Brent Pry was not alone, but it was obvious that Penn State’s defensive coordinator took the 2020 season hard.
He lost 30 pounds as he watched opponents torch the Nittany Lions for more than 27 points a game, the most in school history.
Pry gained a burning desire to make the Penn State defense staunch again.
“It was an embarrassment and a tough situation,” Pry told me in late April. “I think the staff and the players are ready to get rid of that taste. I think everybody is extra motivated and more driven.”
It showed Saturday at Wisconsin, where the defense withstood 95 snaps, produced three turnovers and led the Lions to a 16-10 victory over the No. 12 team in the country.
Pry wasn’t available for comment, but he wouldn’t have tooted his own horn anyway. He would have praised the guys he coaches and thanked them for their efforts.
The defense was the chief reason why Penn State earned its best road victory since winning at Ohio State in 2008.
“I think we showed we can play with anybody in the country,” said tackle PJ Mustipher, who had seven tackles. “I know Wisconsin is a great team. They’re ranked high. We went out there and got the job done. That builds confidence.
“That’s the standard we’ve got to keep reaching.”
Pry, head coach James Franklin and others did several things after last season that has made the defense much better.
The first step came when defensive end Arnold Ebiketie decided to transfer from Temple to Penn State. He was regarded as more of a pass rusher than a run stopper. He proved that he could do both effectively against the Badgers, making seven solo tackles, blocking a field goal and having more of an impact on a game than any Lions end has had in a while.
He forced Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz into an intentional grounding penalty in the final minute, which helped keep the Badgers from scoring the winning touchdown.
“He’s fast,” Mustipher said. “You can’t teach speed and I don’t think you can stop speed as many times as you think. He was able to do that to his advantage and play reckless and have fun and he made a lot of plays. So I’m proud of him.”
After Ebiketie’s transfer, safety Jaquan Brisker and cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, along with wide receiver Jahan Dotson, decided to return to Penn State for one more season instead of opting for the NFL. They didn’t want to leave with a 4-5 record as the last line on their college resumes.
Brisker, a preseason All-American, had a monstrous game against the Badgers, intercepting a pass at the 2-yard line in the final three minutes despite leaving the game three times with leg cramps and “other things.”
“I thought both Brisker and Tig (fellow safety Ji’Ayir Brown) were fantastic today,” Franklin said. “We got a bunch of playmaking and production out of our safeties, which we haven’t had in a long time.”
After the three seniors decided to come back for this season, Pry and Franklin sought to improve the linebacker position, which was not good in 2020. They moved Brandon Smith from the strong side to the weak side, where Jesse Luketa played last year. They put Curtis Jacobs on the weak side, giving the position more athleticism.
With Ellis Brooks staying in the middle, Jesse Luketa was the odd man out. So, with depth thin at defensive end, Pry and Franklin gave Luketa repetitions in camp at end and linebacker.
That worked out well Saturday. Smith came on strong and made eight tackles, tying a career high, and Jacobs had five.
Luketa was disruptive at end and pressured Mertz a few times. Then he had to move to middle linebacker after Brooks was ejected for targeting.
“Whether Luketa was at D-end or linebacker, he played his role really well,” Brisker said. “He stepped in and he made plays for us.”
Penn State allowed 30 first downs, but the defense limited the Badgers to one touchdown, less than 4 yards a play and one gain longer than 20 yards.
The Lions handed Wisconsin its first loss in a home opener since 1995, thanks to the defense.
Pry came under fire from fans last year and understood why. He spent months after the 2019 Cotton Bowl win over Memphis designing a defense that would put All-American linebacker Micah Parsons in position to be even more effective.
When Parsons opted out of the 2020 season last August, Pry never used it or COVID-19 as an excuse. He shouldered blame for the play of the linebackers and the defense as a whole last year and vowed to make both better.
“The motivation is there,” he said in April. “And so is the mindset, the outlook and the culture that lends itself to winning, improvement and development.
“I’m not harping on last year, but we’re in a better place to work hard and do the things we need to do to have a good year.”
Source: Berkshire mont