Big Ten contenders are winning with defense

Penn State defensive end Shaka Toney (18) sacks Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer (13) in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.

STATE COLLEGE – No. 10 Penn State’s offense scored touchdowns on its first four drives for the second consecutive week. The Nittany Lions tallied 28 points in just under 18 minutes to earn a 35-7 home win on Saturday against Purdue.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford accounted for all four of Penn State’s first-half scores. He tossed touchdown passes to redshirt sophomore receiver KJ Hamler (23 yards), sophomore receiver Jahan Dotson (72 yards) and sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth (7 yards). Clifford ran 3 yards for another score.

Penn State ranks among the nation’s best in red-zone scoring this season.

The Nittany Lions are 22 of 23 (95.6 percent) in red-zone scoring attempts, where they've tallied 15 rushing touchdowns, four field goals and three passing scores.

“I think we’re a confident football team right now – I do,” Penn State coach James Franklin said on Saturday. “I think we’re doing some really good things. Really all three phases. I think we can be a little more consistent on special teams, a little more consistent on offense, but we’re really doing some nice things in all three phases.”

The Nittany Lions have outscored their opponents 94-7 in their first two Big Ten contests.

Penn State struggled during the first three weeks of the season with its third-down conversion rate, but the numbers have improved over its impressive two-week run.

Penn State was 8 of 15 (53.3 percent) on third-down attempts against Purdue just a week after going 9 of 13 (69.2 percent) on third down against Maryland.

“We continue to get better on third down on defense, we continue to get better on third down on offense, so that’s positive,” Franklin said.

Penn State has outscored its opponents 235-37 over the first five weeks.

Getting defensive

Penn State’s defense swarmed Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer for 10 sacks. The Nittany Lions' 10 sacks tied Florida and Southern Methodist University this season for an FBS-high.

Penn State also grounded Purdue’s rushing attack to the tune of -19 yards, the fewest the Nittany Lions have allowed in Big Ten play since joining the conference in 1993.

“Defensively, we are doing some special things right now,” Franklin said. “It starts up front when your defensive line can stop the run and pressure the quarterback for four downs… We are playing championship-level defense, and we’ve been doing it for a number of weeks.”

Penn State in 2018 led the Big Ten in sacks with 47, and through the first five games of the season, it’s already accumulated 25 (No. 5 in FBS). Junior defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos is responsible for a team-high 5.5, and redshirt junior defensive end Shaka Toney has contributed five.

Gross-Matos tallied two sacks against the Boilermakers and Toney finished with a career-high three sacks.

Gross-Matos said although he and defensive teammates face opponents on game days, they’re also competing against themselves.

“It’s always a race to the quarterback to begin with,” he said. “I love seeing my peers find success in what they’re doing. When one person starts to get going, I feel that it’s infectious. We all feel it.”

Consistent Clifford

Clifford’s joined former Nittany Lion quarterbacks Christian Hackenberg and Trace McSorley as Penn State signal-callers with three games in which they’ve thrown for 250 or more yards and more than three touchdowns in a season.

Hackenburg accomplished the feat with three games in 2013, while McSorley did so with four contests in 2017.

Clifford passed for 264 yards and three touchdowns against the Boilermakers and connected on 20 of his 29 pass attempts. Clifford on the season is 90 of 135 passing with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions.

He ranks second in the Big Ten in yards passing.

“I think that our offense is really meshing well together,” Clifford said. “Every position is starting to really get relaxed in there. The tougher the test, I think that our team keeps on answering the call, and I’m really excited about that.”

Moving on up

Penn State climbed two spots to No. 10 in Sunday’s AP Top 25 Poll.

The ranking marks the first time this season the Nittany Lions have cracked the top 10. It’s also the first time the team has appeared in the AP Top 10 since Week 7 (No. 8) of the 2018 season.

Penn State began the season ranked No. 15 in the AP Top 25 and rose to No. 13 – tied with Wisconsin – in Week 4. The Nittany Lions moved to No. 12 following their 59-0 win at Maryland on Sept. 27.

White Out at night

Penn State announced on Monday morning its Oct. 19 White Out game against No. 16 Michigan will kick off at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised nationally on ABC.

The contest will mark the second consecutive week Penn State will have played in a primetime game. The Nittany Lions’ upcoming Oct. 12 road contest against No. 17 Iowa will also kick at 7:30 p.m. (ABC).

Elton Hayes is a veteran sports writer who covers Penn State for CNHI LLC publications. Contact him at ehayes@cnhi.com or follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.

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