UNIVERSITY PARK, PA (WTAJ) — A season ago it was Arnold Ebiketie or bust for the Nittany Lion pass rush. The defensive end accounted for more than 30-percent of the team’s sacks with 9.5. This year Penn State has recorded a Big Ten-tying best 12 sacks through four games, with nine players getting to the quarterback.
“We can roll guys, we can keep guys fresh,” said junior defensive end Adisa Issac, who has one sack and three quarterback hits. “That’s when we play at our best, when we have guys that are roaming in fresh, and you don’t have no drop off and play to the standard that we know we can play as a defense. So that definitely helps having fresh guys rotating throughout the game and keeping that pressure on for our opponents.”
Issac, Ji’Ayir Brown and Chop Robinson lead Penn State with three quarterback hits each, but it’s freshman Dani Dennis-Sutton leads the Nittany Lions with three sacks. Defensive back Johnny Dixon is the only other Nittany Lion with multiple sacks, seven players have one.
The production comes despite missing Smith Vilbert, a junior who was expected to make an impact on the line. Vilbert has practiced but not played in a game since recording three sacks in the Outback Bowl. Coach Franklin said Tuesday he was not available to play.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for all the players in our program and I want to be respectful of their situations, whether it’s personal, whether it’s professional, whether it’s academic, whatever it may be. I want to be respectful of those things,” said Franklin. “I’m really proud that Smith Vilbert is a part of our program and I’ll leave it at that for right now.”
Manny Diaz’s defense has been aggressive getting to quarterbacks and knocking down passes. Penn State leads the nation in pass breakups. But the Nittany Lion pass rush could face its biggest test Saturday against Northwestern. Left tackle Ryan Hillinski is considered a first round draft pick and the Wild Cats have surrendered just five sacks this season.
“This offensive coordinator, you check his history, he’s a big chipper,” said Franklin of offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. “So, whether it’s a running back or tight end, he’s chipping the defensive ends before he goes out…. and some people do that when they feel there’s a matchup challenge, but he does it all the time.”