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Penn State playing ‘championship-level defense’ through first five games

James Franklin gave plenty of praise to his defense following the Nittany Lions' 35-7 win over Purdue on Saturday.

Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos pressures Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer on Saturday.
Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos pressures Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer on Saturday.Read moreAbby Drey / MCT

Before making a powerful opening statement at his weekly Tuesday news conference this week, James Franklin made another profound comment about his defense.

“We are playing championship-level defense and we’ve been doing it for a number of weeks,” Franklin said after his team’s 35-7 win over Purdue.

It was a quote that got buried in his two-minute opening statement for his news conference. He wasn’t asked to elaborate on his comment. And maybe he didn’t. Maybe the 10 sacks the Nittany Lions amassed speak for themselves.

“Defensively, we are doing some special things right now,” Franklin said. “It starts up front when your defensive line can stop the run and pressure the quarterback for four downs. When you can get 13 tackles for a loss in a game, get 10 sacks and hold someone to minus-19 yards rushing – very, very pleased and impressed with that.”

Franklin knows his comments carry weight – whether it be with the media, the fan base, or his players – and a remark like that resonated with his defense.

“It gives you confidence, when you know someone like Coach that believes you, especially a players’ coach like Coach Franklin and Coach [Brent] Pry are,” sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons said Tuesday. “The way they back us up and make sure we keep improving every day, every week, it’s impressive, really.” It was hard for the Nittany Lions to back up their shutout at Maryland the week before, but they generated a ton of pressure on the quarterback just a few weeks after Franklin said the defensive line could be doing a better job getting to the quarterback.

“Last time I gave a little bit of criticism in this meeting was against the defensive line and they weren’t real happy about it, but they have responded fairly well,” Franklin said. I think the one area we could improve on is turnovers, getting a few turnovers. We’ll see. So maybe if I bring up these turnovers, maybe we’ll have, you know, 10 turnovers in the game on Saturday.”

This defense isn’t successful solely when the starters on the field, however. Penn State has depth at all three levels of the defense.

Sean Spencer has been known for his rotations on the defensive line, but now the Nittany Lions are consistently rotating six linebackers and four safeties.

“We think it's a really good group,” Franklin said of the safeties. “Coach [Tim] Banks has done a great job of developing those guys. I think whenever you have depth and talent and trust, you know, trust in your players and the players trust in the coaches, then it allows to you do some pretty cool things based on matchups and personnel.”

For this Penn State defense, it’s not just about the speed and athleticism they boast at every position. It’s the ability to continue to produce no matter who is in the game.

“I feel like that’s how you win games. Starters aren’t going to play all the time. I don’t know if I’ve seen the room this deep,” defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos said after Saturday’s game. “I feel like top to bottom, when you go in there, we have a lot of people live up to that standard that we set for ourselves. Going out there and dominating, being physical. When you go out there and don’t have a drop-off, it’s incredible.”