Donnie Collins: Penn State does what’s expected, and shows what’s needed | TribLIVE.com
Penn State

Donnie Collins: Penn State does what’s expected, and shows what’s needed

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AP
Penn State running back Devyn Ford (28) celebrates his touchdown with teammates K.J. Hamler (1) and Justin Shorter (6) in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Idaho in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019.

STATE COLLEGE — So, Penn State did what it should have done. It posted its most lopsided win in 28 years against a team it should have beaten by as many as it beat them.

In football, 79 points is a lot of points. And a 72-point win is a momentary eye-grabber. The Nittany Lions got both in their season-opening 79-7 mauling of Idaho, an FCS team that was an FBS team when this game was scheduled a few years back. A team that tried to talk about competing and giving itself a chance in the week leading up to all of this, but very much a team that showed up for the payday and the beatdown.

These are the easiest scores for fans to get excited about and the most difficult results, ultimately, for everyone else to evaluate. Surely, the Nittany Lions won’t do this to Buffalo next week, or to Pittsburgh in a fortnight. So how can this possibly be an indicator of what Penn State can do when it comes time to face the favorites in the Big Ten East Division come October and November?

Maybe, PJ Mustipher has an answer.

“It’s about continuing to dominate no matter what the situation may be,” Mustipher said shortly after the final whistle, but long after the winner had been decided. “I think today was a big steppingstone for us. We came in at halftime and had a big lead, and we just came out and kept dominating on both the defensive and offensive side of the ball today. It’s about never letting up, and I think that can take us from good to great.”

You can look for any storyline you want after a day like Saturday, when everything went right by design, and probably find some report to back up all the details. Sean Clifford shined in his first start at quarterback, sure. The receivers made big plays. The offensive line played well. The running backs were on point. All good things.

But the biggest sign that, just maybe, Penn State can make a run at the Big Ten championship is a little bit more difficult to find if you don’t listen closely to what Mustipher had to say, and if you don’t consider the source.

After all, he’s a pretty good player. Four-star recruit in 2018. Highly respected by the coaching staff. Productive enough to lead the team in tackles against Idaho. For a lot of teams, he’d be a cover-of-the-media-guide kind of performer, but on this team, it’s almost too easy to forget he’s on the roster.

Yes, on the defensive line, Penn State has that many players. Sometimes, you need a game like this to really notice that, because pulling the starters when the score gets lopsided was of no comfort or aid to poor Idaho. Penn State just brought different dominant forces onto the field.

When starters Robert Windsor and Antonio Shelton were lifted from the game early in the second half, it made room for guys like Mustipher and Fred Hansard and Judge Culpepper.

When Yetur Gross-Matos got the second half off after recording 2½ first-quarter sacks, it didn’t make Idaho quarterbacks Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson any less comfortable in the pocket. Jayson Oweh and Adisa Isaac and Shane Simmons just got their chance to hunt them down.

Head coach James Franklin has been bullish on his defensive front four for the past few months. He can’t imagine a better group than his ends, he has said. He hasn’t had a deeper group of tackles in years, he added. On Saturday, when asked how many of those players he’d realistically expect to play against a top-level opponent, he dug in. As many as six at both the tackle and end spots, he maintained. He meant it, and he saw nothing Saturday to change his mind.

“Our defensive line is extremely deep, from one all the way down,” center Michal Menet said. “I think you guys saw that today. There wasn’t a dropoff as far as execution, no matter who was in the game. That was huge for us.”

Against an Idaho offense designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, Penn State’s defensive line still recorded 19 tackles, 7½ tackles for loss and six sacks. The fact that linebacker Micah Parsons and safety Garrett Taylor, two of the leading tacklers on the team a season ago, had a combined two tackles can be attributed to the fact that so few Idaho ballcarriers were getting past the first wave of potential tacklers.

As the Vandals starters played pretty much the entire game, they struggled just as much to move the ball against Penn State’s third-string defensive line as it did its first, which is important to understand. Part of the reason Penn State has had so much trouble finishing out games in recent years is because they’ve had to rely on about half the number of solid players rotating in as Franklin believes he has now. This is a long season, one that isn’t defined by one game against an FCS opponent, a result that will be all but forgotten in a few weeks anyway.

But if this team is going to be a threat to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, it’s going to have to do what those teams do: Run pass rushers at quarterbacks in waves; lean on offensive linemen with fresh bodies all night.

“(Offensive linemen) get tired at some point. To have to work over and over and over again takes its toll,” Gross-Matos said.

Penn State looked strong everywhere Saturday. But it’s going to look strong defensively all season because of that line. Living up to a lofty billing made it easily the most important part of the first easy win on the long, difficult road to where they want to get.

Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollinstimesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.

Categories: Sports | Penn State
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