Breaking Down The Penn State Defense


Oct 25, 2014; University Park, PA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) runs for a touchdown past Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Nyeem Wartman (5) in the first quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

In Maryland’s biggest game of the season against their next rival, the Terps will take on Penn State’s stout defense. The Nittany Lions rank ninth in NCAA in points allowed with a pesky 17.4 points-per-game. With Maryland gaining just 108 yards last weekend at Wisconsin, will Maryland struggle yet again? I give a breakdown by unit on their strengths and how Maryland needs to execute to beat Penn State’s defense.

Defensive line

A physical bunch, Penn State’s defensive line is led by senior defensive tackle Anthony Zettel. Against Ohio State, Penn State’s line had a tough time stopping the read option. As quick as defensive ends C.J. Olaniyan and Deon Barnes are, Ohio State’s big offensive line did a good job of holding their blocks. Maryland’s offensive line has certainly improved throughout the year, despite ranking 85th in the nation with 2.38 sacks allowed per game. Zettel is a big plug in the defense that has the speed of a defensive end in a defensive tackle’s body. With C.J. Brown as Maryland’s leading rusher with 3.8 yards per carry, he will need to make smart plays on the read option in order to confuse the defense.

What stood out to me in the Ohio State matchup was their tenacity on short-yard situations. Very rarely did they allow a big gain or even a first down, evidenced by Ohio State’s 7-18 third down conversion. As physical as Ohio State is, Penn State’s defensive line is a big reason why the run defense is ranked third in the nation in rushing yards allowed with just 83.4 yards per game.

Maryland’s best option at running back would be Brandon Ross due to the fact he can run and catch exceptionally well. Brown is a big power back and will certainly be utilized to provide additional blocking, but he’s not as dynamic as Ross has been this year. Ross will need to do a good job of hitting holes with a burst of acceleration to try and gain every inch given. If he hesitates at all, Penn State’s defensive line will swallow him up in a heartbeat for a minimal gain.


Maryland will go up against a stud linebacker in senior Mike Hull. Averaging 11.9 tackles per game, his instincts and ability to shed his block put him in the middle of almost every play. The linebackers pinch almost every play to clog the line and are a tremendous help on the run defense. However, their instinct to bite on the run puts more pressure on the pass coverage. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it, because Mike Hull had an outstanding interception last week; it’s just not their strength. Outside linebackers Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman can play like the “Yannick Bros” from Maryland. They’re quick enough that they will blindside or double-team the tackles and get to the quarterback in a hurry, forcing the quarterback into a loss of yards or turnover.

That’s what happened for J.T. Barrett to start the second half, shifting momentum for Penn State. CJ Brown will need to do a good job of getting rid of the ball early. As the season has progressed, defenses are becoming more alert and prepared for Maryland’s screens and it has showed, starting from the Ohio State game. With CJ Brown already prone to making the errant pass or poor decision, a fast and efficient defense may make life uncomfortable in Happy Valley. Luckily, Maryland has an abundance of receivers that can make plays.


A group that went largely untested against Ohio State, I saw that Penn State’s cornerbacks consistently bit on pumps by the wide receivers. However, they’re blazing fast, and on a couple plays their speed saved them from giving up big gains. Middway through the third quarter, JT Barrett had a near-touchdown, but freshman Marcus Allen, the backup cornerback, quickly made up the lost ground and batted the ball down.

For the second time this year, I see cornerbacks that can matchup against every Maryland receiver. The biggest question mark is how well Maryland’s receivers can gain separation and hold onto the ball, because this defense can hit hard. Expect Maryland to try and get everyone involved to alleviate pressure from Diggs. Defenses all year have been paying extra attention to the NFL prospect, but Locksley has gotten Diggs involved in a number of ways. Maryland will need the rest of their receivers, especially senior Deon Long, to execute to perfection in order to get the offense in sync on Saturday.