STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — When he left coach James Franklin’s house after Penn State’s first victory dinner of the season on Monday night, linebacker Jesse Luketa took two milkshakes to go.
They were small rewards for a player who hasn’t asked for any, nor given himself much credit after being tasked with one of the hardest jobs in college football — replacing star Micah Parsons after Parsons opted out before the season.
“From an execution standpoint, there’s a lot for me to keep on doing because I feel like there’s another level I can tap into,” Luketa said.
Like the rest of Penn State’s defense, Luketa knew long ago that replacing Parsons’ production and sideline-to-sideline abilities would be nearly impossible. But the Nittany Lions (1-5) believe they’ve started to find their way.
After a program-worst, six-game streak where they allowed 30 or more points, the Nittany Lions tightened up in a 27-17 win against Michigan. Luketa, who looked forward to the team dinner, might’ve looked forward to the team film session even more.
“I really enjoyed watching the film on Sunday with the guys,” Luketa said. “We looked like ourselves. We looked like we were having fun, with our swagger. That’s going to be important.”
It usually manifests when Penn State plays Rutgers, and if Penn State can keep its momentum going, Luketa believes they’ll have some positivity to take into what could be a long offseason otherwise.
The Scarlet Knights have scored just one touchdown in the last four games of the series. In that span, Penn State’s defense has forced 28 punts and three turnovers and accounted for 11 sacks and 32 tackles for loss. Meanwhile, Rutgers has converted just 16 of its last 59 third-down tries against Penn State defenses.
But this Rutgers offense is much-improved from the versions that finished last and second-to-last in the country in total offense each of the past two seasons.
The Scarlet Knights are averaging 388 yards per game and have scored 10 touchdowns over their last two games.
“It’s definitely going to start up front,” Luketa said. “Front seven going to have to set the tone from early in the game and we’re just going to have to play our style of football.”
Historically, that’s meant stopping teams on third down. Until a week ago in Ann Arbor, Penn State hadn’t been able to do so. Lately, Penn State’s front seven has focused on getting off the ball on early downs to create third-and-long situations. It worked against the Wolverines, who converted just 4 of 12 third downs, including an 0-3 stretch in the second quarter.
“We played with tremendous grit, which I think is a word that has described us really for six years here and we did that on Saturday,” Franklin said.
And the chemistry appears to be growing.
Luketa and fellow starting linebackers Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith have had to learn to read and react to one another on the fly. Of the three, only Luketa had started a game prior to this season.
Both Smith and Brooks played in 13 games a year ago, however.
“It’s not easy,” defensive tackle Fred Hansard said. “They haven’t had a lot of experience playing together, but I think they’re doing a great job. They’re trying to make sure the defensive line is good, the cornerbacks are good, they all are being great leaders for the defense.”
All three are outspoken, thoughtful and have been among the most accessible players to reporters this season. All have taken questions this week and all of them have insisted the version of Penn State’s defense that showed up last week is closer to the unit they believe they can be.
“Every play is a six-second focus, is what we try to preach and what we try to emphasize,” Brooks said.