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Accountability is fueling Penn State’s defensive resurgence

After a poor start to the 2020 season, Penn State's defense stressed fundamentals and accountability and has carried that momentum over to their 4-0 start and No. 4 national ranking.

Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher pressures Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith.
Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher pressures Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Amid a pandemic, no spring practice, and offseason workouts that began late and were interrupted by the Big Ten’s off-again, on-again decision to play a 2020 football season, the Penn State defense found itself stuck in a rut.

In the Nittany Lions’ 0-5 start, the defense gave up an average of 36 points. The unit’s total yardage yield of 360 yards per game wasn’t terrible, but mistakes and turnovers led to a number of scoring opportunities for the opposition.

However, by midseason, defensive coordinator Brent Pry simplified a few things, put extra emphasis on fundamentals, and stressed more accountability within the ranks. The Lions lowered their averages to 27.7 points and 328.8 total yards by the end of the season and finished with four straight wins.

» READ MORE: With nothing but Big Ten games ahead, No. 4 Penn State needs to fix its running game and fight complacency

The accountability factor carried over to this year and to the 4-0 (1-0 Big Ten) start by fourth-ranked Penn State, which takes on Indiana (2-2, 0-1) Saturday night at Beaver Stadium. The defense has allowed 15 points per game (12th in FBS) and held opponents to just five touchdowns in 13 trips inside the red zone and eight scores overall (10th in FBS).

“We’ve had a lot of conversations, a lot of meetings, a lot of emphasis on accountability, how that goes beyond just attending a class or being there on time for study hall or a meal or whatever the case is,” Pry said Thursday in a Zoom call with reporters.

“You’re accountable to everybody, to yourself, to what’s being asked of you, whether it’s to align in the 30 technique when we ask you to, or to be 10 minutes early to a meeting. Either you’re the type of guy where details matter and accountability is important, or you’re not.

“We felt like at times last year, we were trying to make a play and disregarding keys and guessing, and you can’t guess in this game and be right that often. Then we thought at times we just weren’t accountable. It wasn’t important enough to make sure we were in the right place doing the right things. So that’s been a big emphasis and the guys, the leadership on defense, they have really embraced that.”

Pry, in his sixth season as James Franklin’s defensive coordinator, is delighted with the support he gets from the leadership of the unit, which starts seven seniors.

“They want to be great as a team and they want to be great individually,” he said. “They’re a very driven group, a bunch of old heads, and a fun group to coach. They’re going to come out and work their butts off every day. It’s important to them, whether it’s a walk-through, whether it’s a meeting, whether it’s a competitive period against the offense. Their approach is special.”

» READ MORE: James Franklin wants to see improvement from Penn State’s offensive line and running backs

One of the leaders, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, called accountability “probably our main theme on defense this offseason.

“I don’t think there was anything that coach had us doing or as leaders on the defense were doing all offseason as much as accountability,” Mustipher said. “Through these first four games, I think it showed up. On the field for me, accountability is everybody doing the job they’re supposed to do … at an extremely high level. That translated from the offseason, making sure we were accountable off the field.”

Pry said the Lions’ success in the red zone comes from being a little more varied in what is called on defense and keeping opposing offenses more honest, plus a change of mindset.

“No. 1 is always the mindset,” he said. “Some defenses, I think, have a defeated attitude when people get in the red zone, particularly in the tight red zone. Right now we have a group that rises to the occasion. They embrace the red zone and tough situations.”

The Lions’ defense has thrived on a “bend but don’t break” philosophy, finding itself in the middle of the Big Ten pack allowing 326.8 total yards per game. The one statistical concern is a lack of sacks; Penn State has only six in four games to go with nine quarterback hurries.

Pry is not alarmed at the output, noting “philosophical changes” made last year that called for keeping quarterbacks in the pocket and not allowing them to scramble.

“I don’t look at sack numbers necessarily,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re not important. When we’ve got 1-on-1s, how many of those are we winning? How timely are we winning them?

“It doesn’t always equate to a sack. To me, a win isn’t necessarily a sack, it’s a quarterback pressure. You’ve got to make him throw the ball; he’s got to feel you — get your hips at him, get your hand in his face. Those things are just as valuable to me.”