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No. 10 Penn State hopes to use its depth on defense to its advantage

The Nittany Lions wanted to play more people on defense last week after a difficult season opener, and some second-line players really stood out. They'll need that depth Saturday night against Auburn.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14)  and linebacker Ellis Brooks (13) react to a play during practice on Aug. 7.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) and linebacker Ellis Brooks (13) react to a play during practice on Aug. 7.Read moreCRAIG HOUTZ / For The Inquirer

After an epic performance at Wisconsin that saw its defense on the field for 95 snaps and more than 42½ minutes of playing time, Penn State’s coaches made a concerted effort to keep their people on that side of the football fresh one week later against Ball State.

The plan worked. Substitutions came in early and often in the Nittany Lions’ 44-13 victory. The Cardinals ran off 71 plays, but the Penn State defense was on the field for less than 26 minutes in the game. Of the 18 players who had two or more tackles, eight were not in the starting lineup.

Senior linebacker Ellis Brooks called that kind of depth “very valuable in this sport.”

“It means a lot,” Brooks said Tuesday. “It shows that we’re doing a good job in practice, in our walk-throughs, getting younger guys ready to play on Saturdays. No matter the situation in terms of how you feel on the field, if you need to tap your helmet and get a breather, you know the next man is going to come in and do his job.

“You want to be fresh. You want to have any advantage over your opponent you can have.”

Some second-line players really stood out in the game, especially in the secondary. Nickel back Daequan Hardy had an interception. Safety Tyler Rudolph finished second on the team with five tackles, although his ejection for targeting meant he will miss the first half of Saturday’s “White Out” game against No. 22 Auburn.

Freshman cornerback Kalen King posted three unassisted tackles and forced a fumble. Corner Johnny Dixon, a transfer from South Carolina, also had three solos plus an assist.

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“It’s awesome,” Hardy, a redshirt sophomore, said of the depth in the secondary. “If one of us unfortunately goes down, we’ve got another person who’s able to step up and able to make the same plays as the other one.”

Fifth-year senior Jonathan Sutherland, who moves from safety to outside linebacker at times, said he likes what he has seen from the younger guys in the defensive backfield, particularly Hardy and Rudolph.

“It all starts with practice, honestly,” he said. “We challenge each other, try to get each other better, obviously give advice, answer any questions that they have about the playbook or whatnot. Those two guys come to practice every single day with a positive attitude and they just try to work to get better. So it’s real easy leading guys like that.”

The Penn State defense ranks tied for 15th in FBS in points allowed at 11.5 per game. While their total defense average of 330 yards per game is around the middle of the pack, the Lions are one of 14 FBS teams allowing less than four yards per play, and 15th in yards per passing attempt (5.01). They’ve also been strong in terms of opponents’ yards gained per rushing play — 2.96.

Life on the defensive end figures to get much more difficult for the Nittany Lions on Saturday. Auburn has rolled up 116 points and 1,150 yards of total offense in lopsided victories over Akron and Alabama State, an FCS program, and its personnel ranks with any team in the country.

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Junior quarterback Bo Nix hasn’t had to pass much (29 of 39) but ranks fifth in FBS passing efficiency while completing 74.4% of his throws.

“Obviously he’s an experienced quarterback,” Brooks said, “so we’re going to have to do a good job with our disguises, try to confuse him as much as possible. He has the ability to extend plays. We’ve got to do a great job of scramble coverage. We’ve got to do a good job of rallying to him whenever he’s trying to extend plays or whatever. But yeah, he’s a great player. He’s another player I can’t wait to play against.”