Most of it wasn’t nice.
Diaz’s defense took a lot of criticism, and that will happen when a unit allows 418 yards and four touchdowns rushing.
Penn State got outclassed by Michigan in the trenches, and many people believe that a big reason it happened was that Penn State didn’t have the necessary size up-front.
Michigan’s star defensive tackle, Mazi Smith, weighs 337 pounds. Edge rusher Mike Morris weighs 292 pounds. Penn State’s biggest defensive lineman, PJ Mustipher, weighs 318 pounds, and his partner at defensive tackle, Hakeem Beamon, weighs 264.
It wasn’t just angry fans saying Penn State wasn’t big enough. James Franklin himself said so after the Michigan game.
“Everybody thinks they’re Aaron Donald,” Franklin said in his postgame press conference. “And they’re not.”
Donald is 6-foot-1, 280 pounds and is thought by many to be the greatest defensive tackle in football history.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Franklin said, “I really like our d-line room. But there are some guys who would help us and help themselves if they gained a few pounds.
“Size is a weapon, and I would like to be bigger across both fronts.”
Penn State didn’t have much time to get bigger, but the team finished the season strong after Ann Arbor. It won five of its last six regular-season games– the only outlier being a 44-31 loss to Ohio State Oct. 29 at Beaver Stadium– and its three wins were by more than a 30-point average. The defense did well for itself, too. Penn State only gave up 11.4 points per game in those five wins.
So, with the Michigan game more than two-and-a-half months old, is it still evident that size was a big problem in Ann Arbor?
Diaz, talking with reporters Friday, didn’t flat-out disagree with his boss, but he didn’t think size was the problem for Penn State against Michigan.
“Well, here’s the way I respond to that,” Diaz said to a question posed by Penn State beat reporter Audrey Snyder of the Athletic. “We wanted to get bigger before we played Minnesota. What the film said was size was not an issue.
So what was the issue?
“Trust was an issue,” he said. “We started playing slow because we didn’t believe in the guys around us.
“We had to be very up-front and honest with what happened that day in Ann Arbor, and I think that was actually a very important day in hindsight because it forced us to decide whether we were going to go all in and really believe in each other and what we were doing or not.”
Diaz credited Penn State’s defensive leaders, such as Mustipher, safety Ji’Ayir Brown and linebacker Curtis Jacobs, for fixing the problem.
“They decided, look, we had two choices,” Diaz said. “We could continue to not trust each other and not believe that if you’re going to be on my right, then I’m going to be on your left, and we’ll make it happen, but if we don’t, then it’s going to look the same way.
So I think their personal pride said, okay, we know what it looks like when we stop our feet on contact and play slow.”
Mustipher played a big part in keeping everything together and making sure Penn State’s first loss of the season– it came into the Michigan game 5-0 and ranked No. 10– didn’t start a tailspin.
“We all came in the next day as a defense, and we watched the plays,” Mustipher told reporters Friday. “We usually break into individual meetings with your position coach, but coach Diaz held us in as a defense and just showed us that it’s not a talent thing; it’s just having trust in the guys around you.”
For Mustipher, keeping things simple was vital.
“It wasn’t a big thing we had to change,” he said. “Just understand that if we’re all in our gap, we’re going to be fine. From that day moving forward, that’s what we did, and I think it really helped our run defense.”
Diaz’s first season at Penn State has been a success, and he’s been at the center of a defense that picked up where it left off under the previous coordinator Brent Pry.
The line has been a big part of that.
“I love the guys that we have up-front,” Diaz said, “and I love the way that we have played, and I think once we kind of sort of let go and just really play to the scheme, we’ve been very hard to run the football against. We don’t get a mulligan against Michigan but look at Michigan’s defensive line. Those guys aren’t giants, but they’re playing their tails off, also.”
Often in life, losing is the greatest teacher, and Diaz sees that Saturday in Michigan as an example for Penn State.
“I think our guys learned a lot that day,” Diaz said. “Like I said, we don’t have mid-season free agency. We had to get better with what we had in the room, and I liked what we had in the room.