Through made up rules, defense gets regular season situations
The defense was down 25-24 late in the fourth quarter after letting sophomore running back Alante Thomas run it in from 53 yards out.
But in the spring game, head coach Mark Dantonio can change the game as he sees fit.
So he decided to give the defense three points to make it 27-25, because why not? It’s spring ball.
“I’m always going to make that game tight. Try to put pressure on people to make a play at the end of a football game,” Dantonio said postgame. “That’s what we try and do.”
The end result was an 18-yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi to junior wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr., which gave the offense the 32-27 lead.
Dantonio said because of the circumstances of this type of scrimmage, he has to switch up field positions to make it fair for different offensive teams.
“It's sort of tough. I'm sitting there talking to the crowd, listening to the coaches and trying to put them in situations,” Dantonio said. “When you're playing in an offense-defense type situation, you've got to flip the field on them sometimes. That's what we did, try and equate that.”
Senior safety Khari Willis said it was an understatement that Dantonio put the defense in tough situations Saturday. However, he said it helped players better prepare for the regular season.
“I think they are realistic situations,” said Willis, who earned a notable honor Saturday with seven tackles. “Whenever you come off a turnover or not so good play on special teams, we’ll be put in certain situations. I feel that if we have to thrive in those situations, that’s going to help us.
“So, if you throw more at us now, I think maybe more than we would expect in a game, but you never know. I feel like we bowed up sometimes, and other times the offense commanded us.”
Although the defense let up 32 points, the defense has been a strong point during this spring, riding momentum from a season ago when they were ranked No. 7 in the nation.
“I thought our defense played very well early in the game, and then a couple scores at the end of the game, but we were playing a lot of different people in there, too, so that had something to do with it,” Dantonio said. “We've been good defensively all spring long, so I expect us to be good.”
Most of the starters returned for this defense also, except defensive end Demetrius Cooper and linebacker Chris Frey, who both graduated last fall and opening starting positions at defensive end and outside linebacker.
Coaches have praised junior Justice Alexander so far this spring, and sophomore Jacub Panasiuk has been subject to injuries recently.
“Jacub Panasiuk's a guy that's been nicked up, but he played today, so that was good,” Dantonio said. “He's probably played half of spring practices. He can be a force, and Alexander has reps, but you know, I think we're coming.”
Panasiuk’s older brother, senior defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk, said his brother is a good player for the team and has been trying to improve his footwork and study film. He also said Jacob and the rest of the young defensive ends have junior Kenny Willekes leading the way.
“I feel like Kenny is going to turn all those young guys into great players just like him,” Mike said. “You can totally tell they’re following in his footsteps.”
And for the starting spot at outside linebacker, the competition between sophomore Brandon Randle, who earned a notable honor with five tackles on the evening, and junior Tyriq Thompson, has been prevalent. Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Mike Tressel said Tuesday the two linebackers are having a “big time competition” for the open spot this spring.
However, on Saturday, Dantonio moved Thompson to middle linebacker — his first reps at that position this spring — partially because of senior linebacker Byron Bullough getting “nicked up” early in the game.
“Brandon Randle is a guy that's very athletic, as everybody knows, and can make plays. We moved Tyriq in there to MIKE, and that's the first time he's ever taken a rep at MIKE this spring, so we'll see how he did,” Dantonio said. “But both those guys have had good, solid springs. They're competing on a daily basis and we'll see how it shakes out, but good football players.”
Placekicker battle: With kicker Brett Scanlon graduating in the fall, the place kicking position is vacant.
Saturday, redshirt freshmen Tyler Hunt and Cole Hahn handled kickoffs, while sophomore Matt Coghlin handled field goals and extra points.
But Dantonio said filling the place kicking vacancy with either Hunt or Hahn is the “biggest question I think that we still got to answer right now.”
“It was windy out there and situations weren't really good, but that's the way it is sometimes in November, so you've got to kick the ball a little more effectively in that situation,” Dantonio said.