Penn State's leading defense depends on swarming to ball

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Penn State's leading defense depends on swarming to ball

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — James Franklin's whistle is the last one Penn State players hear at practice, and sometimes the coach will hesitate before he blows plays dead.

He's waiting for a satisfactory number of white helmets to charge the ball carrier. It doesn't usually take long for him to see what he wants — eight, maybe nine defenders all converging on the football.

"You can take an average defense and be a good defense just by doing that one thing," Franklin said. "I think what we've been able to do is take a good defense and take it to that next category, whatever you call it, by doing a great job of running to the football."

It's helped cue a run in which the No. 2 Nittany Lions have allowed an FBS-low 9 points per game. They'll look to continue the trend against No. 19 Michigan on Saturday. They might need to in order to keep their national championship hopes alive, as the Wolverines will bring the nation's top overall defense to Happy Valley for Saturday's primetime showdown at Beaver Stadium.

The Wolverines are allowing just 223 yards per game and, like the Nittany Lions, are swarming to make tackles.

"It's not something you think about, it's just something that happens," Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer said. "You don't really see yourself not running to the football because it's so natural."

And because it's been stressed repeatedly over Franklin's three and a half seasons in charge.

In addition to his late whistles, Franklin will regularly step away from interviews with local reporters to scream at his players to run off the practice field. Further, he can point out statistics -- such as his team's plus-12 turnover differential — supporting his claim that collective hustle makes a difference.

Without it, Franklin knows the 17 takeaways his team has this year could be much closer to the nine it had at this point last season.

"Think about how many times last year the ball was on the ground as a fumble and we didn't come up with it," Franklin said. "This year we're coming up with those fumbles because we got more people around the ball."

Franklin's philosophy is echoed by his defensive coordinator Brent Pry, who's based his schemes on one principle.

"We're a staff that believes in team speed," Pry said. "It's noticeable right now, especially in the back seven. I think we're running really well."

Pry has confidence that Penn State's athletic group of linebackers can roam sideline to sideline. Starters Jason Cabinda, Manny Bowen and Farmer — a converted safety — have combined to help on 49 tackles. On the back end, safeties Marcus Allen and Troy Apke and corners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell have chipped in 34 helpers.

His defense's ability to pursue and gang tackle gives Pry even more confidence to call blitzes. It's made Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wary, too. Harbaugh said Monday he wasn't yet sure of the best way to attack the Penn State's defense.

"Don't see them giving up a lot of big plays in the running game or the passing game, which means they're really sound," Harbaugh said. "You can already see really good players in the front seven and in the secondary. They get to the ball, they close up gaps and they're rarely out of position."

Franklin might as well have repeated Harbaugh's concern Tuesday. Penn State's coach worked with Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown at Maryland and sees the same qualities that make his own unit so effective.

"The way they play defensive football, we're going to have some challenges," Franklin said. "You're going to be watching two of the best defensive coordinators in college football. Which probably doesn't get any more Big Ten than that, defensive football."

Penn State holds off Montana in 2nd half to reach 3-0

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Penn State holds off Montana in 2nd half to reach 3-0

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Although his nose was bloodied and swollen, smashed at the bridge and packed full of gauze, Shep Garner was all smiles on Wednesday night.

His nose, possibly broken in a collision with a teammate late in Penn State's 70-57 win over Montana on Wednesday, will heal. He's happier his shooting stroke appears to be on the mend, too.

Garner finished with 12 points and hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put the pesky Grizzlies away after they had pulled within three with 4:11 remaining at the Bryce Jordan Center.

"Talk about a kid that hasn't really been stroking the ball the first couple of games," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. "Misses two free throws then drills two 3s. That's what a senior does. That's what a leader does."

Lamar Stevens scored 15 of his 25 points in the second half and Josh Reaves added 12 apiece for the Nittany Lions (3-0) who led for all but 2:58.

Ahmaad Rorie led the Grizzlies (2-1) with 16 points and Michael Oguine chipped in 15, including a 3-pointer that cut Penn State's lead to 58-55.

The Grizzlies took advantage of Penn State's depleted lineup as they mounted their comeback. Penn State led by 10 with 13:06 left but was down two of its starting guards.

With Garner off the court for nasal repairs after colliding with Nazeer Bostick, Penn State was also without leading scorer Tony Carr who suffered a sprained ankle earlier in the second half. He did not return to the game.

Stevens took on the scoring load with most of his points coming while Carr rode a courtside stationary bike, trying to get loose.

"It just shows you, we have some players on this team," Chambers said. "On any given night, anybody's going to step up."

The teams swapped the lead six times before the Nittany Lions went ahead for good on a Bostick dunk with 12:09 to play in the first half and Penn State led 34-29 at intermission.

"I think Stevens and Garner scored the ball in a timely fashion and that was the big difference tonight," Montana coach Travis DeCuire said.

Shep’s shaky start
Garner, the team's top 3-point shooter last season, was struggling from all over the floor coming into the game. He had made just 2 of 16 field goals in the first two games.

"I was confident going into the game," Garner said. "But the shots down the stretch when we really needed them, they gave our team a boost and they gave me a boost so I felt great after making those shots."

Oguine shaken up
Oguine appeared to hurt his right wrist after getting tangled up under the hoop with Garner early in the second. The Grizzlies' leading scorer was unable to shoot the ensuing foul shots but did return to the game with his wrist taped after a brief respite.

Watching Carr
Chambers said Carr probably could've played, though he admitted he wasn't sure of the severity of the sprain and would know more on Thursday.

Carr, who scored 53 points over the first two games, was bringing the ball up slowly, waiting for his offense to set up when he crumpled to the floor grabbing at his right leg. Rorie went the other way for an uncontested layup and Carr limped off with help.

Chambers said he'd meet with Carr and team doctors Thursday to determine if Carr can play on Friday.

"When Tony went down, everybody had to step up," Miller said. "And tonight my teammates found me in the right spots and I was able to make my shots."

Big picture
Montana: The Grizzlies have plenty of talent. Rorie and Oguine are going to keep putting up points and will give this team a chance to win the Big Sky conference if they play like they did against the bigger Nittany Lions.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions are off to the type of start coach Patrick Chambers wanted to see. Fueled by an aggressive defense, Penn State has held teams to an average of 63 points per game thus far.

Up next
Montana hosts Oral Roberts on Monday.

Penn State hosts Columbia as part of the Legends Classic on Friday.

Penn State moves up to No. 10 in College Football Playoff rankings

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Penn State moves up to No. 10 in College Football Playoff rankings

Penn State is getting closer, but remains so far away.

The Nittany Lions came in at No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings released on Tuesday night. Penn State moved up from No. 14 a week ago.

After consecutive losses to ranked opponents, PSU regained its footing last Saturday with a 35-6 home win over Rutgers. The Nittany Lions host Nebraska this Saturday at 4 p.m.

Alabama and Clemson are back on top of the College Football Playoff rankings, the ninth time over the last three seasons that the Crimson Tide and Tigers have held the first two spots in some order.

Alabama was the selection committee's new No. 1 on Tuesday night, with Clemson up two spots to No. 2. Miami and Oklahoma followed, joining the top four for the first time this season. Wisconsin was fifth and Auburn was up to sixth.

Alabama and Clemson have met in the last two national championship games, with each winning one. If it wins out, there is good chance it could enter the postseason positioned to make it three straight title game matchups.

The Crimson Tide had been second behind Georgia in the first two selection committee rankings, but the Bulldogs and previously No. 3 Notre Dame were beaten last weekend, opening up the top for changes.

Unbeaten Miami jumped from seventh to third and along with Clemson gave the Atlantic Coast Conference two top-four teams for the first time in the four-year College Football Playoff era.

Oklahoma moved up one spot.

Unbeaten Wisconsin moved up from eighth and is the highest-ranked Big Ten team. Auburn is the highest-ranked team with two losses.

Georgia is seventh and Notre Dame is eighth.

Ohio State is back in the top 10 after an impressive victory against Michigan State, and Penn State is 10th. Southern California at 11th is the highest-ranked Pac-12 team.

UCF climbed to No. 15, making the undefeated Knights the highest-ranked team from a Group of Five conference. The highest-ranked conference champion from outside the Power Five is guaranteed a spot in the New Year's Six bowls.