John Butler was adamant about his team’s third down defense proficiency after Penn State’s inspiring win against Michigan.
The defensive coordinator believed the Nittany Lions would crack the top 10 in this category after holding Michigan short on 14 of its 18 third down attempts Saturday.
It turns out the defensive coordinator has a knack for predicting more than just opposing offenses — the Lions checked in at No. 10 on the dot in third down defense this week, allowing successful conversions on just 28.1 percent of attempts so far this season.
After allowing seven conversions in 12 attempts in a 34-31 loss to Central Florida, the Lions have laid down the hammer 37 out of 48 times on the ever-critical down in the past three games.
“Our third down defense is phenomenal,” Butler said. “We’ve done the same thing all year. Basically, we have four blitzes, and we have four base coverages, which we mix up. Nothing was new.”
Butler — in his first season as coordinator after coaching the secondary in 2012 — has often stressed the importance of well-timed blitzes, which he offered as the primary factor in the Lions’ defense managing to get off the field so frequently.
He estimated the Lions blitzed the versatile Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner on about 60 percent of the Wolverines’ 18 third down attempts, primarily in an effort to “make him play quarterback,” as opposed to getting loose in the open field.
Penn State’s next opponent — Ohio State — will present another athletic quarterback in Braxton Miller, who has rushed 39 times in just two Big Ten games. In the Buckeyes’ 35-23 win over the Lions last year, Miller rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns, so facing Gardner was a likely a good rehearsal for the Lions heading into their bye week.
As with all mobile quarterbacks, Butler noted there were times when Gardner found the open field through the blitz.
For example, the Wolverines’ quarterback seamed through the Lions’ rush for 12 yards on 3rd-and-11 in the second quarter.
But Penn State’s defense executed Butler’s third-down play calls frequently from then on, especially in regard to containing Gardner — who rushed past the chains on third down just once the rest of the game in four tries.
“Once you get to third down, you really have to make that stop in crucial parts of the game,” linebacker Glenn Carson said after Saturday’s Michigan game. “Everyone did their job. We came in with a bend, don’t break mentality. If things didn’t go your way, you just keep playing.”
Butler said providing pressure too frequently often represents a double-edged sword, though. A failure to get to the quarterback in these situations leads to abandoned coverage, Butler explained, such as on the 37-yard touchdown pass to Devon Funchess, which left Carson one-on-one with the Wolverines best receiver.
But that’s to be expected when facing dual-threat quarterbacks.
“Everybody has an answer after the fact. Everybody has an answer when something doesn’t work,” Butler said of some of the criticism people have of defenses in general. “We blitzed them a lot today on third down, and they were 4-of-18, so a lot of our pressures worked.”
John Stuetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnStuetz_PSU.