A bit more than a year ago, Penn State was so strapped for usable talent at the defensive tackle, coaches converted their top backup guard, CJ Thorpe, to the defensive side of the ball.
Thorpe is back on offense now, and the depth the Nittany Lions have been able to build at defensive tackle has been a major factor in their unbeaten start and road to the No. 4 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday.
The defensive front that has keyed the No. 2 rushing and scoring defense and ranks in the Top 10 in the nation in sacks and tackles for loss will be down a starter this week when the Nittany Lions travel to TCF Bank Stadium to face fellow unbeaten No. 17 Minnesota. Penn State suspended junior Antonio Shelton for a game for spitting at a Michigan State player during the Oct. 26 game at Spartan Stadium. That would hamstring most teams going against a massive Minnesota offensive line that averages 6-foot-6 and 340 pounds per man.
Penn State, though, says it will be ready for the challenge because of the quality of its depth.
Sophomores P.J. Mustipher and Fred Hansard, who have been praised for their work as backups this season, will see more time alongside starter Robert Windsor.
Head coach James Franklin estimated they both could play significantly increased snaps, with Mustipher likely getting between 15 and 20 more plays than usual.
Hansard can see a similar increase, as can redshirt freshman Judge Culpepper, who saw his snap count increase against Michigan State even before Shelton was ejected for the incident.
“We think that they can handle that,” Franklin said.
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Still, Franklin admits the play of the tackles will be a major story line Saturday. The Nittany Lions are going against that Minnesota offensive line and a running attack that features three backs, Rodney Smith, Mohamed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks, averaging more than 50 yards per game and two, Smith and Brooks, who topped 100 yards on the ground when the Gophers last met the Nittany Lions in 2016.
This is a very different defense up front than even that Nittany Lions team that went on to win the Big Ten championship. Hansard said the depth has limited the wear and tear on players and that will come in handy playing a man short at the position. This week, he said, the Nittany Lions who are left simply have to be themselves to hold up against the Gophers’ size and brute strength on offense.
“I’ve gone against guys like that in the past. Michigan’s O-line was pretty big also,” Hansard said. “There’s nothing I can do (differently) that will make my game change. I feel like I’ve got to play my game, follow my technique and my coaching, and everything will work out perfectly.
“There’s nothing about how much bigger they are than us that means anything to us. We follow our game plan, I feel like things will work out well.”
His head coach agrees, insisting Penn State’s strength up front isn’t changed by a suspension.
“I don’t think we’ve seen an O-line like (Minnesota’s) this year,” Franklin said. “But I’d also make the argument that I don’t know if they have seen a D-line like us before, either.”