STATE COLLEGE — A soggy and sleepy afternoon at Beaver Stadium was stirred to life by Bill O’Brien.
Shortly after his defense righted itself with a 34-0 pasting of Kent State, the Penn State coach grew irritated that much of the postgame discussion was about the Nittany Lions offense.
“You guys need to ask me some defensive questions. Defense just pitched a shutout,” O’Brien said to reporters, his voice rising as he gathered steam. “You guys were all over ‘em last week, and they just pitched a shutout. So can we get some defensive questions?”
He didn’t wait for one to come, drawing some laughs.
“I thought the defense played a hell of a football game today,” he continued, uninterrupted. “They pitched a shutout. And I think (defensive coordinator) John Butler and that crowd of coaches over there and that crowd of players over there did a hell of a job.”
Well, all right then.
Penn State’s defensive leaders challenged the unit right from the first practice following a last week’s 34-31 loss to Central Florida.
Against UCF, the Lions (3-1) looked out of position and a step behind. They missed tackles. They couldn’t get that one big stop to turn the game around.
On Saturday, through perpetual rain, Kent State never stood a chance against a re-energized defense that pitched Penn State’s first shutout since 2010. As it so happens, that one came against Kent as well.
The Lions held the Golden Flashes to just 190 yards of total offense after surrendering more than 500 a week ago.
“Hey look, any time you go out there and you don’t perform the way you think you should perform … it’s a disappointment,” O’Brien said. “And those guys took it to heart.”
Kent’s first drive of the game started from the Penn State 36 after a short punt and a penalty. The Flashes missed a field goal and then didn’t cross the Lions’ 40 for the rest of the day.
For seniors like Glenn Carson, it was a matter of pride.
“This was really important for us,” the veteran linebacker said. “Coming off a loss, everyone wants to see how we respond, both the teams and the coaches. And we responded well.”
Carson backed it up with a team-high seven tackles, including two for a loss. The defense came up with three sacks, including the first from last year’s leader, Deion Barnes, who split one with Jordan Lucas.
Penn State made seven stops behind the line as a team and never allowed the Flashes (1-3) to seriously threaten. With the offense struggling in the third quarter and the score just 14-0, Christian Hackenberg threw an interception that might have given Kent some life.
No problem. Safety Ryan Keiser came through with his first career interception on the next play to put an emphatic stop to that.
Keiser, a junior from Selinsgrove, had a career day, also recording a sack before exiting in the second half with an undisclosed injury.
The defense held serve long enough for Penn State’s ground game to chew up the Flashes. Penn State’s trio of tailbacks — Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch — complemented each other nicely as the Lions finished with 287 yards rushing.
Zwinak (67 yards) scored three times from short yardage for the second straight week. Belton (90 yards) added a score through the air, catching a 15-yard strike from Hackenberg to open the scoring late in the first quarter. Lynch hammered Kent late, picking up all 117 of his game-high 123 yards in the second half.
That helped ease some struggles for Hackenberg, who had the shakiest outing of his young career, finishing just 13-of-35 for 176 yards.
The freshman had opened the game 7-for-10 but went 6-for-25 the rest of the way, completing just two passes after halftime.
“I think he’s probably a little frustrated tonight,” O’Brien said. “But that’s OK. That’s the mark of a fantastic player, and that’s what he is. He’ll get better and you’ll see improvement as we go on here.”
Penn State now has a week off to think about it before heading into Big Ten play. The Lions return to the field Oct. 5 at Indiana.
By the end of the day, O’Brien thought his team had gotten better.
“Yeah, I think we did,” O’Brien said. “Winning’s like salt water. It cures a lot of things.”