Depth makes the difference for Penn State's defense when it matters most
With a wall of white pom poms and white noise at their backs, Penn State’s defense stood tall on the goal line, securing a game-defining stop that was years in the making.
At the game’s pivotal moment, despite spending just over 37 minutes on the field, the NIttany Lions felt fresh when it counted most, and helped secure a 28-21 win over Michigan at Beaver Stadium.
“Our ability to rotate guys in all year long paid dividends for us tonight,” James Franklin said postgame. “That stop was huge.”
When Penn State is on defense, its sideline acts as a revolving door. The Nittany Lions always prefer to rotate on defense as much as the game situation allows, but Saturday’s effort was a true testament to the depth the NIttany Lions have accumulated on the defensive side of the ball.
Even with the game on the line, Penn State felt comfortable with reserves in the game.
PJ Mustipher was on the field at defensive tackle, along with Jaquon Brisker in the defensive backfield, with the Nittany Lions line up in nickel defense. Ellis Brooks played linebacker on first down. Jesse Luketa subbed in for Micah Parsons on second and third down, coming away with a crucial pass breakup.
To fifth-year senior Garrett Taylor, the change all along Penn State’s depth chart from the time he first arrived on campus until now is evident.
“I would say we have a lot more depth,” Taylor said. “Coach [Tim] Banks was saying we have a lot more depth, not only in our room, but as a defense. It’s just super helpful to be able to rotate guys in and out, not have any drop off at all.”
That helped the Nittany Lion defense bend but not break.
When Penn State’s offense faltered in the second half, unable to give the defense a rest as the Wolverine offense continued to pound away, the Nittany Lions never collapsed like a lesser defense might.
They just kept filtering fresh guys in.
“It’s extremely important to always have someone go in when you need a blow,” Parsons said. “When you’ve got guys you can rely on, it helps a defense because then you’re not putting too much stress on the ones and you’re not putting too much stress on the twos. I think we’ve got a great rotation going on.”
It’s become the norm at Penn State. Tariq Castro-Fields, one of the few players on the defense who rarely leaves the field, said he doesn’t think about who’s on the field with him too much.
The difference just isn’t there — except late in the game, with the outcome on the line.
Twice now, the Nittany Lions have saved games with goal line stops in the fourth quarter, with another clutch stop coming in Week 3 against Pitt.
“[Depth] shows up late in games, on big drives, stuff like that,” Taylor said. “Guys are fresher than they would be.”
It would be dishonest to suggest that there wasn’t a bit of good fortune involved against Michigan, which saw what could have been the game-tying score slip through the hands of Ronnie Bell on fourth down.
Lamont Wade made it difficult, though. And the Nittany Lions will take the win — and the confidence boost that comes with it.
“This defense is for real,” Cam Brown said.