Defensive improvement holding up its end so far

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This question is almost too easy. I’m sure Cory, my esteemed counterpart across the page, will present a compelling case for the special teams, and they were obviously outstanding in the clutch.

But they also kept both teams in the game.

The special teams needed the heroics of Marcus Allen, Grant Haley and Cam Brown because of the unit’s shoddy work earlier in the evening.

So I’m voting for the defense.

After Curtis Samuel blazed 74 yards for a touchdown to give the Buckeyes a 19-7 lead with 10:10 left in the third quarter, the defense did not allow another point. (Ohio State added two points after a PSU errant punt snap — special teams again.)

That’s 23 minutes of keeping Ohio State’s explosive offense off the scoreboard.

Trailing by 14 points (21-7), Penn State’s defense forced three straight punts, blocked the field goal that turned into the game-winning score, and then ended the game by twice sacking J.T. Barrett.

The Buckeyes came into the game having only given up five sacks all season but yielded six to the Lions’ hard-charging front seven.

Clearly, the return of linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda, who accounted for 31 tackles, sparked the defense to its best performance of James Franklin’s three-year tenure. Bell wears No. 11 for a reason. He’s a great player who has been plagued by injuries. Cabinda is equally active and an excellent leader.

During their absence, Manny Bowen gained valuable experience, and it showed up big with his 12 tackles.

Pressure from defensive ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, who combined for 4.5 sacks, and the defensive tackle by committee, including Altoona’s Kevin Givens, helped the secondary shut down the Buckeyes’ vertical passing game.

A unit that was decimated by injuries early in the season now looks formidable with its depth and impressive speed.

The combination has contributed to the defense’s vast improvement since September, when Pitt and Michigan both put 40 on the Lions, and totally surpassed all expectations Saturday night.

Suddenly, the defense need not take a backseat to the offense, which was supposedly going to have to outscore people for Penn State to win.

In the last 10 quarters, the Nittany Lions’ defense has allowed just five touchdowns — the biggest reason three straight unbeaten teams, including the Buckeyes, have left Beaver Stadium with their first loss.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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