Penn State’s defense hasn’t faced an offense like Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss Rebels

The Nittany Lions' defense was one of the best units in the country, but will the success translate against an SEC opponent that presents completely new challenges?
Mississippi Rebels head coach Lane Kiffin (left)
Mississippi Rebels head coach Lane Kiffin (left) / Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten has a particular identity, one that will change dramatically with the offseason addition of Oregon, USC, Washington, and UCLA. That identity is about old-school football, defense, the running game, and running the clock.

Ole Miss is the antithesis of that philosophy and will present a unique challenge for the Penn State defense that ranked No. 1 in the country this year. 

Defensive assistant Anthony Poindexter is leading Penn State on that side of the ball for the Peach Bowl against Ole Miss after Manny Diaz left for the head coaching job at Duke. On Thursday in a pre-Peach Bowl press conference, Poindexter was asked about what Lane Kiffin’s team does so differently than the offenses that Poindexter and Diaz’s unit faced all season long. 

“The first challenge is the tempo. You see it sometimes, but we haven’t really seen it on a consistent basis throughout the game like they do,” Poindexter said. 

He’s not wrong. Ole Miss finished the season 34th in the nation in plays per game, probably the easiest measure of tempo. Illinois ranked 41st in that metric and was the fastest-paced opponent that the Nittany Lions faced. 

Penn State handled the Fighting Illini 30-13 but did allow 354 yards and benefited greatly from Illinois’s five turnovers. The tempo presented some issues for the Nittany Lions, like the run game did in other parts of the season. 

The most embarrassing loss for James Franklin’s 10-2 team and the nation’s best defense was the loss to Michigan. The Wolverines attempted one pass in the entire second half (which was negated by a penalty) and managed to gain 287 yards in the 24-15 win. 

The Rebels present a problematic combination of the running game and pace, two things the Nittany Lions have struggled with against quality opponents. The Rebels rank 40th in rushing offense and average 4.4 yards per carry behind star sophomore Quinshon Judkins. 

Judkins posted 1,052 yards and 15 touchdowns in a season that could legitimately be labeled as a sophomore slump. As a freshman, he ran for 1,567 yards and 16 touchdowns on 5.7 yards per carry.

Senior defensive lineman Adisa Isaac, at 6-foot-4 250 pounds, understandably shared his interim DC’s concern about the pace, but as the leader of the No. 1 run defense in the country was confident in his and his teammates’ ability to curtail Judkins’ production. 

When asked the same question about the challenges the opposing offense presents, in the press conference with Poindexter, Isaac said, “Yeah, I definitely say the tempo and the personnel. They know how to get their skill guys into space and make plays.” Though he was resolute in his belief that they can dictate the terms of the game, continuing, “We kind of pride ourselves on stopping the run all year.”

With Judkins a bit less effective on the ground this season compared to last, Kiffin turned to quarterback Jaxson Dart and a bevy of talented receivers. The versatility in the receiving corps is understandably top of mind for Poindexter, a College Football Hall of Fame defensive back and a safeties coach by trade. 

After referencing the pace, Poindexter pivoted to the talent, “I think the depth at receiver, the production at receiver spot that they have and the players that they have. They have three guys on the field that are all over 700 yards,” he searched for the best comparison, “I don’t know if we have played a team with that kind of production, maybe Ohio State.”

Those three players are Tre Harris, Dayton Wade, and Jordan Watkins who are the top targets in the country’s No. 15 ranked offense. In 2022, Ole Miss ranked third in rushing offense, only behind Air Force and Army, but they’ve shifted the philosophy away from the spread version of a military academy to a more balanced attack. 

Ohio State, Poindexter’s best facsimile for this passing game, only had one receiver over 700 yards, Marvin Harrison Jr., and was 91st in plays per game, so this is truly a new challenge that will test the depth of Penn State’s defense. 

Ole Miss has a similarly dominant wide receiver to Harrison Jr. in Tre Harris. Harris is actually third on the team in receptions with 47 but leads with 851 yards, an average of 18.1 yards per reception. There are few receivers more efficient with their opportunities than Harris who is ninth in the country in yards per route run.

Kalen King is likely to be highly drafted this spring, but a great performance against Harris could cement his spot in the first round of the 2024 NFL draft. King struggled against Ohio State and Harrison, so he could atone for that underwhelming performance against NFL-caliber competition on the outside. 

A lockdown performance from King could be the easiest solution to keeping a lid on the Rebels’ explosive attack. 

While Poindexter and Isaac found similarities to Big Ten opponents, truly there is no team in the conference like Ole Miss. 

Like Isaac said, “It’s hard to pinpoint an exact team that kind of resembles them.”

The good news for Penn State is that Chop Robinson is the only player on its side to opt out of the game, so the defense will resemble its most dominant form. Still, it’s a big loss because the defensive line is the one place that is most vulnerable to a fast-paced attack. 

The Nittany Lions' defense relied heavily on forcing their opponents into negative plays with sacks and turnovers, and that all starts with the four guys up front. 

Beyond Isaac and sophomore Dani Dennis-Sutton, Amin Vanover and Zuriah Fisher will need to increase their workload on the edge to survive the constant avalanche of offense that Kiffin orchestrates. If Jaxson Dart’s offensive line is constantly picking him up off the turf, that will certainly force Kiffin to be a bit more methodical. 

Anthony Poindexter was passed over for the defensive coordinator role, but this game will be a great audition for him to take over a defense, whether that’s in Happy Valley or somewhere else. With Manny Diaz leading the way, this unit dominated teams like Iowa and Maryland, but will that translate against one of the SEC’s best?

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