities for his teammates. And starting defensive ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan each have two sacks. Olaniyan is second on the team with 4.5 tackles for loss, and Barnes is third with four tackles for loss.

The unit will face a Michigan team without its leading rusher Derrick Green, who is out for the season with a broken collarbone. De’Veon Smith, who averages six yards per carry, and Justice Hayes, who averages 5.3 yards per carry, will be expected to fill the void.

Michigan averages 180.8 yards rushing per game, ranking seventh in the Big Ten and ahead of previous Penn State opponents Rutgers and Northwestern.

“We understand that Michigan’s got a good offensive line,” Zettel. “They’re going to try to run the ball on us and I think the D-line and the linebackers and the safeties, everybody’s going to step up and meet that challenge.”

Spencer said he thought the defensive line could have been more disruptive in Penn State’s 29-6 loss to Northwestern.

He felt the unit achieved that goal in the second half.

In the third quarter, Olaniyan hit Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian as he released a pass intended for wide receiver Miles Shuler along the sideline. The ball wobbled off target and into the hands of Penn State’s Adrian Amos for an interception.

The defensive line helped keep the Nittany Lions in the game, but Spencer thinks his unit can improve its consistency in pad level and gap control.

“Everyone on the coaching staff and everyone in the football world knows that the D-line is the strength of our team and every week we got to step up to the challenge,” Spencer said. “When we don’t do that, then that’s a disappointment to me.”