Before the season started I laid out what the Penn State defense could look like for 2018. With the departure of many veterans to graduation and a few leaving due to injury, it was not clear who would step up for the Nittany Lions. The article showcased players that needed to have a big season in the absence of those veterans and young players that could showcase their talent early. The 2018 season is entering the back stretch and the Nittany Lions dropped two match-ups, effectively knocking them out of playoff and Big Ten Championship contention. It is time to look at where the Penn State defense stands to close out the season.
Where the Penn State Defense Stands
At the start of the 2018 season, I highlighted defensive end Torrence Brown as a player to watch. Just after the article was published, Brown became the next Nittany Lion to leave football due to injury. So, let’s see who has stepped up on the defensive line so far.
Last season, the fourth-year junior ended 2017 with 11 tackles for loss, five sacks, and nine hits on the quarterback in 13 games. Through the first six, this season Miller has 11 solo tackles, 8.5 for loss, and four sacks. He is on pace to beat last year’s totals and has been a force on the line for the Nittany Lions. Miller made headlines before the match-up against Ohio State, by saying that “if you hit him a lot of times, he’s gonna fold.” In regards to Buckeye quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Against Penn State, Haskins had his lowest passer rating of the season. Ohio State won the game by one point, but Haskins was kept in check until the end.
Gross-Matos is picking up right where he left off as a true freshman a season ago. The 6-foot 5-inch sophomore has already passed his freshman totals in half the time. Last season, he ended with 17 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a fumble recovery. That was playing in every game. This season, through six games, Gross-Matos has 17 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and one forced fumble. Gross-Matos was poised to have a big season and the numbers show that to be true. Look for him to continue dominance on a young defensive line.
The rest of the D-Line
The rest of the defensive line has been patchwork throughout the first six games. Shaka Toney is another sophomore that has played in five games this season. Toney has three tackles for loss and one sack this year. Due to the lack of depth at the defensive tackle position and the loss to injury, the Nittany Lions moved redshirt freshman CJ Thorpe to the defensive line ahead of the Ohio State game. He has played well for making the move seven days before his first start. Through two games, Thorpe has two tackles. He is still adjusting to the position and James Franklin stated that this is where he will stay for the remainder of the 2018 season.
Finally, the defensive line has rounded out with redshirt freshman Fred Hansard, who is now out for the season with an injury, and true freshman Jayson Oweh. Franklin has utilized the new redshirt rule in football and only played Oweh in one game, but with the injury to Hansard look for Oweh to be utilized a little more.
Manny Bowen is another player that was highlighted prior to the 2018 season. He had been reinstated to the team after being dismissed after the 2017 season ended. Shortly after his reinstatement, he left the Nittany Lions to focus on his academics.
Brown was poised to have a big season with the loss of veteran linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Smith to graduation. Through six games this season, he currently sits fourth on the team in total tackles. The junior linebacker is on pace to pass his totals from his freshman year two seasons ago, which had been his best while only playing in eight games. As a freshman, he had 33 total tackles, 1.5 for loss, and .5 of a sack. This season, he has played in all six games and has 28 total tackles, five for loss, and one sack. In addition, he also has three passes defended. If the junior can keep this pace through the back stretch, he will have the best season of his career.
True freshman Micah Parsons is living up to the hype he garnered out of high school. He is fifth on the team in total tackles, right behind Cam Brown. Parsons has played in all six games this season, effectively burning his redshirt. In the first few games, it was evident when Parsons would come in the game because the defense would get a spark. Now, the defense still gets the same spark, but because he is playing a lot more. Parsons has a nose for the ball, which is why he has 28 total tackles through six games this season. He still has a lot of learning to do, but his career has nowhere to go but up.
Junior linebacker Johnson has been the unlikely hero of the group this season. He is leading the team in total tackles and is one game away from tying the total amount he played in through his first two seasons. He walked on to Penn State two seasons ago and has now become the guy the team can’t do without. 19 of his 34 team leading tackles are solo and he has an interception. Johnson is all over the field, but he is not the type of guy that will be in the backfield every play. The young defense got an unlikely leader in the former walk-on, but he is showing them where hard work can take you.
Before the 2018 season started, Nick Scott was a running back. As I highlighted in the article to begin the season, Scott has played on every side of the ball throughout his career at Penn State. Now, the graduate senior has landed himself third on the team in total tackles. Many fans remember how former safety Marcus Allen was known for coming up and making the big tackle. Well, Scott has followed in Allen’s footsteps. Scott is not the guy that will be defending the pass as much as he is the one stepping up and making a tackle close to the line. He has 30 total tackles, one for loss, and one sack this season. Scott is a two-time team captain and is taking leadership to the next level.
Cornerback John Reid is not having as big of a year as many expected he would coming off of an injury that kept him out of the entire 2017 season. This is partially because he has only played in four out of the six games this season. Through four games, he has eight tackles and three passes defended. He is on pace to match or beat his passes defended total from two seasons ago, but is not anywhere close to his former tackling totals. This is part of the problem the Nittany Lion secondary has been having this season. Open field tackling is a major weak spot for the defense and it is highlighted by the stats of Reid.
Despite what some may be thinking about Amani Oruwariye after the meltdowns of the defense against Ohio State and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks, the senior is having his best year for the Nittany Lions. Coming into 2018, Oruwariye had not recorded a start for Penn State. The cornerback suited up behind Grant Haley and Christian Campbell. Oruwariye played in 11 games in 2017 and had 28 total tackles, four interceptions, and seven passes defended. Through six games in his final season, he has 23 total tackles, two interceptions, eight passes defended, and one forced fumble. He would have notched a few more interceptions this season, but a few dropped out of his hands in the last two games. If Oruwariye can shake off the fourth quarters of the last two games, he is poised to have his best season yet.
At the beginning of the season, Garrett Taylor was another player that had the ability to step up and make plays for the Nittany Lions this season. His name was not fully on the radar, but he was a possibility. Therefore, it should be no surprise to Penn State fans that Taylor is second on the defense in total tackles. The redshirt junior only played in nine games a season ago and has played in every game in 2018. He has 33 total tackles, 1.5 for loss, two interceptions, six passes defended, and a forced fumble. It must also be noted that the two interceptions are for a combined 82 yards. He has been very productive for the Nittany Lions this year and had an especially big game against Ohio State.
As you can see, the Penn State defense has talent. It is just sharpening the core skills for the unit as a whole and fixing the little things. The Nittany Lions have been very good when playing aggressive this season. Dropping back has not been a strong spot. Open-field tackling still needs work and the unit has to learn to close out games. The majority of the defense is young, sophomores and freshman with a few juniors and seniors in there that did not have that many full seasons under their belts.
The expectations for the unit may have been a tad too high entering the season, but the talent is there. The depth is getting there, and they are getting better with each game. To finish the season strong, the young defense needs to learn to finish the fourth quarter strong. This is not all on the players though. It shows that the defense is strongest when bringing pressure and playing aggressively. The coaches need to utilize the growing depth to keep starters fresh late in the game. If the little things can be sorted out, then the defense should finish strong.