The message that Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer imparts to the players in his meeting room is simple: Stop the run, and pressure the opposing quarterback in passing situations.
The Nittany Lions checked those two boxes in their opener against overmatched Idaho but came up short in both areas last weekend while defeating Buffalo. The games start getting more difficult beginning with Saturday’s 100th contest against Pittsburgh at Beaver Stadium, and Spencer knows his guys must be better.
The Bulls rushed for 184 yards against Penn State and were sacked only once. Although they gained just 3.2 yards per attempt, they managed to do enough to keep the Lions defense on the field for 90 plays and more than 42 minutes.
“As you watched with the naked eye, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, they didn’t gash you with the run,’ ” Spencer said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “There’s one or two plays that obviously we wish we got back, but that’s not how the game is.
“When you look at it statistically, we only gave up 3.2 yards a rush. Now having said that, is great improvement necessary? Absolutely. We have to be solid. If everyone does their job, if everybody is where they’re supposed to be, we will clean some of those big runs up.”
Spencer has plenty of confidence in a line that is talented and deep. Thirteen players manned one of the four spots during the Buffalo game, and even with all the plays the Bulls ran, only one player — starting defensive tackle Robert Windsor with 52 — had more than 50 snaps.
The two starting defensive ends, Shaka Toney (Imhotep Charter) and Yetur Gross-Matos, were on the field for 50 and 48 snaps, respectively. Spencer liked the balance.
“I look at this as not only during the game but the accumulation during the season,” he said. “Some of those reps, if the quarterback throws it out of bounds or throws a quick slant pass, it’s not the same as when they run the ball a lot like [Buffalo] did last week, the pounding and things like that. It’s all taken into account.”
One rising star of the defensive line is 6-foot-4, 311-pound tackle PJ Mustipher, a sophomore who had one of the Lions’ 10 tackles for loss against the Bulls.
“We always want to get better every week whether we’re happy with our performance or not,” he said. “There are always things we have to work on. So for us to be the defensive line that we said we were going to be at the beginning of the season, we have to continue to improve. This week is the next opportunity, and I think people are going to be happy with us.”
Spencer said Mustipher, a two-time state high school wrestling champion in Maryland, reminded him of former Penn State, and current Tennessee Titans, defensive tackle Austin Johnson: “A lot of similarities, great playmaking ability, great leverage, and also for a big guy, he can pass-rush.
“I watched him play live in high school, and he was in the backfield every other play,” Spencer said. “He just had this great energy about him, this great smile on his face, but just a complete animal on the field just like he was on the wrestling mat. He always had great potential last year.”
Penn State’s defensive line depth will be valuable with games against Pitt and nine Big Ten opponents coming up. Spencer said he has confidence in all the linemen, many of whom have experience.