STATE COLLEGE – Penn State coach Bill O’Brien is feeling much better about his Nittany Lions’ defense. And he’s got two weeks to enjoy the good mood before Penn State opens its Big Ten Conference schedule.
A week after facing criticism directed at his defenders, O’Brien was itching to field questions regarding a unit coming off its stingiest outing of the season.
“You guys need to ask me some defense questions,” O’Brien said, addressing reporters following a 34-0 win over Kent State Saturday evening. “You guys were all over them last week and they just pitched a shutout. I thought the defense played a hell of a football game today.”
In limiting Kent State to 190 yards offense and nine first downs, the Nittany Lions (3-1) bounced back from a 34-31 loss to Central Florida the previous weekend. That’s when Penn State was torched for 507 yards offense and allowed 10 plays that went 20 yards or longer.
Kent State, by comparison, had just one 20-yard gain – running back Ernest Calhoun’s 22-yard run late in the third quarter.
Safety Ryan Keiser had four tackles, a sack and a game-turning interception, which came immediately after Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was picked off at midfield midway through the third quarter. Linebacker Glenn Carson led the way with seven tackles, including two for a loss.
“This was a really important week for us,” Carson said. “Coming off a loss, everyone wants to see how we respond. You feel it all week long while practicing. And coming out and winning gets it off your shoulders a little bit.”
Questions still remain.
Penn State still continues to have difficulty generating a pass rush and forcing turnovers. After four games, the Nittany Lions have four interceptions, one forced fumble and eight sacks.
Containing the Golden Flashes is one thing, particularly with the Mid-American Conference team missing its most dynamic threat in running back Dri Archer, who was held out to rest a nagging sore ankle.
The more daunting challenges are yet to come. After a bye week off, Penn State plays at Indiana on Oct. 5, followed by games against Michigan and Ohio State.
And shutting out Kent State is nothing new in Happy Valley.
The Nittany Lions’ last shutout came in a 24-0 win over the Golden Flashes on Sept. 18, 2010. Kent State has not scored a point against Penn State in 11 quarters, dating to the opening quarter of a 32-10 loss in 2003.
On offense, the Nittany Lions’ three-pronged running attack remains their strength.
While Hackenberg struggled on a sloppy, rain-soaked day in going 13 of 35 for 176 yards passing, Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch combined for 278 yards rushing and scored all four touchdowns. Zwinak scored three times for the second consecutive week, while Belton opened the scoring with a 15-yard catch.
O’Brien blamed himself for being slow to lean on his ground game, especially to start the third quarter when Penn State held a 14-0 lead.
After Belton opened the third quarter with three runs for 34 yards, O’Brien became pass-happy. Penn State attempted one run on the next 10 plays, during which Hackenberg completed 1 of 9 attempts for 8 yards and an interception.
The second-year coach took the blame.
“I wish I had a couple of play calls back,” O’Brien said. “There was one series where I threw the ball three plays in a row, and I should’ve been booed on that.