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Penn State Football

‘We Didn’t Finish up to the Standard’: Great Season for Penn State Defense has Rotten Ending

ATLANTA– It wasn’t going to be a storybook ending for Penn State and its defense no matter what. 

The goal for 2023 was to win a national championship, and that’s a goal that’s been out of reach for more than a month in a half. 

But Penn State certainly wanted something better than ending the season with a loss, and the defense wanted something better than giving up 38 points and more than giving up 38 points and 540 yards to Ole Miss. 

For that to happen to a unit that finished the regular season No. 1 in the nation in total defense, there’s usually some sort of catch, and that was the case Saturday at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Penn State didn’t have either of its starting corners, its top defensive end– and arguably its best overall player– in Chop Robinson or its coordinator in Manny Diaz. 

Now, Ole Miss deserves credit, and Penn State DE Dani Dennis-Sutton and his teammates gave it out. 

But Dennis-Sutton also recognized that these weren’t normal circumstances for Penn State’s defense. 

“I mean, no,” Dennis-Sutton told reporters in the locker room after the game. “Obviously, not the same thing. We were missing Manny Diaz, who was our DC. Everybody here loved Manny, and then, obviously, it’s not the same without Chop and Johnny (Dixon), and (Kalen) King, and my opinion.”

But Dennis-Sutton doesn’t feel Penn State being shorthanded was an excuse. 

“We’re Penn State,” he said. “We have to step up no matter what the circumstances are, and we didn’t do that today.”

Defensive end Adisa Isaac echoed that sentiment.

“That’s no excuse,” he said. “But we still have to handle business. Great job by Ole Miss. They had a hell of a team, hell of an offense.

Dennis-Sutton will be back next season. 

Safety Keaton Ellis won’t be. 

The fifth-year senior’s last game didn’t go the way he wanted, and Ole Miss had a lot to do with that.

“They played a damn near perfect game,” Ellis said. “I don’t know if their tight end dropped one pass. So, they played well enough to win, and that’s really it.”

Indeed, Ole Miss tight end Caden Prieskorn had a great day, catching 10 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. 

“I don’t think the tight end dropped a ball,” Penn State safety Jaylen Reed said. “Did he? I don’t think he dropped a pass. I feel like they did a great job.”

For Ellis, the fact that Saturday would be his last game set in for him “a while ago.”

“I enjoyed this last run with my best friends,” Ellis said. “That’s all I can ask for. Obviously, it’s hard to not come out with a win, but I’m just really excited for the young guys who are coming up, and excited for the future of the team. I think, I’m just, it’s definitely emotional, and right now I’m just trying to be with my family and be with them.”

Many of his friends will be back next season, with Reed and fellow safety KJ Winston being among them.

Penn State’s defense is sure to be stout again in 2024, and Ellis is excited to watch what happens.

“I think we just have a lot of talent,” Ellis said, “a lot of speed, and I’m just really excited just watching those younger guys and the guys who are coming back who played big roles this year. They have a solid group, and just excited for what they can do.”

For Reed, this loss will be fuel for next season, when he’ll be playing under new defensive coordinator Tom Allen.

“It’s going to motivate me a lot,” Reed said. “A loss is a loss. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bowl game against an SEC team. Anything is hard. A loss is a loss. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bowl game against an SEC team, anything. So a loss is a loss, and it will motivate me to the fullest. We’re going to come back stronger, we’re going to come back and correct what we have to correct with a new defensive coordinator, a new defense coming in, learning the system, learning Coach Allen, we’ll be good.”

For Dennis-Sutton, it shouldn’t take failure to motivate an athlete, but losing still adds incentive. 

“Any time you lose, obviously, it’s a motivator,” he said. “It should never take losing to motivate a player in my opinion. Obviously, we wanted to send these seniors out the right way, but, yes, when you lose, you do remember these moments, and you use them as fuel. So I think we’ll use this as fuel in the offseason and come back this time next year and be 1-0.”

Despite the season not going the way Penn State wanted, it was statistically one of the best defenses in program history. 

Ellis, who grew up in State College, knows that’s something to be proud of.

“We were the number one defense in the country,” Ellis said, “and that’s something they can’t take away from us. Obviously, we didn’t finish up to the standard, but to be the No. 1 defense in the country is something to be proud of. That was a goal that we set out for ourselves at the beginning of the year, and we were able to accomplish that.”

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