‘It’s actually beautiful’: How Penn State’s defense proved it’s one of the best in the country

Daequan Hardy spent his first two weeks of the season in a place he hadn’t been in four years when he was redshirting — on the sideline, watching as his teammates got off to a 2-0 start without him.

Hardy, who declined to specify why he was not available for those two weeks, had a hard time with his absence.

“Yeah it was definitely tough,” Hardy said. “Just seeing the guys out there having fun, and I wish I could have joined them. But now is now, so I got to be out there again so it’s all good. ... I’m happy to be out there with my brothers again.”

All Hardy could do was move forward and make the most of his season debut — and did he ever.

He was one of five Nittany Lions who forced a turnover in the team’s 30-13 win over Illinois, where the defense dominated from the outset, further establishing itself as one of the best in the country.

His return was as impactful as you could expect when making his debut in the team’s third game.

“He’s our Swiss Army knife,” defensive tackle Hakeem Beamon said. “He can play inside, he can play outside, he can do anything for us. He was a big missing piece and we finally got him back and we’re grateful for it right now.”

The first was a fumble — the only one of the game — that was forced by Dom DeLuca and recovered by Kobe King. The final four came through the air, where the Nittany Lions controlled the game. Hardy landed his interception on a play where he was isolated against Casey Washington, who’s listed as five inches taller than the Nittany Lion cornerback at 6-foot-2.

Illinois quarterback Luke Altmyer challenged Hardy, and he made him pay for that decision, elevating to the catch point and beating Washington to the ball to haul it in.

Hardy didn’t take offense to the challenge, and had a feeling he could be targeted.

“That was probably my first couple reps at corner,” he said. “They haven’t seen that on film. I kind of knew. I was expecting them to try the ball at me a couple times.”

He wasn’t the only one Altmyer took his chances with. His first pick was a ball linebacker Abdul Carter undercut, following the quarterback’s eyes as he moved with them and picked off the pass. Then it was Hardy getting up and making the big play, giving the offense back.

Early in the second half, Johnny Dixon got his crack at it. One play after Altmyer threw a long pass down the sideline after taking a hit when the ball came out, getting the Illini down to the Penn State 25-yard line. The very next play, Dixon turned the tide and got the ball back for his offense.

In that moment, he didn’t realize how big it was, but soon after that feeling set in.

“It was important,” Dixon said. “After (the interception), I realized it was important. But in the moment you’re thinking about making the play in general, just trying to get the ball back for the offense.”

By the end of the third quarter, Cam Miller capped off the turnovers with an interception, getting Altmyer the hook from the game.

In a way, each pick led to the other. There may not necessarily be a direct line between the plays made by Carter, Hardy, Dixon and Miller, but each one ignites a fire in the rest of the room to make a similar level of impact.

“I told y’all last year, once one person gets one it’s dangerous,” Dixon said. “Because we all start feeding off it. ... I saw (Hardy’s) out there, so I gotta grab one.”

And while the defensive backs were the ones making the plays on the ball, it was the pass rush up front that was making the Illinois quarterback finicky and setting him up to fail.

There was one hit in particular that Beamon noticed changed the game.

“I think after (defensive end) Amin (Vanover) had a very big hit on him,” he said. “Then he did not look the same and we just knew that we got it, we just gotta keep going.”

Penn State’s ability to marry its pass rush and coverage can set it apart as a defense. Most units specialize in one or the other. Either their secondary is so good that the pass rush gets enough time to get home and put pressure on the quarterback, or the pass rush is so good that the secondary doesn’t have to cover long before the quarterback has to get rid of the pass.

When a defense can do both, that’s when it becomes elite. Then the quarterback’s risk is no longer an incompletion or a throw away — it becomes a sack or an interception. That’s how you end a game with four picks and two sacks that could have been many more had Penn State kept its starters in throughout.

That’s where the Nittany Lions are right now. There is no great answer to what they can do on defense. And in the eyes of some of the players involved, it’s more than just effective.

“It’s beautiful man, I can’t lie to you,” Beamon said with a smile. “It’s actually beautiful.”

The Penn State Nittany Lions celebrate their 30-13 win Saturday over Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.
The Penn State Nittany Lions celebrate their 30-13 win Saturday over Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.