Penn State coach James Franklin could have been referring to his defense that has been gouged many times this season when he appealed to fans holding tickets for Saturday’s game against Ohio State to lend a hand.
“We need to make it the most challenging environment in the history of college football on Saturday,” said Franklin, who said he wants Nittany Lions fans to stand and scream from the opening kickoff to the final whistle in the team’s annual “White Out” game in Beaver Stadium.
Penn State (4-0) is ranked ninth nationally, but its numbers defensively are miserable. It is 98th in Division I in completion percentage against (55.9), 82nd in rushing yardage allowed per game (172.5), 42nd in opponents’ third down conversion percentage (33.9) and 35th in points allowed (19.5).
It’s not that the team has forgotten how to stop opponents. But seven players from last season’s defense — including standouts Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen, Grant Haley and Christian Campbell — are playing in the NFL, and two other starters used up their eligibility.
“Obviously, we lost a lot of talent and that’s huge. But the main thing for our defense is to continue to gain that in-game experience,’’ safety Garrett Taylor said. “I keep hearing that, ‘You guys lost a lot, you guys lost a lot,’ but I believe in our players. We just have to keep getting better.”
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry has substituted liberally during games at almost every position in an attempt to find the right combinations and get players experience.
“At certain positions we don’t have established starters yet,’’ Franklin said. “We’ve got some positions where it’s literally a 50-50 split because that gives us the best chance to win. Defensively we can become more aware. We’re trying to speed up the maturation process.”
Penn State gave up four touchdowns in the fourth quarter to Appalachian State before winning 45-38 in overtime. It gave up 214 yards in the first half to Pittsburgh in a 51-6 victory. It trailed Illinois 24-21 with 10:36 left in the third quarter and gave up 411 total yards in a 63-24 victory last week.
The problem for the Nittany Lions’ run defense has been a tendency for the front seven to go around or get tied up with blockers.
“We’re going into this game working on being gap accountable,” linebacker Jan Johnson said. “We’re making sure we can’t be reached. The biggest issue has been execution. It’s not that someone has been physically better than us. We just have to execute our jobs. It’s about staying locked into your assignment.”
Franklin has said several times that the defense must find an “eraser,” or playmaker, to captain the group.
“In terms of making plays, we’re not there yet,” he said.
Johnson said that eraser can be end Shareef Miller. Taylor said it could be himself.
“Hopefully, it’s more than one guy,” Taylor said. “We need to have all 11 guys run to the ball recklessly. We have to be violent. We want to get it corrected as fast as we can.”
Miller, Johnson and Taylor said the game plan for Ohio State calls for plenty of pressure on quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. Each pointed out that Haskins is a pocket passer and not a combination runner/passer, as predecessor J.T. Barrett was.
“We can’t let him get comfortable,” Johnson said. “He’s money when he’s comfortable.”