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Penn State’s defense becoming dominant thanks to speed and depth

With their 59-0 shutout of Maryland, the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions are among the FBS leaders in points allowed, rushing defense and total defense.

Penn State cornerback John Reid runs for a touchdown after making an interception against Buffalo.
Penn State cornerback John Reid runs for a touchdown after making an interception against Buffalo.Read moreSteve Luciano / AP

As the elder statesman of the Penn State defense, John Reid has played on some pretty good units, but he feels the 2019 group is the best he’s seen. Or as he puts it: “Super-fun to play on.”

After a bit of an inconsistent start, the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions came up with a gem of a performance in last week’s 59-0 shutout of Maryland, holding a team that had averaged 277 rushing yards and 537 total yards per game to 60 and 128, respectively.

That showing vaulted the Lions to near the top in FBS defensive statistics. Entering Saturday’s game against Purdue, they are second in the nation in points allowed (7.5 per game), seventh in rush defense (68 yards per game), 14th in total defense (274.5 yards), eighth in sacks (3.75), third in tackles for loss (9.8), and 15th in third-down efficiency (29.0%).

“I think the biggest emphasis we put on our defense is just making sure we’re getting off the field on third down,” said Reid, a fifth-year senior cornerback from St. Joseph’s Prep.“ I think we’ve gotten better with that each and every week.

“I think just overall, the team speed that we’re playing with and the tenacity, everybody flying to the ball, has been amazing. I’ve been really happy about that. Everybody’s making plays.”

The defense may be the fastest unit of its kind in Penn State history. Backup defensive end Jayson Oweh has been clocked in 4.33 seconds for 40 yards and starting linebacker Micah Parsons has run a 4.41. Many of the linebackers in the Lions’ deep stable at the position can flash sideline to sideline.

“I would definitely say it’s the fastest defense I’ve ever played on since I’ve been here,” Reid, who has two interceptions this season, said Wednesday. “I think we pretty much have speed at every single position, where somebody has run a 4.4. I think that says a lot.”

Penn State head coach James Franklin loves the speed, and he also loves the way depth has developed on the defense. The Nittany Lions can rotate 12 players in on the defensive line along with eight linebackers.

Franklin said Wednesday he was very impressed with the way the reserves played against Maryland, doing what they needed to do to preserve the shutout.

“I think this year probably more so than in other years, the guys that are going in, the backups, are more ready to play, are playing with more confidence,” he said. “We’ve played shutout football before, but when we put the twos, the threes and the fours in the game like we did (versus Maryland), people would score on them. I thought our defense went in and played really well.”

Defensive coordinator Brent Pry also has his unit playing recklessly. The style seems to be working; the Nittany Lions have allowed 1.9 yards per rush and 6.2 yards per pass attempt.

“Coach Pry says reckless means you have no regard for your body and I feel like that’s how we play,” defensive end Shane Simmons said. “I feel like we have the craziest people on the field.

“As a whole defense, I feel like playing reckless that you fly around the ball, hit people, gang on people. We want to scoop and score every ball that’s on the ground. I feel like when you play reckless, you’re not thinking about anything.”

The Lions secondary will be tested Saturday by the Boilermakers, who will be without All-America wide receiver Rondale Moore and starting quarterback Elijah Sindelar due to injuries. Despite the losses, Reid believes the Big Ten’s top passing attack is still dangerous.

“We know just from their passing game they’re going to find ways to get their guys the ball, whether it’s in open space or down the field,” Reid said. “They really believe in their athletes a lot. They throw the 50-50 ball a ton. I still feel they have a great passing offense even without those guys.”