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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."