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Penn State D finds fresh gear

After giving up 28 points in the fourth quarter against Appalachian State, the Penn State defense was left searching for answers.

Shareef Miller (48) and Yetur Gross-Matos combine to tackle Pitt's Kenny Pickett. -- Matt Sunday/DKPS

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After giving up 28 points in the fourth quarter against Appalachian State in the opening game of the season, the Penn State defense was left searching for answers.

The defense, boosted by the return of defensive lineman Kevin Givens, answered a lot of doubts and showed quite a bit of improvement with their 51-6 dismantling of Pitt on Saturday night.

With that improvement, we learned quite a bit about the team as a whole. There’s still a lot to be desired for Penn State, especially defensively, as they end the non-conference portion of their schedule against Kent State this weekend.

What was learned against Pitt

• The Penn State defense is much different with Givens back, and it showed in the defensive line’s play Saturday night. It took a few series for Givens to get to game speed, but once he did, he was lights out. Givens finished with seven tackles with two for a loss against the Panthers.

Routinely rushing only four, Givens and the rest of the defensive line were disruptive all night, especially in the second half, when they allowed only 69 yards and held Pitt off the scoreboard.

Getting consistent time in the opposing backfield will bode well for the Nittany Lions moving forward, and as long as they can stay healthy up front, that success should continue.

• After Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas went 25-for-38 for 270 yards and two touchdowns against the Penn State secondary, the defensive backs came ready to go against Pitt.

The secondary was a rough spot against the Mountaineers, often missing tackles, taking bad angles and giving up big plays. Against the Panthers, it was a different story. They held Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett to only 55 yards through the air in a rain soaked game.

Obviously, the weather made a huge impact on both teams throwing the ball downfield; Pitt attempted only 18 passes during the game. The secondary held the Panthers receivers in check, often forcing Pickett to run the ball as a result of no receivers being open.

Without corner John Reid, it was Tariq Castro-Fields and Amani Oruwariye on the corners for most of the game, and they did not disappoint. Castro-Fields finished with five tackles, and Oruwariye had an interception, two pass break-ups and three tackles of his own.

The quality secondary play allowed the defensive line more time to get to the quarterback, and should they continue to play like they did Saturday night, opposing quarterbacks are going to be forced into bad decisions and sacks as a result.

KJ Hamler has emerged in two games as the go-to receiver for quarterback Trace McSorley. Hamler rushed for a touchdown and caught a 14-yard strike Saturday night, in addition to finishing with 4o receiving yards and a total of 73 kickoff return yards.

A redshirt freshman, Hamler has shown in two games he’s as reliable as they get for the Nittany Lions, and going his way has paid off handsomely. Hamler has two receiving touchdowns on the season and will be looking to score a bunch more as McSorley gets him the ball.

The production Hamler has had over the first two games of the season has only resulted in 107 total yards, but what he has shown is a he’s a threat to score anytime the ball is in his hands. His production so far has made up for the lack of production from Juwan Johnson, as the elder statesman of the receiving core has recorded only eight catches for 90 yards through the first two games.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE WORKED ON FOR KENT STATE

• Tackling still was suspect for the Penn State defense, and although it could have been the result of the rainy weather Saturday night, it will need to be worked on for their game against Kent State.

At times, arm tackling was the go-to move for the Nittany Lions defenders, and often Pickett or running back Qadree Ollison would run through them with ease, especially in the first half.

The overpursuit of the defensive ends led to a lot of early runs going for big gains and the Pitt offense rushing for 214 yards in the first half. With the Golden Flashes being a run heavy team, the Nittany Lions will have to tackle well if they want to go into conference play 3-0.

• It was a soggy, rain-filled Saturday night, which rarely ever results in teams having success in the passing game. And for Penn State, a team who relies on the run-pass option, they would throw the ball a total of 31 times in those soggy conditions.

That said, when balls hit receivers in the hands, more often than not the ball should be caught, and the Nittany Lions had their fair share of dropped passes Saturday night.

Johnson, who has looked sluggish so far this season, had his second game where he dropped multiple McSorley passes that would’ve resulted in big plays. The redshirt junior has struggled thus far, but his presence has allowed Hamler to take advantage.

Both Johnson and the other receivers will have to be better receivers in whatever conditions arise to have success the rest of the season. It also will be important to get Johnson in space and allow his athleticism to take over as a tall receiver down the field.

• The Penn State defense allowed only six points, which came first quarter Saturday night, but if you look at the statistics, they’re lucky that’s all they gave up.

And while they held Pitt off the scoreboard, the Panthers rushed rather easily over the Nittany Lions, churning out runs of 10 yards or more on five different occasions in the first half.

It was a reversal of last week against Appalachian State, where Penn State held off the Mountaineers early only to allow 28 fourth-quarter points and need overtime to get the victory. This week it was a statistical show for Pitt in the first half, then a stout performance by the Nittany Lions in the second to shut down every facet of the Panthers offense.

Only two games into the season, Penn State has yet to play a complete game on the defensive side of the football. The defense was aided by clutch downfield tackling against Pitt that ultimately kept the Panthers off the scoreboard outside of Ollison’s 13-yard rush in the first quarter.

The improvement was where it needed to be from Week 1 to Week 2, but the defense of the Nittany Lions will have to continue their improvement if they want to get conference play started on the right foot in two weeks against Ohio State.

OTHER NOTES

• Penn State rose No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25 after spending last week at No. 13. The Nittany Lions started the year at No. 10 in the AP Poll.

• In the Coaches’ Poll, Penn State held steady at No. 10, where they were prior to the Pitt game.