Penn State safety Marcus Allen celebrates his interception that he returned for 50 yards in the second quarter of the game against Georgia State on Sept. 16. Penn State has forced more turnovers this season as a result of team speed. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file
Penn State safety Marcus Allen celebrates his interception that he returned for 50 yards in the second quarter of the game against Georgia State on Sept. 16. Penn State has forced more turnovers this season as a result of team speed. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

Penn State Football

Defense parlaying speed into turnovers, gang tackles

By John McGonigal

jmcgonigal@centredaily.com

October 06, 2017 01:07 PM

UPDATED October 07, 2017 12:48 AM

Penn State’s collective ballhawking nature — a trait that’s carried the Nittany Lion defense through five games — was apparent on the second defensive series of the season.

Akron quarterback Tommy Woodson dropped a halfback screen off to Warren Ball, who was immediately popped by linebacker Manny Bowen. The battering ram couldn’t finish off his crushing blow, but defensive end Ryan Buchholz did. The 6-foot-6, 275-pounder was there to greet the escaping Ball, forcing a fumble. In less than two seconds, six Nittany Lions were around the ball.

Somehow, the Zips recovered. But that hasn’t happened often this season. The Nittany Lion defense has been remarkably effective at making both game-altering moments and unheralded gang tackles, thanks in large part to a noticeable improvement in team speed.

Don’t be surprised to see it turn up at Northwestern on Saturday.

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“To me, that’s what good defenses do,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “They play aggressive, they go for the tackle, they go to make the big hit, and if they miss, there’s guys there to cover for them.

“I think our team speed in general has improved dramatically. ... I think it’s been a major factor. There’s no doubt.”

Penn State’s defensive stats through three nonconference games and two Big Ten contests are profound. The Nittany Lions are allowing only 9.4 points per game (third-best in the country) while making 8.8 tackles for loss per contest (fifth-best nationally).

Yes, Penn State has been markedly better than its first five opponents. But the rationale behind the Nittany Lions’ defensive prosperity is that they have more hats around the ball. They’re attacking with purpose. That’s evident on every play, with several defenders around the ball-carrier on every stop.

Of course, defensive speed is useful in generating turnovers. Six of Penn State’s seven fumble recoveries were forced by one player and recovered by another.

Assisted tackles is another way of determining the defense’s speed in pursuit. Since Franklin and his staff arrived at Penn State, the Nittany Lions have gradually improved in the area. In 2014, Penn State averaged 28.8 assisted tackles per game. In 2016, it had 38.7 collective stops per contest, and the Nittany Lions are currently averaging 38.8 through five games in 2017.

“The more team speed, the quicker you can merge and take the air out of the running lanes. I see that right now,” Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “That’s certainly been a factor for us. We missed some tackles, especially early on and there’s somebody right there. We’re closing better than we ever have.”

Pry admitted that he and the staff “try and recruit to that,” understanding that defensive speed is crucial in today’s game, which is dominated by spread offenses and tempo.

But it’s not all just talent. The Nittany Lions train with that trend in-mind.

“We’re all moving better, trying to be quick and explosive because that’s what the game is going to,” 6-foot-5, 227-pound linebacker Cam Brown said. “We definitely want to emphasize that.”

Added outside linebacker and converted safety Koa Farmer: “I know some guys changed their eating habits, changed the way how they work out and how they lift to get faster. I think it’s one of the fastest teams I’ve been around, and I think that’s very important because people say when you get faster you lose weight, you lose strength. But we’re the strongest we’ve ever been and we’re the fastest we’ve ever been.”

That’s a frightening reality for the Wildcats, especially considering the form Northwestern’s been in offensively.

Penn State’s next opponent is coming off a shoddy performance at Wisconsin. Northwestern averaged 3.09 yards on 79 plays at Camp Randall Stadium last weekend. Penn State’s defense is allowing 3.9 yards per play this season, seventh-best in the country.

Whether it’s tallying typical team tackles for no gain or generating turnovers, the Penn State’s speedy defense has done it all this season. Nittany Lions like Bowen, Buchholz, Shareef Miller, Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen and more have got after it, closing in on ball-carriers quicker than ever.

It’s made all the difference through five games in 2017 — and could yet again in Evanston.

“We’ll continue to build on that,” Pry said. “I think any great defense is going to have that type of converging on the ball. And when you’re a little faster, a little more explosive, it happens that much quicker.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9