Focus Turns To Improving Penn State Pass Rush
Nothing has mattered.
Not whether Penn State sends four defensive linemen after the quarterback. Or whether it blitzes an extra linebacker. Or two extra linebackers.
The results in each case have been the same, head coach James Franklin lamented Saturday night. A quarterback standing steady in the pocket, eyes downfield, picking apart the Penn State defense.
Two weeks ago, it was Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. Last weekend, it was Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke. The two combined to comfortably complete 66 of 95 passes for 728 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. That’s good for a 152.58 quarterback rating against the Penn State defense in what, most importantly, goes down as two close losses that have ruined the Nittany Lions’ College Football Playoff hopes.
Franklin has been open about why he believes teams have been able to throw on his Lions, and it has little to do with a downturn in play by the secondary. The pass rush, he said, has gone missing.
“We’ve got to find a way to get the quarterback pressured on defense,” Franklin reiterated during his weekly press conference Tuesday. “We haven’t done a great job of that here recently.”
Penn State sacked Barrett and Lewerke twice apiece. But only one of those four sacks have come in the second half of the two games, and none have taken place in the fourth quarter, when Barrett and Lewerke confidently led comebacks.
In other words, when it has mattered most, Penn State not only hasn’t gotten quarterback sacks, it has struggled to get any kind of pressure at all.
Franklin said there are several reasons for the downturn in production, the greatest of which is that two starting-caliber defensive ends didn’t play most of the last two games. Torrence Brown is out for the year after suffering a right knee injury Sept. 16 against Georgia State. Ryan Buchholz, who emerged into a reliable every-down end against both the pass and the run once Brown went out, left the Ohio State game after just one snap with a leg injury and hasn’t played since.
“We can’t say we don’t miss those guys,” Franklin said. “Saying that would not be truthful.”
But he added that there are some schematic elements of the defense that can change to get more pressure, and that some of that can be remedied by approaching the pass rush with a different attitude.
“I think we could play a little bit more reckless,” Franklin said. “I think sometimes we go to blitz and we see that the offense fans out to pick up the blitz. And we don’t attack it as hard as we should attack it.
“But it’s not one specific issue or one specific reason. If it was, that would be an easy solution.”
From time to time, backup quarterback Tommy Stevens had established himself as a significant part of the Penn State offense even when starter Trace McSorley is on the field.
That hasn’t been the case recently, as Stevens has not played a snap in the last two games. The last time he got the ball as an offensive player not lined up at quarterback came before the bye week, Oct. 7 against Northwestern.
Franklin said the team has hardly scrapped the Stevens package, insisting coaches have put it into the gameplan just about every week, and the sophomore has prepared well to fill that role. But once the game starts, he said the coordinators decide who plays based on the looks the defense is giving.
“They feel there are certain calls or certain personnel groups, depending on how the game is going, that they’re calling at that time or not,” Franklin said. “It just comes down to when we’re calling it, and does the situation warrant it and does it make sense?”
Quietly, the frequency of penalties called against Penn State has risen as the games have gotten bigger.
In the last two games, 16 penalties have been assessed against the Nittany Lions, accounting for 156 yards. In the first seven games, they were penalized just 25 times.
“There is a part of it when you play high level competition and you’re playing high level athletes, you see a little bit more of that,” Franklin said. “But I don’t see that being a trend for us.”
Franklin did add that he has continued to send penalties he didn’t agree with, along with ones that went uncalled, to the Big Ten for interpretation. But as for Penn State’s penalty uptick, he said his staff will simply continue to study the calls to see if there is a reason why.
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