Win-first mentality fuels Penn State defense

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In a sport dominated by statistics and any piece of data a college coach can get their hands on, it’s a simple strategy that has gotten the Penn State defense back on the right track after their big loss at Michigan: winning.

“I think our defense puts a priority on winning, not being selfish and doing what’s in Penn State’s best interests and doing what’s in our kids’ best interests,” James Franklin said.

Simple, yet complex from a defense that has been largely underrated and not talked about this season, despite only losing three games and yielding an average of 23 points per game.

“There are some things and choices and decisions that are made that probably go against stats,” Franklin said. “Go against having really strong stats offensively, defensively, special teams, and we’re making decisions that we think are in the best interests of the team and winning football.”

It’s that mentality that got the Nittany Lions back into the win column against Wisconsin, a week after getting thumped 42-7 against the Big Ten-leading Wolverines.

The loss at Michigan, while bad on the scoreboard, was more of a showing of offensive ineptitude that wound up costing the defense drastically in the long run. The inability of the Penn State offense to generate a rhythm and keep opposing offenses off the field has been the downfall of the defense.

It’s a snowball effect defensively. As one position group begins to play well, that opens it up for another group to have success, and so on and so forth. Currently it’s paying large dividends for the Penn State defense, and it shows.

“I think what you’re seeing right now is you’re seeing our linebackers gain confidence and experience, and you’re seeing our defensive tackles gain confidence and experience, and then you’re seeing the defensive ends, who we already felt good about, you see them taking the next step as well,” Franklin said.

Defensive coordinator Brent Pry has his unit playing some of their best football of late, including the Michigan game. The starting defensive line is playing at an elite level after bursting onto the scene with big games recently.  Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos has averaged seven tackles and 1.5 sacks per game in the four games since losing to Michigan State, and defensive tackle Robert Windsor had a two-sack afternoon against the Badgers.

While those two have lit up the stat sheet, it’s guys like P.J Mustipher and Kevin Givens who have been able to play quality games to help pave the way for the other guys to perform at their level.

“You think about what Yetur has been able to do and Shareef (Miller) has been able to do, and you think about what Windsor has been able to do, and the guy that’s not getting a whole lot of love is Kevin Givens,” Franklin said. “Kevin Givens for us is killing it. He’s doing his job consistently. Sometimes when you do that, other guys shine, but as a coaching staff and as a team, we know the value that Kevin’s bringing.”

Coming into the season, Penn State was young on defense replacing eight starters with many who went to the NFL. It’s not a surprise it took the Nittany Lions a while before hitting their stride as a complete unit, and with each game, their confidence continues to grow.

Freshman linebacker Micah Parsons quietly led the team in tackles against Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon and has put together an impressive freshman campaign that has largely flown under the radar. Parsons has recorded 58 tackles through 10 games, and his snap count has continued to grow with each game.

“He’s now using the techniques and fundamentals and keys and things like that that are allowing him really to take his game to the next level and also build that trust that his role continues to grow,” Franklin said. “I think you’ve seen that all season and, specifically, last week. He’ll just continue headed in that direction.”

As Parsons and the defense continue to grow, one thing will be consistent: it’s not about who records the most tackles, sacks or interceptions, but rather getting the win. And with an attitude like that, Penn State is peaking defensively at the right time.