Penn State's front seven searching for answers after loss
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Middle linebacker Jason Cabinda trotted out to the sideline with a cast covering his left hand and wrist, and that was as close as he got to playing. Then Penn State defensive tackle Kevin Givens left with an injury.
It was that kind of day.
The Nittany Lions allowed 341 yards rushing in a 42-39 loss to Pitt on Saturday. It was the worst showing for Penn State's defense since Ohio State racked up 408 yards on the ground in 2013, and it left coach James Franklin and his staff with several concerns ahead of Temple's visit on Saturday.
Cabinda is doubtful and Givens is questionable for the matchup with the Owls. Givens appeared to be knocked out after colliding with teammate Manny Bowen on a tackle.
''I think whenever you're missing starters, missing guys that have played significant reps for you and you're a young football team as it is, it creates challenges,'' Franklin said. ''You've got less experienced guys on the field that have to step up in more prominent roles. There's no doubt about it.''
Penn State lost another linebacker when Brandon Bell was shaken up midway through the loss to the Panthers. He was able to return, but the Nittany Lions (1-1) used sophomores Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper for stretches.
''That's a group that hasn't been on the field together much, me, Coop and Nyeem (Wartman-White),'' Bowen said.
The inexperience played a role in Pitt's huge day on the ground, but there were other issues. And it began right from the start of the game, with the Panthers putting together a 10-play, 99-yard drive on their first possession. James Conner burst through wide-open gaps up the middle and got loose for sweeping runs to both sidelines, with Penn State's defensive ends unable to contain the running back.
''Gap accountability was our issue,'' Franklin said.
Defensive end Garrett Sickels, Penn State's lone returning starter from last season's unit that lost Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson and Carl Nassib to the NFL, said he was just as guilty for a lack of discipline.
''You get excited when you take on a block,'' Sickels said. ''You think the ball is going to come in the gap behind you when really, the linebacker is filling that gap and sometimes if you disengage too early, there' s a linebacker in the same gap so that one hole that you should've been in is open.''
Sickels also brushed away any talk of inexperience. Although tackle Parker Cothren and fellow ends Torrence Brown and Evan Schwan are all first-year starters, each of them has rotated into games in past seasons. Schwan is a fifth-year senior and Cothren was a primary spell for Johnson and Zettel last fall.
''I don't think it's anything to do with your age or experience because I'm the returning guy who has the most experience and sometimes I was trying to do too much and I messed up on an assignment,'' Sickels said.
Some help could be on the way. Franklin hinted Tuesday that freshman linebacker Cam Brown could make his debut sooner rather than later.
Sickels believes simply sticking to fundamentals, rather than trying to cover two gaps at once or disengaging from blocks trying to anticipate big plays, is the biggest key.
''The biggest thing especially after last week was just missed opportunities and guys trying to do too much,'' Sickels said. ''I think we settled down in the second half and played our gaps and did our jobs. We really have to focus on fundamentals and hone in on those and not miss opportunities.''