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After a slow start, Penn State’s youthful defense is showing signs of improvement

The defense has played some good football after an 0-5 start, allowing only 12 points and 245.5 yards per game in the Nittany Lions' last two games, both wins.

Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry talks with his players during the game against Iowa in November.
Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry talks with his players during the game against Iowa in November.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The Penn State defense has taken its time this season to play up to the standard that defensive coordinator Brent Pry expects. And while it’s not there yet through seven games, Pry sees some improvement.

After allowing 32 points and 360 total yards per game in their 0-5 start, the Nittany Lions have picked up wins over Michigan and Rutgers with the defense yielding 12 points and 245.5 yards per contest.

The Lions, who take on Michigan State (2-4) Saturday on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium, have seven new full-time starters on defense. Three of them had never started a game before this season while the other four had combined for five starts, mostly when starters ahead of them couldn’t play due to injury.

For Pry, it was a matter of telling the younger players they don’t have to make every single play, but that they must stay within the framework of the defense.

“I had several conversations with a lot of guys and they felt a lot of pressure to make more plays,” said Pry, who has worked with head coach James Franklin for the past 10 seasons as a coordinator or co-coordinator. “You don’t do that by jumping out of your gap or changing your technique. They’ve settled back down.

“You see some things happen that you correct in spring ball or in [training] camp. To be honest, I did a poor job. I should have scaled things back earlier without having spring and having an insufficient camp. We were trying to do too much. There’s no doubt in my mind when we scaled things back, we started to see improvement coupled with the guys’ approach, getting back to basics and fundamentals.”

Pry has been pleased with the development of the secondary, which has allowed just 234 yards in the last two games and ranks second in pass defense in the Big Ten. Senior free safety Jaquan Brisker, a junior college transfer who joined the team before the 2019 season, has grown in his role.

“He went through some growing pains early in the year,” Pry said. “I think he’s starting to feel more and more comfortable. Look at all those guys – the more experience and the more snaps, the more comfortable and the more knowledgeable you get, the faster you play. He’s a great example of that these last couple of weeks.”

Penn State’s sack numbers are down from recent seasons, 15 in seven games as compared with 92 in 26 games in 2018 and 2019. Pry said a decision was made in the preseason to change the pass-rush scheme in an attempt to contain the running quarterbacks they’ve faced in the Big Ten, like Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and the move has been somewhat successful.

Pry said the defense must continue to get better in a number of areas, one of the most important being tackling. He said he was pleased with his team’s effort last week against Rutgers.

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“It was a big emphasis all week that we had to gang tackle,” he said. “We had a lot of guys as the second man and third man in, who were trying to strip and punch instead of coming in and putting pads on a guy and finishing and getting knock-backs. We needed to get back to gang-tackling and pushing the pile and the guys did it. I thought it made a big difference in the game.”

Even though there’s work to do, Pry said he is excited about the unit’s young players.

“The players are excited,” he said. “What really got that going and hit that button is the improvement they’re seeing the last couple of weeks. They’re putting in the work. They’re taking their corrections. They’re trusting the plan. They’re trusting their coaches.”

No fans for Senior Day

Because of new coronavirus-related restrictions announced by Gov. Wolf and taking effect Saturday, the university announced that family members may not attend the game or the pregame Senior Day ceremonies at Beaver Stadium.

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According to a statement released Friday by Penn State Athletics: “As has been the case throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the health and safety of our student-athletes and staff has been our top priority. We follow the state and university health guidelines, which continue to evolve based on the changing conditions. As such, we will not be permitted to host spectators at our athletic competitions beginning Saturday, Dec. 12.

“We are extremely disappointed for our football seniors, their parents and their families. They have been looking forward to their Senior Day and making arrangements to attend Saturday’s game, so this timing has proven difficult for all parties. However, we understand the gravity of the pandemic and know this decision was made with the health and safety of our communities at the forefront.”

Prediction: Penn State 27, Michigan State 13