STATE COLLEGE — Penn State's competition through two games hasn’t been anywhere near as strong as it will be moving forward, but the Nittany Lions' defense has shown signs it may be formidable.
Penn State has surrendered just 13 points in lopsided victories over Idaho and Buffalo.
The most impressive defensive play to date has been senior cornerback John Reid’s third-quarter interception return for a touchdown that sparked a 31-point scoring flurry against Buffalo on Saturday.
“We think that we've got two of the better corners in the country, we really do,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Not just the conference, but the country, and they are playing with a lot of confidence right now. They are really playing well in both the run and pass game.”
The Nittany Lions rank No. 13 in the FBS in scoring defense (10 points per game), and they boast the nation’s 30th-ranked run defense (94 yards per game). Idaho managed just 4 yards on the ground against the unit, while Buffalo tallied 184 yards.
A source of pride among the unit is its ability to force opposing offenses off the field after third downs. The Nittany Lions’ first two opponents have converted just 11 of their 38 third-down attempts. Penn State’s defense ranks 33rd in FBS in third-down conversions.
“A big part of getting off the field on third down is how you play on first and second,” Penn State redshirt junior defensive tackle Antonio Shelton said. “So when the offense is in a more manageable situation, like third-and-3, third-and-4, they usually stick to their bread and butter plays, which is plays that they run most often, which most of the time is running the ball.”
The Nittany Lions have also been opportunistic.
Reid’s pick-six last week upped the defense’s total to three takeaways on the young season. Senior linebacker Cam Brown forced a fumble and recovered the loose football in the first quarter, and Reid netted an interception in Week 1.
“I think it is a big part of who we want to be and who we need to be,” Franklin said. “Creating turnovers on defense and then having that mentality when we do get the turnover that we are going to score points on defense.”
So far, Penn State’s defense has looked crisp in its first two tests. It did its part in keeping Buffalo at bay while the Nittany Lion offense struggled to gain momentum through the first half. The unit will look to replicate its early-season success this week when ACC member Pittsburgh visits Beaver Stadium.
“I think that adversity was huge for us,” Penn State senior safety Garrett Taylor said of last week's first half. “I think it just showed our guts as a team. Obviously the first half was rough, but it showed a lot about how we are as a team. We were able to internalize that, get over mistakes we made in the first half and come out in the second half and correct that. It said a lot about us as a team.”