Donnie Collins: Penn State can’t play defense like this much longer
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — He used the analogy specifically to talk about the ups and downs of his kickoff specialist, but as he uttered it, James Franklin paused, his eyes growing thoughtful.
It kind of summed up his entire team at this stage, he thought out loud — especially the unit that has just about every Penn State fan concerned as the biggest game of the season looms.
The words were about Rafael Checa, the freshman kickoff man who struggled kicking into the wind Friday night during the 63-24 win over Illinois. Often this season, Checa has done what earned him the kicking job in August: Boom kickoffs through end zones, leaving speedy opposing return men no choice but to accept touchbacks. On Saturday, however, especially into that gusty 10-mph wind, he knocked three kickoffs out of bounds, a cardinal sin for kickers.
“I told Checa, ‘Sometimes, you look like Adam Vinatieri,’” Franklin said. “’And other times, you look like the backup kicker at East Stroudsburg.’”
On a list of Penn State’s major issues as it heads into the biggest game of the season next week against Ohio State — and it’s a sizable list considering the Nittany Lions’ unbeaten record — Checa ranks pretty low. The Nittany Lions’ defense, though, ranks pretty high. Like, right at the top.
There are times when Penn State looks like the 1985 Chicago Bears on defense. And there are times when it looks like, for lack of a better example, it couldn’t stop East Stroudsburg’s backup kicker on a simple dive play.
In the first half against the Fighting Illini, the Nittany Lions were gashed for 245 total yards, 174 of which came on the ground. In the second half they allowed just 166, and only 71 on the ground.
In the first half, Penn State’s defensive linemen seemed to be lost in a state of disarray, with gaping holes for Illinois running backs Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein to cruise through. In the second half, those holes closed, and the line got fairly consistent pressure on freshman quarterback MJ Rivers II.
In the first half, Penn State’s linebackers almost seemed to be absent, like they were kept behind in State College. In the second, they intercepted two passes; one by Jan Johnson that Cam Brown tipped probably stood as the biggest play of the game.
It would be easy to write off the Jeckyll and Hyde nature of the Penn State defense if it wasn’t the only consistent aspect of this group. They dominated three quarters and overtime against Appalachian State, but played so poorly in the fourth quarter they wound up being lucky to win. Pitt’s running game overpowered them for much of the first half before the Nittany Lions did a 180-degree turn after a goal-line stand late in the first half. Even Kent State had its good moments.
“I feel like when we stop and settle down and do what we know we can do, playing base defenses, that’s when we play our best,” Brown said, trying to explain it all. “Honestly, I feel like some of the young guys may be thinking too much and slowing their feet down. That’s all I’m going to say: I feel like they’re thinking too much.”
What Illinois did was no fluke. It’s what opposing offenses can do against Penn State, at least for a while. None of those teams has the firepower or the pedigree Ohio State will bring to Beaver Stadium next week.
“Honestly, we know we can’t play like (this) for all these games,” Brown said afterward, resting against the sideline wall in a now empty Memorial Stadium, thinking back on it all. “It’s going to catch up with us when it catches up with us. We have to make sure these games aren’t that close from the beginning. The defense has to play for four quarters.”
Franklin conceded after the game that the coaching staff is still very much trying to figure out which combinations work best on defense, especially at the linebacker spot, where Brown and Johnson and Koa Farmer and Micah Parsons and Ellis Brooks and Jarvis Miller have gotten plenty of chances in plenty of different combinations to establish a rhythm. But Penn State’s backup defensive tackles — a group hurt by Ellison Jordan’s absence Friday — have also failed to consistently impress, and Franklin admitted Friday he’s looking for defenders who can get on the field and take care of problems, not create more.
“I think we realized this was going to be a work in progress,” Franklin said. “We have inexperienced veterans and a bunch of young guys. At those positions like quarterback and middle linebacker and things like that, experience is critical, and we lack it (at middle linebacker).
“I don’t know if anybody has really separated from the pack. We have starters and guys who are rotating in, but I don’t know if there’s anybody who has really separated themselves from the pack. And I think that’s probably some of our challenges there, getting someone you know is running the defense and can be an eraser for you in terms of making plays. We’re making progress. But we’re not there yet.”
It has been said often now, but Penn State is ultra talented, if ultra young. On offense, because the quarterback is Trace McSorley and perhaps the most grizzled veteran in the Big Ten, it’s the talent that always seems to outshine the mistakes. On defense, because there really is no go-to guy — no Jason Cabinda or Paul Posluszny or Sean Lee types in command — the mistakes seem to outshine the talent for longer stretches.
How long can Penn State continue to simply outscore their mistakes? Probably not much longer.
How long can the defense continue to show the disparity between being talented and being good? The time is probably up.
When this group puts it all together, there’s little doubt it’s going to be a freakishly athletic, hard-hitting unit. There seems to be a realization, though, that that’s farther down the horizon than the Buckeyes are.
DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollinstimesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.