COLUMBUS, Ohio – Penn State’s lack of depth along the defensive line was evident last week when Illinois carved up the unit for 357 rushing yards and eventually won in nine overtimes.
The 20th-ranked Nittany Lions have been hurt there by injuries. They lost starting defensive tackle PJ Mustipher for the season early in the Iowa game. Defensive end Adisa Isaac, projected as a starter after spring practice, suffered an injury prior to the start of training camp, sidelining him for the entire year. The specific injuries have not been disclosed.
But the Lions, who sought to have better luck against the run when they matched up Saturday night against No. 5 Ohio State, are working some new players into the lineup, and head coach James Franklin can only hope they learn their positions in a hurry.
“We have typically been five deep at D-tackle,” Franklin said during the week. “We’ve typically been five deep at defensive end, and that has not been the case this year with injuries, especially when you lose multiple starters like we talked about with PJ Mustipher and Adisa Isaac.
“When that happens, obviously other guys need to step up and their reps need to increase, and their experience and their confidence needs to grow as the season goes on, so that will be important for us.”
Penn State splits time at the two defensive end spots among three players – redshirt junior Nick Tarburton, senior Jesse Luketa, and redshirt senior Arnold Ebiketie, the team’s leader with 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. The team is getting more reps in practice for redshirt freshman Zuriah Fisher and redshirt sophomore Smith Vilbert.
“It was hard losing Adisa back in the summer and now losing PJ, who was kind of the key piece of our defense,” said Ebiketie, a transfer from Temple. “But we have a next-man-up mentality and I have all the confidence in the guys to step out and kind of fill that role. There is no doubt in my mind they will be able to get the job done.”
At defensive tackle, redshirt sophomore Dvon Ellies and redshirt freshman Coziah Izzard have rotated at the spot next to super-senior Derrick Tangelo. Three other defensive tackles – fifth-year senior Fred Hansard, redshirt freshmen Amin Vanover, and freshman Jordan van den Berg – made the trip for Saturday night’s game.
Middle linebacker Ellis Brooks said all the defensive tackles have been “working their butts off.
“Everybody’s just trying to get better, especially that group,” said Brooks, the team’s leading tackler. “Right now with the loss of PJ, it’s just trying to get 1 percent better every single day and trying to learn from your mistakes and from the game film. They’re getting a lot of experience and reps the past few weeks.”
Penn State’s Jordan Stout is having one of the best seasons in the nation among players who have multiple roles in the kicking game.
Entering Saturday night’s game, the redshirt senior is seventh in the nation in punting with a 48.4-yard average, has struck 35 of his 38 kickoffs into or out of the end zone for touchbacks, and has kicked 11 field goals in 15 attempts. He is one of four kickers nationally who has triple duty.
“I’ve seen some pretty elite guys, I’ve coached a bunch of guys that have played in the NFL,” special teams coordinator Joe Lorig said. “But I haven’t seen a guy that’s does all of them necessarily as well as him. So I’m really proud of the season that he’s having so far.”
Stout has shown significant improvement as a punter this season. He averaged 41.5 yards last season on 33 punts, with three of 50 or more yards and eight inside the 20-yard line. On 37 punts this season, Stout has 18 of 50 or more yards, and 18 that have been inside the 20.
Running back Devyn Ford did not make the trip for the game because of an injury. Ford has carried the ball just 11 times for 50 yards in six games. He did not play last week.