Penn State avoided the injury bug up until Saturday’s game against Iowa.
Then in the first drive of the game, defensive tackle and team captain PJ Mustipher went down and didn’t return to the game.
Later on, another team captain in Jonathan Sutherland exited the game for good, leaving the defense with more holes to fill.
But that wasn’t too tall of a task for the Nittany Lions, who always stress the “next man up mentality.”
Dvon Ellies, Coziah Izzard and Fred Hansard all saw extended playing time up front in light of Mustipher’s injury, and they didn’t miss a beat, according to their teammates.
“I think they did a hell of a job,” defensive end Arnold Ebiketie said after the 23-20 loss. “Their numbers were called, and they came out there, gave us a great effort and did what they had to do.”
James Franklin and defensive coordinator Brent Pry constantly preach to their players to approach preparations as if they're starting, a philosophy that came in handy when the defense suffered personnel blows against the Haweyes.
“We preach to our guys to prepare like a starter,” defensive end/linebacker Jesse Luketa said. “You never know when your number is going to get called, but you’ve got to be able to step up to the task. It’s what we do, so it doesn’t matter how difficult it is.”
Having every player prepared to play extensive time paid off tremendously against the Hawkeyes, and the veteran players are proud of how players like Ellies, Izzard and Hansard as well as secondary players stepped up in a big moment.
“It’s hard to prepare for a talent like PJ Mustipher to go down, but we have a next-man-up mentality,” linebacker Ellis Brooks said. “That’s the worst part about the game, but it happens, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”
Brooks turned in a game-high 14 tackles, including eight solo, along with nine tackles each from Ebiketie and safety Jaquan Brisker, who also had an interception.
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Replacing the on-field production and leadership in Mustipher and Sutherland early in Saturday’s game proved to be a big priority, especially against the No. 3 team in the nation.
But the defensive players believe they responded well as a unit when they were faced with adversity.
“Football is a game of adversity,” Brooks said. “I believe we fought very hard from the first snap to the last snap. I’m very proud of the way we played defense today, but obviously we need to continue to get better.”
Without some of its most vocal leaders for most of the game, other players were forced to uptake bigger roles against the Hawkeyes, which showed a new side to Pry’s consistently strong defensive group.
“We always preach about how adversity is going to come,” Luketa said. “It’s going to be a testament to our character as a team, as a defense and how we respond to it. I learned a lot about our character and where we are as a unit. Looking everybody in their eyes, I can see it – we’re hungry.”
Despite suffering injuries, the Nittany Lions continued their strong defensive play from their previous matchups and learned a lot about who they are as a unit through the loss.
“Our team was tested today,” Ebiketie said. “We stayed together despite everything that happened tonight. It was unfortunate we weren’t able to come out with a win today, but we learned a lot. We learned that we’re a tough team and we’re a team that’s going to come out and compete.”
No matter the situation, the Nittany Lions are confident that everyone who subs in on the defensive side of the ball will bring the same energy and production as the starters, which builds confidence in the unit’s biggest stars.
“Everybody out there is going to do their job,” Ebiketie said. “Whenever I line up, I trust anybody behind and beside me to do their job and play physical. We know that every single day we come out here, we’re going to bring it as a defense. That’s what makes us one of the best defenses in college football.”
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