As is its custom, the Penn State defense continued to allow its opponent to rack up some yards last weekend, this time against Maryland. But once the Terrapins got to the Nittany Lions’ 20, the doors to the end zone were difficult to pry open.
The Lions stopped Maryland three times in the red zone in their 31-14 victory, allowing the Terps just two TDs in five chances. Their red-zone statistics are 64.7% overall, sixth in FBS, giving up only 10 touchdowns in 34 trips by the opponent, a 29.4% showing that is third behind Georgia and Clemson.
Coach James Franklin called the red-zone performance by the defense “an offseason priority, for sure.”
“I would say we would do it every single year, but obviously it’s probably been a little bit more impactful this year,” Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly Zoom news conference. “The other thing is we’ve done a better job in recruiting and developing length at the back end.”
Six of the seven players on the back end of the Penn State defense — four defensive backs, three linebackers — are listed at 6 feet or taller. Franklin said their ranginess is “helpful.”
“We are longer in the secondary when you talk about the body types of our safeties and corners and even the body types of our linebackers,” he said. “There are a lot of ways to reduce space on defense. One way is with speed, to be able to close windows or stay in man coverage. The length also is important.”
Maryland was able to roll up 417 total yards and 29 first downs Saturday, but did not have a play from scrimmage of more than 20 yards. The Nittany Lions put the game away with an 87-yard interception return for a touchdown by safety Ji’Ayir Brown.
For the season, Penn State is allowing 350.8 yards per game on defense, 40th in FBS, but its 16.7-point average is tied for 10th.
The Nittany Lions, ranked No. 23 this week, return home Saturday to take on ninth-ranked Michigan at Beaver Stadium.
Another area where the Lions looked strong last weekend was defending the run. They established a season low in rushing yards allowed with 48, only the fourth time this year they kept the yardage to double digits. Franklin said that other than the Illinois game, when the Fighting Illini rushed for 357 yards in an upset win, his team has done well.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of defending the run and trying to make people one-dimensional,” he said. “Obviously that’s going to be a challenge come Saturday because I think that’s a big part of [Michigan’s] identity and who they are. They’re massive up front with the O-line and the tight ends.
“They’ve got a big back [Hassan Haskins] that can hammer in there, and then they have an undersized, quick back [Blake Corum] that also does a great job of breaking tackles and plays with more power than you would think. So it’s going to be a challenge, there’s no doubt about it.”
Michigan leads the Big Ten in rushing at 234.1 yards per game. Haskins has accumulated 829 yards on the ground and Corum has 778. The pair has combined for 21 rushing TDs.
Franklin said he has suspended backup defensive tackle Fred Hansard for the first half of Saturday’s game for pushing Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa to the ground after the quarterback scrambled out of bounds at the Penn State sideline.
The incident, which attracted plenty of attention on social media, did not result in a penalty for the redshirt senior.
Franklin called Hansard “a model citizen and a model student-athlete” in his time at Penn State.
“I understand when something like that happens and it doesn’t look good there, there needs to be a reaction,” he said. “But I hope everybody understands that’s not who Fred Hansard is.”
Hansard issued a statement Monday “to extend my sincere apologies for the unfortunate incident that took place on the sideline on Saturday. It was truly an act of impulse and not malice. I did not and would not intentionally try to hurt another player.”
Reed will not redshirt
Freshman safety Jaylen Reed will continue to play this season beyond the maximum number of four games he would be allowed to compete in to keep his redshirt, Franklin said.
“We’re gonna play him; he wants to play,” the coach said. “He’s ready to play. We need him on special teams. We need him in some of our defensive packages as well. I think that’ll help him moving forward for next year. Football makes sense to him. He’s a football-smart guy. So we’re very high on Jaylen.”
The 6-foot, 209-pound Reed has played the last two weeks against Ohio State and Maryland and now has four games under his belt.