Penn State offense is hot, but don't overlook the defense

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Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Grant Haley is tied for first in the Big Ten with two interceptions.

With highlights of Heisman Trophy front-runner Saquon Barkley seemingly playing on an endless loop on SportsCenter and Trace McSorley doing nothing but producing in the passing game, the Penn State offense has received a flood of attention in the first five weeks of the season.

And the defense? The Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) have been playing very well on that side of the football as well even if they haven’t quite grabbed the spotlight. Still, the statistics don’t lie.

Entering the fourth-ranked Lions’ game Saturday at Northwestern (2-2, 0-1), the defense is third in the FBS in points against at 9.4 per game and 13th in total yards allowed at 289.2 per game. The unit is tied for third with 14 turnovers gained, fifth in tackles for losses (8.8 per game) and sixth in pass efficiency defense.

Individually, cornerback Grant Haley is tied for first in the Big Ten with two interceptions, defensive end Shareef Miller (George Washington) is among the league leaders with six tackles for losses, and middle linebacker Jason Cabinda and free safety Marcus Allen are two of the most prolific tacklers in the conference.

According to defensive end Ryan Buchholz, however, the frustration level in terms of not receiving attention for all that fine play is at zero.

“It’s winning as a team,” said Buchholz, who starred at Great Valley High School. “You don’t really care about that stuff as long as you’re winning. Personally, myself, I don’t think we care as a whole defense, as long as we win and hold [opponents] to as few points as possible.”

For defensive coordinator Brent Pry, the keys to the success of the defense are experience and depth. The Nittany Lions are expected to start seven seniors on that side of the ball Saturday, including the entire secondary.

“When you look out there, you know what you’re going to get from everybody that you’re putting on the field, and sometimes you can’t say that,” Pry said Thursday in a conference call. “There’s been many years when you’ve got guys out there in the rotation and you’re just not sure yet what type of player they’re going to be under the lights.

“With this group, we know what we’re getting when we put the first unit out there, and the majority of the guys that are playing behind them. So that’s unique in its own right. Each week is a new challenge and we’ve got it this week at Northwestern, but we’ve got some old heads out there that can adjust and work through new formations, tempos, quarterback changes. They’re very heady and very experienced.”

The depth is the best that Penn State has seen since head coach James Franklin and his staff took over the program in 2014. Pry said he can point to several positions and find a backup who could be a starter for many other teams.

“There’s just really good competition,” Pry said. “I can’t say that we had that those first couple of years, where you felt nearly as good as the guy going into the game as you did the starter. We have that at a bunch of spots right now, which certainly gives you some comfort.”

Pry mentioned defensive end, where starter Torrence Brown left the Georgia State game last month with an undisclosed injury and is out for an undetermined amount of time. He said Buchholz, who probably would start for other teams, took over Brown’s spot.

“To me, [Buchholz] has a chance to be one of the better D-linemen to come through here, which is a big statement, I realize,” he said.

By the Numbers

2: Sets of brothers who will be on opposite sidelines for the game: Punter Blake Gillikin and holder Billy Fessler for Penn State, long snapper Tyler Gillikin and wide receiver Charlie Fessler for Northwestern.

15: Sacks of Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson through four games, worst in the Big Ten.

73: As in 73-0, the margin by which Penn State has outscored opponents in the first quarter.

Three Things to Watch

— It’s always interesting to see how an opponent will align its defense to try and stop Saquon Barkley. After he ran for a career-high 211 yards against Iowa, Barkley was tied up last week by Indiana, and ran for just 56 yards in 20 carries.

— Northwestern’s Justin Jackson needs 84 yards to break the Northwestern career rushing record of 4,485 yards held by Damien Anderson (1998 through 2001).

— The Chicago weather forecast for Saturday calls for windy conditions with a chance of rain, which may affect the passing and kicking games for both teams.