Penn State has been called “Linebacker U,” with an honor roll that includes Jack Ham, Shane Conlan, Paul Posluszny, LaVar Arrington & Co.
Now, it’s more like “Missing Linebacker U.”
With the Gophers (3-0) ready to bring their rejuvenated rushing attack to Penn State (2-2) this week, the Nittany Lions have been hit hard with linebacker injuries. It reached a point in Saturday’s 49-10 loss at Michigan where they were counting on walk-ons and third-stringers.
They rank last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (32.8 points per game) and rushing defense (213.8 yards per game). Granted, it’s come against a much tougher slate than the Gophers have faced — Kent State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Michigan.
But it’s been a stunning development for a program that kept its stifling defensive identity even during the depths of the Jerry Sandusky sanctions.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been through something like this, or seen something like this,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of the injuries.
Penn State was missing all three starting linebackers for the Michigan game. The three replacements entered the game with a combined three career starts, compared to 63 for the original starting trio.
Brandon Smith, a walk-on who started at middle linebacker, got ejected for targeting in the second quarter. Another walk-on, Jan Johnson, replaced him and suffered a season-ending injury.
“Right now we have a hard time practicing with the number of guys that we have,” Franklin said. “We may have to continue moving guys to different positions.”
Entering Saturday, the biggest weakness analysts saw with Michigan was its tailback production. Forget that story line. Against Penn State, the Wolverines rushed for 329 yards and six touchdowns.
The Gophers have their own issues, of course, particularly on defense. Coach Tracy Claeys said Minnesota’s linebackers and defensive backs must play more consistently. Opponents have been gashing the Gophers with screen passes to their tailbacks, and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is one of the best Minnesota will see all season.
“That’s a priority obviously going into this week,” Claeys said.
Heading on the road for the first time this season, the Gophers are early four-point underdogs. But with Shannon Brooks healthy, and Rodney Smith continuing to churn out tough yardage, the Gophers could be well-positioned to silence the 106,000 faithful in Happy Valley.
The Gophers looked ready to exploit Penn State’s linebacker issues, when they rushed for 243 yards and four touchdowns in their 31-24 win over Colorado State.
After missing the first two games because of a broken right foot, Brooks had 13 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown. Smith delivered his third productive game in a row, carrying 17 times for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
“Rodney doesn’t get the credit for as tough a runner as he is,” Claeys said. “And Shannon showed he’s awfully good.”
Kobe McCrary was clearly the third option at tailback, getting four carries for 13 yards. It was a much quieter performance than his 176-yard outing against Indiana State, but he still made some good cuts and turned a screen pass into a 9-yard gain.
Brooks and Smith have had durability issues, but McCrary has significantly bolstered the backfield’s depth.
The offensive line had another strong game, even with right guard Vincent Calhoun out with a toe injury. Claeys sounds confident that the 6-4, 330-pound Calhoun will be ready to return this week.
A healthy Mitch Leidner has made a big difference, too. Teams can’t just key on the Gophers tailbacks, when the fifth-year senior quarterback can keep the ball on the read option, or deliver the play-action pass.
The Gophers haven’t visited Penn State since 2009, when the Nittany Lions were ranked No. 14. Tim Brewster’s squad rushed for 37 yards that day and managed only seven first downs in a 20-0 loss.
Times have changed. Now it’s up to the Gophers to take advantage.
Joe Christensen covers college football for the Star Tribune. E-mail: email@example.com