Is Penn State's Passing Defense an Issue in Big Games?

By Matthew Filipovits on November 10, 2019 at 3:45 pm
Nov 9, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) drops back for a pass in the first quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
© Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

There has been an unsettling trend in a number of Penn State's losses over the last few years: opposing quarterbacks keep on having career days against the vaunted Nittany Lion defense.

It all started with Sam Darnold throwing for 453 yards and five touchdowns in the 2017 Rose Bowl. This performance came during a season in which he averaged 278 yards and 2.5 touchdowns in the games he started. The 453 passing yards were a season-high, while the five scores tied his best mark on the year — he did it two other times, both were against teams (Arizona and Cal) that did not achieve bowl eligibility. At the time, it seemed like the Nittany Lions had just gotten unlucky against a passing attack that included a future No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft under center and an eventual Pro Bowl wide receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster.

JT Barrett
Former Ohio State quarterback. J.T. Barrett had a career day against the Nittany Lions in 2017. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Next came J.T. Barrett in Penn State's infamous collapse in Columbus in 2017. Coming into the game, Barrett was completing roughly 67 percent of his passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns a game. Against the Nittany Lions, he completed 84.6 percent of his attempts for 328 yards and four touchdowns. That completion percentage was the best he would ever post as a starter and those 328 yards were the most he would ever throw for against a Power Five opponent. Barrett had the game of his life and perhaps things are different if one of Penn State's starting defensive ends, Ryan Buchholz, did not leave the game with an injury, but on the heels of the Rose Bowl loss, it was certainly curious watching an opposing quarterback raise his game to this level.

Just one week later, Brian Lewerke attempted 56 passes, completing 33 of them, for 400 yards in a Michigan State win over Penn State. He's not hit the 400-yard mark since and has attempted over 50 passes in just two game since then ... with one coming against the Nittany Lions in 2018. That 2018 performance was nothing special, but the Spartan staff still saw enough to feel confident in letting Lewerke air it out in a season where he had struggled. I am not going to remind you what happened in the 2018 game for your (and my) well-being.

As for Penn State's other losses in 2018, this wasn't a particularly huge issue. Dwayne Haskins struggled for stretches, not finding his groove until Ohio State opted to carve the Nittany Lions up with screen passes. He did, however, end with 270 yards and three scores through the air. Michigan's Shea Patterson was efficient and found the end zone twice, but the Wolverines leaned on their run game, keeping it on the ground 52 times and airing it out 17. Kentucky followed a similar blueprint: Terry Wilson threw it 15 times, compared to 42 total rushes for Mark Stoops' squad.

This season, Penn State's passing defense woes have crept back. It was easier to look past them when the team was 8-0, but following Saturday's loss to Minnesota, a concerning trend is emerging.

Buffalo quarterback Matt Myers has appeared in only five games due to an upper body injury, but the 245 yards he threw for against the Nittany Lions is a season-high by nearly 100 yards. If you add up his passing yardage against three teams — Group of Five squads Liberty and Temple, and FCS foe Robert Morris — it totals just 53 yards more than he threw for against Penn State. His performance set off some alarms when the Nittany Lions went into the half down 10-7 in that game, but they rallied back to win and the defense put the clamps on him in the second half, so it felt like an anomaly.

Kenny Pickett was the next quarterback to pick apart this Penn State secondary, also setting career highs in attempts and passing yards in Pitt's 17-10 loss to the Nittany Lions. As Greg Pickel of PennLive pointed out on Saturday, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi stressed after the game that the team planned for Pickett to air it out, as they liked their chances against the "weakness" of the Nittany Lion defense.

Iowa's Nate Stanley had his best game of the season against Penn State — 25-for-43, 286 yards, one touchdown, one INT — while Shea Patterson really let it fly. He attempted 41 passes, the most he's had since transferring to Michigan, during the Wolverines' trip to Happy Valley. He also tied the second-most passing yards (276) he's had against Big Ten opponents, with Maryland being the only conference foe to allow more yards through the air than Penn State, and was one dropped pass in the end zone away from possibly getting the game to overtime. Again, the belief was Penn State just got the best that their opponents could muster and not that this was a trend.

Then, Minnesota's Tanner Morgan had the game of his life against Penn State's secondary, completing 90 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns. That completion percentage and passing yard total trailed only his performance earlier in the season against lowly Purdue, while those four touchdowns were career-high.

This last game, one could argue, changed how these sorts of performances are perceived. Penn State is not getting unlucky and catching these quarterbacks at their very best. Instead, the Nittany Lions are allowing opposing passers to perform at their highest level. 

Despite the loss, the Nittany Lions are still in a good place heading into the third weekend in November. They control their own destiny and should still find themselves in the top-10 come Tuesday night's College Football Playoff rankings. But if they want to beat the Buckeyes in two weeks, they cannot do what seemingly allows do in big games: allow quarterbacks to do whatever they want. It'd also help if they shored things up before facing Indiana, which boasts the top passing offense in the conference.

This secondary has far too much talent to continue letting this happen. The Nittany Lions are starting four upperclassmen, and despite some injuries at corner, have enough talent in the two-deep to perform at a high level. It would also, of course, help if Penn State's pass rush got home more frequently in these sorts of games, even if that can be mitigated a bit by the opposition by getting the ball out quickly.

We talk so much about taking that step from great to elite. The Nittany Lions have a great defense, nobody would question that. They need the secondary to step up to reach that elite plateau. 

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