Penn State's defense returned to form as offense evolves
State College, Pa. (AP) Anthony Zettel stepped into Beaver Stadium's interview room Saturday afternoon wearing an old-school hockey mask similar to one worn by horror movie villain Jason Vorhees.
The Halloween costume was fitting and would've looked good on any of the Nittany Lions' defensive linemen, especially considering their playing styles. Their relentless stalking of Illinois' Wes Lunt and his backup Chayce Crouch highlighted a return to form for a defense that allowed mobile quarterbacks to get loose the last two weeks.
Zettel sacked Lunt once in the third quarter to push his team's total to 35. Carl Nassib and Austin Johnson each added a sack and reserves Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren shared one.
''It means the world when the younger guys go in toward the end of the game, they know what they have to do,'' Zettel said. ''No one missed a beat and everyone played hard.''
The Nittany Lions have gotten that effort up front all season. Coaches have been able to keep the starters fresh and their backups prepared by substituting regularly. It manages physical strain and keeps younger players like Cothran and Cothren on a regular rotation. The substitution ratio changes from game to game, from team to team.
It's allowed Penn State to keep up its pace as college football's best pass-rushing defense. And it's helped Nittany Lions defensive linemen get better as games wear on.
Twenty-two of Penn State's 36 sacks have come in the second half with 16 of them in the fourth quarter. Although Maryland's Perry Hills ran for 126 yards against Penn State, he was sacked twice in the final minutes and lost a fumble. Cothran and Cothren dropped Crouch on the final play of the fourth quarter to end the Illini's afternoon.
''That's kind of who we are,'' Penn State coach James Franklin said. ''We wear people down with our pass rush.''
It's come in handy while Penn State's offense has been a work in progress. But the offense has clicked with 70 points and 763 yards in back-to-back weeks and the defense got to play with a rare cushion on Saturday. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg got off to his fastest start - the one he'd been waiting for and hinting was coming any week now.
Hackenberg entered the game having completed just 48 percent of his first-quarter throws. He'd taken seven first-quarter sacks, too. On Saturday he went 8-for-9 passing with two touchdowns. He attributed his success to execution, which has been easier to do as he's gotten comfortable with an always-changing cast around him.
Penn State has used seven different offensive line combinations, seven running backs, seven receivers and four tight ends so far this season.
''There were some games where either we'd miss some throws or drop some balls and that's hard to get into a rhythm,'' Franklin said. ''I thought we started a lot cleaner as a football team this week.''
It came at a perfect time as a difficult stretch remains. Penn State will play a rested Northwestern (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) on the road before its bye, then play No. 16 Michigan 6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) at home and at No. 6 Michigan State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten).
''This was the most complete win we've had and it's awesome,'' linebacker Jason Cabinda said. ''I think this game will be huge for our confidence and that's really the most important thing. Guys who are playing confident, are playing fast and with no hesitation.''