'We're Here to Stay'

Penn State's defense put Indiana, and the 2020 season, to rest. Now it craves a duel with Iowa.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State coach James Franklin hasn't been sleeping well on Sunday mornings this season. He gets up at 4:30 a.m., spends another restless hour in bed replaying the last game and brooding over the next before relenting to get up.

Franklin and his daughters usually go for an early donut run, but lately Franklin has been getting them himself, leaving the box for his family, and heading to the office. He expected to do that again Sunday after his team improved to 5-0 with a visit to Iowa looming.

No. 4 Penn State easily handled Indiana 24-0 on Saturday night at Beaver Stadium, setting the stage for a fascinating game next week in Iowa City. Penn State and Iowa will be top-five unbeatens with terrifying, opportunistic defenses that have combined for 19 interceptions this season (12 by Iowa).

Late Saturday night, Franklin already was looking ahead to Iowa, a place he's looking forward to visiting for one reason: the first-quarter wave to the nearby Family Children's Hospital.

"There's not a lot I look forward to about going to [Iowa City]," Franklin said. "I am looking forward to the hospital and waving to those children, but that's the only thing I'm looking forward to."

Franklin was on the road recruiting Friday night, when Iowa took apart Maryland 51-7 behind seven turnovers that included five interceptions of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. But if he was watching Saturday night, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had to be equally unnerved.

Penn State suffocated Indiana's offense all night, handing the Hoosiers their first shutout since 2000, a span of 246 games. Indiana might have gone 10 quarters without scoring against the Lions' hyper-aggressive secondary, which now knows what a shutout tastes like.

This was Penn State's first shutout since beating Maryland 59-0 two years ago. The Lions discussed that afterward. They came to a conclusion.

"We just feel like now moving forward, that should be the standard," defensive end Arnold Ebiketie said. "We believe whenever our defense is playing our 'A' game, we believe nobody can score on us, and that should be the mindset going into every game."

Every Friday, defensive coordinator Brent Pry discusses what teams call "sudden change," those situations in which the defense has to return to the field quickly after a turnover. Penn State hasn't had to deal with that much this season. It happened for the first time in a tangible sense Saturday.

Quarterback Sean Clifford threw a first-half interception, one he owned completely, forcing the defense onto the field at its own 13-yard line. In unison, they announced that Indiana would not score.

So on 4th-and-1 from the 4-yard line, Ebiketie stood up Indiana's Stephen Carr for no gain, and Penn State had its sixth scoreless red-zone stop of the season. The Lions added another in the fourth quarter, when Brandon Smith delivered the team's second blocked field goal of the year.

Ebiketie, the early MVP of Penn State's defense, said there was no way Carr would get that first down.

"We knew they were not going to get the first down," he said. "We knew we were going to get that stop. It just came down to being more physical up front, and that's the reason why we were able to get the stop."

Penn State's front seven has been exceptional, notably Ebiketie, tackles PJ Mustipher and Derrick Tangelo and linebackers Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks. But this secondary has been overwhelming, definitely the best of Franklin's time and perhaps one of the best in Penn State history.

The Lions broke up six passes Saturday, with cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields and Daequan Hardy getting two each. More importantly, when an opponent does make a big play, Penn State usually clamps down thereafter.

In the second quarter, Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (who would leave the game with an injury) completed a lovely 34-yard pass to Miles Marshall, who got behind Castro-Fields.

Teammates patted Castro-Fields on the back after the play, and fellow cornerback Joey Porter Jr. made the completion moot on the very next snap. Porter jumped on a pass, which was hurried by the pass rush of Jesse Luketa, for his first career interception.

Porter, who quickly is becoming one of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks, was asked to compare the fourth-down stop with the interception. He paused, then smiled.

"Fourth and one was really something, but that interception was the first of many, hopefully," he said. "I was proud to be able to do it in this stadium."

Penn State's defense, which hasn't allowed more than 20 points in a game this season, has cleansed the memory of 2020. Pry's offseason overhaul, his defensive-line rebuild and his nurturing of this secondary have been impressive. Having been reborn, this defense is eager for its next step.

"I feel like that fourth down really just stamped our defense and it was like, 'We're here to stay,'" Porter Jr. said.

Asked about whose defense will have the edge next week, Porter offered this preview.

"I'm always going to say us, but Iowa, they're a great team and they make plays on the ball," he said. "So it's going to be a good matchup."

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