No. 4 Penn State banking on defensive depth

No. 4 Penn State banking on defensive depth

(AP) A week ago, Shareef Miller hobbled to the far end of a cold, wet bench to sit down, rest a sore leg and watch Penn State’s defensive line work without him.

Linebacker Jason Cabinda has an idea what Miller might’ve been thinking, sitting there alone in the rain, shaken up only a handful of plays into the season opener.

“Guys are playing better, guys are pushing themselves more knowing that there are guys behind them that want to play and can play,” Cabinda said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who aren’t starters that could start for us and play well.”

Miller returned to his starting spot on Saturday and chipped in two sacks to help No. 4 Penn State’s defense hold Pittsburgh to a touchdown and two field goals. But Cabinda’s point still applies – coordinator Brent Pry’s defense is hungry, sturdy and capable of patching its own wounds.

The Nittany Lions (2-0) are using a revolving cadre of defenders to backstop one of the country’s most explosive offenses. Through two games, Pry has deployed 38 players and Penn State has allowed just one touchdown on 27 possessions. The depth’s come in handy as Penn State’s had to defend for 1:08:50, nearly 39 minutes of it on Saturday.

“We had some drives and we’d obviously like to create a little bit more 3-and-outs,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “That was our issue and getting a little bit more off the field on defense. Overall, I thought we played really well and the early interception was huge.”

Grant Haley’s first quarter pick and return set up Penn State’s first touchdown and was a product of Miller and fellow end Torrence Brown blowing up the pocket. Quarterback Max Browne couldn’t step up and floated the pass over his receiver’s head.

Haley’s play didn’t buy him much rest.

Trace McSorley flipped a touchdown pass to Mike Gesicki on the next play and the defense reconvened. The Nittany Lions are used to that with McSorley, Gesicki and big-play machine Saquon Barkley on offense. Considering their stars’ quick-strike abilities, Penn State defenders are embracing the many opportunities to sub out.

Miller and Brown, expected to handle primary pass-rushing duties this season, lead a defensive line rotation of more than a dozen players.

“Torrence is a real slippery, elusive kind of guy,” Penn State offensive tackle Andrew Nelson said. “Shareef, he plays angry. He plays mean. You know every play, Shareef is coming off the ball, is going to hit you in the chest, hit you with a hard swipe. He has a motor.”

Miller wants to see the rest of his teammates succeed, especially if he can draw blocks away from them with his speed rush.

“What would make me happy is seeing (Ryan) Buchholz get a sack or Torrence get a sack or Shane (Simmons) get a sack more than me getting a sack,” Miller said.

It’s a desire passed down from the team’s veterans. Six of Penn State’s defensive starters – five of them seniors — started games as freshmen.

Then, when players like Cabinda, Haley, Marcus Allen, Christian Campbell and Troy Apke arrived, Penn State was still reeling from NCAA sanctions that reduced its scholarships after the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Cabinda remembers looking around the weight room in the offseason, wondering which players could possibly be ready to endure a grueling Big Ten season. Now, he wonders which one will make the next big play.

“When you bring in guys that are better, you don’t allow the starters to feel comfortable,” Cabinda said. “Everybody’s always striving to do better and be better. If you start screwing up and you’re production isn’t where it needs to be, the guy behind you is itching at your spot and he’s going to take it.”

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