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Penn State’s defense showed skill and stamina against Wisconsin — but tough tests loom ahead

The Nittany Lions did a lot well on defense, producing three takeaways and stopping their opponent on three of four trips inside the red zone. They will need a similar performance in the weeks ahead.

Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson catches a pass in front of Penn State's Joey Porter Jr. during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Madison, Wis.
Wisconsin's Jake Ferguson catches a pass in front of Penn State's Joey Porter Jr. during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Madison, Wis.Read moreMorry Gash / AP

One would assume Penn State’s defense would be exhausted and looking forward to a long, refreshing shower after being on the field for nearly 42½ minutes and 95 plays in the Nittany Lions’ hard-fought victory over Wisconsin.

No, not the case. They were too busy celebrating. Sophomore cornerback Joey Porter Jr. was so tired he was doing backflips on the field Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

“That’s how much energy I had after,” Porter said Tuesday. “If we have to play those snaps, we’ll play them. I feel like everybody on the defense was energized and well-conditioned. That’s what we really worked on this offseason, just to be able to play that many snaps and be locked in for that many plays. It was amazing that we were ready for it.”

The Lions’ defense was the definite star of the show in the 16-10 win. Only four FBS teams had a higher turnover margin than Penn State’s plus-3 (two interceptions, one fumble recovery). The Lions limited the Badgers to just 3.84 yards per play, ranking 21st in fewest yards allowed on average in the FBS, and Wisconsin’s 8.41 yards per completion ranked it 94th among the top 100 teams in passing yardage.

» READ MORE: In its win over Wisconsin, Penn State didn’t make any big mistakes, and not too many little ones

In all, Penn State ranked 25th in defensive pass efficiency, and limited the Badgers to one red zone score in four trips inside the 20. For all of 2020, the Nittany Lions allowed their opponents 25 scores in 28 red zone situations, a statistic that defensive coordinator Brent Pry addressed in the offseason.

“He really put the emphasis on it,” Porter said. “I feel like over the whole spring and fall camp, we really were learning how to execute in the red zone. We work on it every day. So this wasn’t new to us when we were put in those situations. We’re fired up in those situations to get to show the world how special this defense is.”

Two new starters contributed to the defense’s effort. Redshirt senior end Arnold Ebiketie, a transfer from Temple, had seven unassisted tackles, one sack, two tackles for losses, and blocked a short field-goal attempt, and senior safety Ji’Ayir Brown ended the game with an interception inside the Penn State 10-yard line.

“Since the first rep I’ve seen Arnold take, I knew he was going to be a monster, extremely fast and extremely light on his feet,” Brown said. “He plays within the framework. He has a hunger to him that you don’t really see out of most D-linemen. He was very different when he came here. It’s great to play with AK.”

» READ MORE: Penn State gains confidence with win over Wisconsin thanks to explosive plays and no turnovers

The Nittany Lions will face plenty of challenges from high-powered offenses in the weeks ahead, beginning with Saturday’s home opener against Ball State at Beaver Stadium.

Fifth-year senior Drew Plitt is in his third season as the Cardinals’ starting quarterback and has passed for more than 6,700 yards and 52 touchdowns in his career. Auburn, the Lions’ Sept. 18 “White Out” opponent, rolled up 613 total yards and 60 points last weekend against Akron, and quarterback Bo Nix went 20 of 22 for 275 yards and three TDs in less than three quarters of action.

As for the Lions’ Big Ten opponents, Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland, and Ohio State all gained at least 495 yards of total offense in their season openers. But the Lions could achieve a successful season if they can maintain the confidence they gained throughout their road game at Wisconsin.

Porter said winter workouts and spring football revealed that the secondary would be something special.

“We knew we had some dogs on this team that were willing to fight,” he said. “We didn’t want what happened last year, nobody wanted that, we were all past that. We’re just like, ‘It’s our time, we’re going to work hard and we’re going to improve while we work hard and everything.’ Spring ball came and we just hit it off like that, and we haven’t looked back since then.”