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You know all about Penn State’s high-scoring offense. Now meet the Nittany Lions’ top-10 defense

While Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley pile up highlights, Penn State’s quietly become elite on the other side of the ball as well. Let’s talk to James Franklin and defensive coordinator Brent Pry.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Penn State
Heisman contender Saquon Barkley and defensive lineman Shareef Miller
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Back on National Signing Day 2016, a program 14-12 in its first two seasons under James Franklin had just lost commitments to in-state Pittsburgh and Temple. In between calls to rising junior and senior recruits that afternoon, new defensive coordinator Brent Pry emphasized the long view.

“These guys can be great. We could be on the verge of something. And in 2017, we bring almost everyone back. That could be a fantastic year,” Pry said 19 months ago.

Pry’s optimism, just like any positivity Franklin put out in that time period, was still under the weight of NCAA sanctions. But down the hall, newly hired offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was working out spring installation of a system meant to improve on the 100th-ranked scoring offense.

Moorhead’s offense would explode in 2016, while Pry’s defense was much quieter in its ascent after losses to Pitt and Michigan, perhaps until that 42-10 embarrassment at Ann Arbor was repaid in 2017.

By now, any long view of Penn State is all but forbidden.

Franklin’s ruthless, week-by-week mentality once helped marginalize PSU’s outsized problems. Now it’s a mute button for positive distractions.

This created a classic Franklin moment on Saturday, when Ohio State fans saw Franklin being asked about the Buckeyes in a postgame interview by ESPN, then feigning ignorance about Penn State’s schedule.

“I wasn’t slighting anyone. People were going crazy about that, but how could you not respect Ohio State and what Urban Meyer has done? One of the things we truly believe in is staying present. Can we just stay present for a second? God forbid we can celebrate this victory?” Franklin said on Wednesday.

“To be totally honest, I don’t know the whole schedule right now. I don’t. You get so consumed in your preparation that you don’t want to waste a second,” Pry said this week.

Pry has also avoided recognizing any stats outlining just how successful his unit has been. That’s a lot to ignore: No. 1 in scoring defense (9.6 points per game), third in yards per play (3.98), fifth in opponent red zone touchdowns, and ninth in opponent-adjusted Defensive S&P+. Just ask my colleague Bill Connelly:

“The fact that they’re good at pretty much all of them tells the tale. They’re 10th in success rate, eighth in explosiveness, 11th in finishing drives, best in field position ...”

“I don’t know. I don’t look,” Pry said. “I don’t belabor the bad and I don’t belabor the good. That’s how I try to present that to the unit. It’s the same way in our defensive staff room. I can only see what’s on that film, what we’re not doing well or what we’re not doing well enough, or if there’s a strength, how we do more of that thing.

“I almost cringe sometimes. This year, we were in morning workouts during spring ball, and everyone around State College is still talking to our guys about being Big Ten champs. I’m like ‘[loud, angry noise], I don’t wanna hear it, man!’ It just makes you cringe. You coach like crazy for guys to be humble!”

Pry is a Bud Foster disciple, having GA’d for the Virginia Tech defensive coordinator in the 1990s.

He’s equally as plain-spoken and allergic to credit as Foster. To coaches like Pry, success is never the scheme. It’s always the work of players in a larger system.

“I believe in coaching [players’] mentality. That’s where Coach Franklin and I are similar. You coach the mentality as much as the X’s and O’s. I do believe the more maturity we put out there, the better we’ll be,” Pry said.

“Over my career, when I look at the 11 we’re going to put on the field, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this good about any 11. You just know what you’re going to get. When it’s going well, when it’s not going well, when the bullets are flying, you’ve got 11 guys that we’ve got so much experience with.”

Those 11 are anchored by senior experience (seven positions), including senior linebacker Jason Cabinda.

In separate interviews, Pry and Franklin drove the conversation, specifically on defense, back to player growth.

Talk to a player and you get the reflexive response: We just have to keep working harder. Never look at the larger picture, etc.

“Whatever we did against Michigan won’t matter now. As the weeks go on, there’s less and less margin for error. Teams know more about you; you’re putting more on film,” Cabinda said.

If Nittany Lions defenders are grossly underappreciated on a national level, they get it — “it’s hard not to watch this team and be amazed by Saquon every week,” Cabinda said — and they’re a little happy with the circumstances.

“I haven’t been part of a team where all three phases of the game are this consistent,” Franklin said. “Opponents can find a way to fight back into a game when one side makes a mistake. So as good as our offense has been, when our punter knocks you deep and our gunners tackle you for very little yardage, our defense knows they can come out play aggressively, and that carries back over to the offense.

“It’s funny ... everyone talks about the blocked field goal vs. Ohio State [in 2016], but our defense shut them out in the second half, and it’s not discussed as much.”

If the blowout at home vs. Michigan was any kind of revenge for last year, Penn State is now the hunted against an Ohio State team it upset last year.

The morning after that win in 2016, Franklin theorized that “no one recognizes progress until a win like this.” He was interested to see how a new, proof-of-concept message would carry through the media and in recruiting.

“We knew back then. People who know the sport and who had followed us from back at Vanderbilt knew we were capable of games like that, but you gotta go out get a couple of those big wins. Actually doing it gets certain portions of your locker room on board, gets the community on board, and changes the national narrative a bit,” Franklin said.