When Penn State entered the Peach Bowl with a skeleton crew on defense, no Chop Robinson, Kalen King, or Johnny Dixon, it was immediately clear who the best player on that side of the ball was for the Nittany Lions.
On the very first Ole Miss drive, Abdul Carter almost immediately wrecked the game. He blew up Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins and along with Dani Dennis-Sutton nearly pressured Jaxson Dart into an interception, but Cam Miller didn’t hold on.
Penn State hadn’t faced an offense that relied so heavily on tempo all season, so negative plays like sacks and tackles for loss were crucial to disrupting the Rebels. James Franklin even said as much explicitly in the post-game press conference.
“So the tempo is challenging early on in the game, where we were able to get negative plays, takes them out of their rhythm. But obviously, when they're able to play with tempo and have positive plays and build on it, it is difficult to stop.”
Yet, for some reason, he and co-defensive coordinators Anthony Poindexter and Robb Smith refused to use their most impactful defensive weapon to generate those disruptive plays in the backfield. Ole Miss head coach and play-caller Lane Kiffin was certainly happy when Carter didn’t blitz.
“So we made some plays, and we were able to get into some tempo situations where they weren't aligned, and took advantage of that. But early on there was a little struggle there. Those guys have really good players. That No. 11 is an elite player. I'm sure he would have gone to the draft if he could because that guy is a special player.”
Kiffin essentially admitted that Carter singlehandedly disrupted his entire game plan in the first quarter, and yet Carter only rushed the passer five times all game. Three of those resulted in QB pressures, and he almost forced two turnovers.
It’s frankly confounding why Penn State continues to take players like Carter and Micah Parsons before him and play them as off-ball linebackers. Parsons and Carter have nearly identical builds both 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, and both were similarly dominant as pass-rushers in their sophomore season at Penn State.
In 2019, Parsons accumulated five sacks and 26 QB pressures on 94 pass-rush snaps. In 2023, Abdul Carter recorded 4.5 sacks and 27 pressures in 110 pass-rush snaps. That’s a pressure rate of 27.6% for Parsons and 24.5% for Carter.
Those are dominant pass-rush numbers. For reference, Adisa Isaac led Penn State with 33 pressures this season and those came on 208 pass rush snaps, a pressure rate of 15.8% and Chop Robinson checked in at 17.5%.
The most valuable commodity on modern defense is a pass rush and yet, Penn State is beholding to the identity as Linebacker U and St1x C1ty to the point that it's detrimental to the defense year after year. Parsons only blitzed on 12.8% of his 731 snaps that season and only lined up on the edge 59 times. Carter, in 2023, blitzed on just 18.7% of his snaps and lined up on the edge 93 times.
It appears that James Franklin is at least learning his lesson a bit, but the best thing for his defense is to line up Carter on the edge every snap and hopefully, Tom Allen realizes that. It took Parsons getting drafted by the Cowboys for anyone to notice that he was a nearly unstoppable pass rusher with his combination of size and speed. Carter is the same type of player and the coaching staff is making the same mistake.
It shouldn’t take Carter leaving for the NFL to finally play his best position. This year, he played 211 coverage snaps and was targetted 21 times, allowing 16 catches for 173 yards and one touchdown. He had three pass breakups, but was a net negative in coverage, especially when you consider the fact that he could have been getting after the opposing quarterback instead.
Against Ole Miss he played 25 coverage snaps in a game where Jaxson Dart threw for 379 yards and three touchdowns, Penn State was without its best pass rusher, and Kiffin was actively terrified of Carter creating negative plays. Yet, on down after down, he was back pedalling and chasing tight ends, running backs, and even wide receivers.
If Carter into a full-time edge is not the answer because Curtis Jacobs is off to the NFL, then that is a failure by the coaching staff to recognize positional value in modern football. Off-ball linebacker just isn’t nearly as important a position in modern football, especially against dynamic passing offenses like Oregon, Washington, and USC who are on their way to the Big Ten.
Yes, Penn State had the No. 1 rushing defense in the country this season and Carter played a huge role with his 31 stops, second on the team to Kobe King with 33, but where did that run defense get them against good teams?
Another challenge is that Franklin does such a good job stockpiling edge talent and this year the Nittany Lions were loaded with Robinson, Isaac, Dani Dennis-Sutton, and even Amin Vanover and Zuriah Fisher. That could be the best argument for why Carter is playing off-ball, but still, it is worth finding creative ways for Carter to rush the passer on nearly every passing down. Every decision a coach makes should be to maximize their star players, not force them to cover for inadequacies at other spots across the roster.
Yes, Penn State led the country with 3.8 sacks per game, but the defense managed just four total sacks in the team’s three losses. Carter can wreck a game by himself if given the opportunity, so why not play your best defensive player at his best position?
How good could the 2019 team have been if Micah Parsons was enabled to contribute from his best position instead of rushing the passer just six times in the 28-17 loss to Ohio State?
Complaints about head coaches are typically vague and relatively unfounded. “Franklin can’t win the big game” “Franklin doesn’t make adjustments” “Franklin coaches scared.” Well, here is a real case of obvious coaching malpractice and Franklin is a repeat offender.
Imagine if Saquon Barkley had played wide receiver or Chris Godwin had flipped to defense to fill the safety spot or plug a hole at slot corner. I’m sure they would have been above-average players and the athletic talent would have jumped off the TV screen, but it would have been infuriatingly obvious Franklin wasn’t maximizing his roster. That’s exactly what he did with Micah Parsons and is doing with Abdul Carter.
When Parsons first dominated as an edge rusher with the Cowboys, he was praised for his versatility when in reality, Franklin should have been lambasted for ineptitude.
So, next season in Week 8 when Ryan Day and Ohio State beat Penn State at Beaver Stadium and you're itching to gripe about the head coach to anyone who will listen, instead of exasperatedly proclaiming that Franklin “just can’t get it done” remember this article and how he’s playing his best player out of position. You’ll have some much more tangible evidence and legitimate ammunition that it could be time for Penn State to move on.