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How Manny Diaz Improved an Elite Defense

Despite loads of turnover, Manny Diaz kept the Nittany Lions’ defense playing at an elite level in 2022.



Oct 1, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions defensive end Nick Tarburton (46) reacts after recovering a fumble during the second quarter against the Northwestern Wildcats at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Northwestern 17-7. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

In 2022, James Franklin had to replace a defensive coordinator for only the second time at Penn State. His choice was Manny Diaz, who was less than a week removed from being ousted as head coach at Miami.

There was much speculation coming into the season about what Penn State’s defense would look like under Diaz. Philosophically, it appeared the Nittany Lions’ defensive approach would remain intact. But Franklin and Diaz promised a much more aggressive style of play would find its way to the field this season.

There was also apprehension in terms of what Diaz had to replace. Statistically, Penn State touted an elite defense in 2021. Even if Manny Diaz was a home run hire, the defense couldn’t be that good again, right? Well, yes. Penn State’s defense wasn’t going to be that good again. Because, in many ways, Diaz actually made the defense better.

New face, same results

Historically, the defense has never been the issue at Penn State. But Brent Pry had put together one of the best Nittany Lion defenses of recent memory before leaving to take the Virginia Tech head coaching job last year. Pry’s defense was near the top of the nation in many categories, most notably scoring, where it ranked in the top ten.

Under Diaz, the defense either mostly held serve or improved in most statistical categories. Diaz’s squad allowed an average of 18.2 points per game, up slightly from 17.3 in 2021. However, the 2022 defense held its opponents under 20 points nine times, something it only did six times the year prior.

The defensive production in 2022 outpaced 2021 in almost every other major statistical category. Yards per play dropped slightly from 4.7 to 4.6. But because the defense was on the field for fewer plays in 2022, total yards per play allowed declined by almost 30.

Penn State was also able to force a significantly higher number of negative plays. In 2021, one of the defense’s most prominent issues was not getting the pass rush home. This was a priority for Diaz and Franklin this season. Penn State recorded 43 sacks, up 17 from 2021. Already an area of success, the Nittany Lions were able to improve upon turnovers, forcing five more in 2022 than the previous season.

If at first, you don’t succeed…

In recent years, one of the most glaring issues with Penn State’s defense was its inability to hold up in the biggest games. While acknowledging that the blame in many instances also rests with conservative or ineffective offensive play, the record speaks for itself. A blown lead late against Ohio State in 2017. Failure to stop another comeback from the Buckeyes in 2018. Giving up 24 first-half points to Minnesota in 2019. Allowing Iowa to claw back a win in 2021. The list could go on.

Early on in 2022, it appeared that this defense would fall victim to the same issue. Diaz’s group was mauled against Michigan, allowing 418 yards on the ground in a 45-17 rout. Physically dominated, Penn State’s defense was also mentally outfoxed. The Lions’ defenders seemed unprepared for the Wolverines to break tendencies in their run game, most notably the use of movement at the point of attack.

Two weeks later against Ohio State, it seemed that the defense had improved dramatically from its experience in Ann Arbor. Penn State held the dynamic Buckeye offense to 16 points through 51 minutes of play. But it all quickly unraveled in the final nine minutes, allowing 28 unanswered points in that span. As stout as it looked against lesser opponents, Diaz’s defense showed that it was not up to the task against stiffer competition.

However, that narrative was reversed against Utah in the Rose Bowl. Penn State held the Utes’ rushing attack, ranked in the top ten nationally, to 70 yards in the second half. Utah, who averaged 40 points per game, was essentially held scoreless outside the second quarter, only adding their third touchdown in garbage time. The Utah offensive line was the most physical Penn State had faced since Michigan, but the Nittany Lions won the day with six total sacks.

Sure, winning one game doesn’t necessarily erase a six-year trend of heartbreaking losses. But Manny Diaz and this defense learned from its mistakes throughout 2022. For the first time since 2016, Penn State defeated a top-ten team. And a good chunk of the credit goes to the defense’s ability to snuff out Utah’s prolific offense for most of the night in Pasadena.

Springboard to next season

It was evident that Penn State’s defense was improving as it learned Diaz’s system throughout the year. That growth was on full display at the end of the season.

Over its final five games, Penn State allowed 61 total points, or slightly over 12 points a game. The Nittany Lions shut out Maryland, who came into the contest averaging 34 points per game. Utah was the only opponent who scored more than 20 points, and it crossed that threshold by a single point.

Moving forward, the expectations for this group will remain high. Despite losing veteran leadership from PJ Mustipher, Ji’Ayir Brown, and Joey Porter, Jr., many talented defenders return across all position rooms.

Kalen King, for instance, proved in 2022 that he is ready to be the Nittany Lions’ top corner. King finished the season with 18 pass breakups and three interceptions, including a pick of Cam Rising in the Rose Bowl.

Chop Robinson will likely continue to be a force up front as he transitions into a starter’s role. Despite missing two games due to injury, Robinson still finished the year with the second-most sacks on the team.

Abdul Carter has already claimed his spot as the next great at “Linebacker U.” Carter was second on the team in tackles in his true freshman season. While he draws numerous comparisons to Micah Parsons, Carter is already on his way to having a better collegiate career. Carter has as many sacks in one season as Parsons did in his career at Penn State.

More names will likely also enter the fold. Dani Dennis-Sutton, Kevin Winston, and Cam Miller, to name a few, are young talents those around the program feel can expand their roles in 2023 and beyond.

The pieces are falling into place for Manny Diaz to help Penn State attempt a historic run in 2023. But the defense can’t be better than it was in 2022, right? Well, after this season, I’m not sure I’m ready to rule it out.

Matt is a co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.


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