Penn State’s defense may be the best Utah has faced this season. Here’s why
Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig says the Nittany Lions’ defense is ‘without a doubt’ the best defensive unit Utah has faced all year
LOS ANGELES — Penn State’s 41-17 loss to Michigan in October was a turning point for the Nittany Lions defense.
The Wolverines, which boast one of the best rushing attacks in college football, ran wild on Penn State.
“I feel like as the year went on, we grew as a team. ... It was really more of a gel thing, chemistry thing. Once we got chemistry and everybody trusted everybody, not one guy was trying to be a superhero.” — defensive end Adisa Isaac
Michigan rushed for 418 yards and had two 100-plus-yard rushers — Donovan Edwards had 173 yards and Blake Corum ran for 166. Both also scored two touchdowns.
In the five previous games, Penn State held its opponents to 398 combined rushing yards.
The loss to playoff-bound Michigan — one of just two defeats for the Nittany Lions this season (the other coming against playoff-bound Ohio State) — marked a fork in the road.
Would Penn State bounce back from the beatdown and return to dominating the trenches, or would it let the 400-plus-yard letdown mess with its confidence?
The Nittany Lions did the former.
During the final six games, Penn State held opponents to a combined 445 rushing yards. 165 yards of the 445 total came against Minnesota, which was under the Golden Gophers’ 207 yards-per-game average (Minnesota had seven games of 240 or more rushing yards).
Following the Minnesota game, Penn State held its next five opponents, including Ohio State, to under 100 yards rushing. Its final two opponents, Rutgers and Michigan State, were held to under 33 rushing yards.
Penn State ranks No. 14 in FBS in rushing yards allowed per game, at 105.1. Right behind it? Utah, No. 15, at 107 rushing yards allowed per game.
What was behind Penn State getting back to business after the Michigan game?
Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator Manny Diaz broke down film with the entire defense the next day. Penn State usually breaks down film by position groups.
“Coach Diaz held us in as a defense and just showed us that it’s not a talent thing. It’s having trust in the guys around us. It wasn’t a big thing that we had to change, just understanding that if we’re all in our gap, we’re going to be fine,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “From that day moving forward, that’s what we did and I think it really helped our run defense.”
Mustipher, Adisa Isaac, Hakeem Beamon and Nick Tarburton line the defensive front for Penn State, with Curtis Jacobs, Tyler Elsdon and Abdul Carter at linebacker positions.
“I feel like as the year went on, we grew as a team. ... It was really more of a gel thing, chemistry thing. Once we got chemistry and everybody trusted everybody, not one guy was trying to be a superhero,” defensive end Isaac said. “The scheme works. If we’re all playing together, all playing as one, we should be able to handle our business.”
The Nittany Lions will be one of the toughest defenses, if not the toughest, the Utes have faced all year.
Oregon State is up there, allowing just 108 rushing yards per game. Utah rushed for 162 yards against the Beavers in the Utes’ third-lowest rushing output of the season.
Oregon held Utah to its lowest total yardage (326) and scoring output (17) of the season in November.
But Penn State’s defense is on another level, according to Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
“This is without a doubt the best defensive unit we’ve faced this year,” Ludwig said.
Penn State — and Utah — both do a fantastic job of getting pressure on the quarterback, stopping the run and creating turnovers. The Nittany Lions have forced 24 turnovers this season, the same number as the Utes, for the twelfth-most in the country.
Penn State has sacked opposing quarterbacks 37 times over 12 games; Utah has sacked opposing quarterbacks 38 times over 13 games. Both rank in the top 20 in the nation in quarterback sacks.
“We have to do a great job not thinking about blocking the movement but creating movement because that front is moving around dang near every snap,” Ludwig said. “They’re not a really big defensive front but they’re very athletic, they move very well. That’s going to be the matchup of the day, moving those guys up front.”
Carter is the difference-maker on Penn State’s defense. He has the second-most tackles on the team (55), leads Penn State in sacks (6.5) and has forced two fumbles.
“(Carter) is a premier player in the country and he wreaks havoc in everything he does. That would be the one player that I would single out that jumps off the screen at me,” Ludwig said.
Penn State’s top defender, cornerback Joey Porter Jr., declared for the NFL draft and will not play in the Rose Bowl. Kalen King, who has started all season at the other corner spot, will be the No. 1 cornerback vs. Utah, and Johnny Dixon, who has started in five games this season, will likely start at the other corner.
Diaz’s defense utilizes plenty of different looks to keep the offense on its heels.
“They are the No. 1 havoc defense in the country, so trying to minimize the havoc, trying to stay ahead in the sticks. That defensive structure loves to get you in third down, and the longer the situation, the better because then they can be very exotic with the way they attack the passer,” Ludwig said.
“I think staying on schedule, winning on early downs will be critical for us, and really establishing a physical presence offensively at the line of scrimmage and trying to stay ahead on the chains will be a big part of the Utes’ success.”
No matter the opponent, Utah is sticking to what has been successful on offense this season.
“We do what the Utah offense does. We’re going to run the ball, we’re going to play-action pass, we’ve got to protect the football, we’re going to protect the quarterback and good things are going to happen,” Ludwig said. “We’re not going into this game with a new recipe because Penn State does this or that.”
Rose Bowl on the air
No. 8 Utah (10-3)
vs. No. 11 Penn State (10-2)
Jan. 2, 3 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700