Penn State secondary focused on creating turnovers
STATE COLLEGE, Pa.
Amani Oruwariye is used to people butchering his last name.
The Penn State cornerback figures the more highlight-reel interceptions he has, the more practice people will get.
“We made a big emphasis on making plays on the ball this offseason and I think it’s going to pay off,” Oruwariye said. “We feel like if we can take the ball away and give it back to our great offense then we’ve got a great chance to win games.”
The Nittany Lions (1-0) didn’t have any trouble in their first game without top cover corner John Reid last week. Reid suffered a knee injury in spring practice and isn’t close to returning. Oruwariye, who’s played a reserve role the last few seasons, saw more playing time alongside fellow corners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell, and safeties Troy Apke and Marcus Allen. They held Akron to 86 passing yards on 29 attempts.
“We feel like we have really three starters with Grant and Christian and Amani,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
The Nittany Lions aren’t so sure what Pittsburgh (1-0) has in store for them when the Panthers visit Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
First-year Panthers offensive coordinator Shawn Watson used only the top half of the first page of the playbook last week and quarterback Max Browne rarely threw down the field. Save for a handful of plays where his receivers added yards after the catch, Browne’s only deep completion was a bullet down the seam to tight end Matt Flanagan early.
“The throw to Flanagan was good to have,” Browne said. “You want to throw deep but when the run is working, no need to get away from it.”
Ground-and-pound worked for Pitt last season but that was when Penn State was without starting middle linebacker Jason Cabinda and then lost Brandon Bell later in the game.
Brown, a graduate transfer from Southern California, will make just the second road start of his career and will likely have to do more to overcome a strong Penn State front seven including a healthy Cabinda and two full rotations of defensive linemen Franklin is confident deploying.
“That’s a guy who started at USC so definitely not taking him lightly in any regards,” Cabinda said. “He has a good arm. I wouldn’t say he’s as mobile as [Sam] Darnold was but he has a good arm.”
Oruwariye and the rest of Penn State’s secondary welcome the challenge. The Nittany Lions were just plus-1 in the turnover differential last season and defensive backs combined for just six of the team’s 10 interceptions.
Confidence in their room that those numbers can improve hasn’t been higher since most of them arrived on campus. Although the loss of Reid hurt — he returned punts and played all three corner spots depending on the package — the Nittany Lions are still versatile on the back end.
Franklin said to expect a lot of nickel defense throughout the season in order to get Haley, Oruwariye and Campbell on the field at the same time. Haley’s ability to switch to the nickel spot when situations call for it — like Reid did — allows defensive coordinator Brent Pry to play Oruwariye, who adds length and athleticism along with Campbell on the outside.
It was on display against Akron when he turned and ran with his wideout down the home sideline, leaped and lunged to make a sprawling interception to spark Penn State’s first offensive score.
“Last year, I felt like we were in a lot of good positions on routes but we wouldn’t really get our head back to make a play on the ball,” Oruwariye said. “Eventually, you know he’s running a go so you’ve got to get your head back. The sideline gave me a good ball call so it gave me a chance to make a play.”