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PSU defense has a lot to prove after major struggles vs. Ohio and final two games of 2011

September 5, 2012 - Cory Giger
Jordan Hill vowed it would not happen again, that no other offense would do what Ohio did to Penn State's defense.

"You won't see that all season again. I'll tell you that now," the defensive tackle said.

Hill had better be right. If he's not, and PSU's defense can't stop the run or the pass like in Saturday's 24-14 loss, then the Nittany Lions will have a tough time beating anyone.

"We have to have a chip on our shoulder and come through and respond this week," safety Malcolm Willis said.

The Bobcats piled up 301 of their 499 yards in the second half, and they threw for 324 overall while also running for 175 and getting 25 first downs.

"The idea is to stop the team on third down," PSU linebacker Michael Mauti said.

The Lions didn't do that, either, as Ohio converted 11-of-12 third downs to control the second half.

"That's definitely something I have taken pretty personally, and I know our defense has, as well," Mauti said of Ohio's offensive efficiency.

Penn State has long taken pride in having a great defense. But many members of this defense have been on the field getting roughed up in the past three games, going back to last season, so collectively they have something to prove.

Wisconsin scored 45 points, had 27 first downs and 450 yards in the 2011 regular-season finale. Houston then torched the Lions for 600 yards -- 532 through the air -- while scoring 30 points and getting 25 first downs in the TicketCity Bowl.

So in the past three games, PSU has allowed an average of 516 yards, 33 points and 26 first downs.

"It's upsetting just because as a defense you never want to see that happen," Hill said. "That's one of the goals is to not to have the offense put up numbers on you."

The Lions also forced only one turnover in those three games (versus Wisconsin), and Mauti said that is the most important aspect of any game.

New defensive coordinator Ted Roof was expected to implement a more aggressive scheme that would lead to more blitzes and man-to-man coverage. Roof hasn't been made available to comment this week, but he cannot be happy with his defense's performance in the opener.

"We have to buy into it, and we have to make the plays when we're there to make them," Willis said of Roof's schemes.

Three things stood out against Ohio that will come into play the rest of the season.

First, the Lions managed virtually no pressure up front as the defensive line struggled getting off blocks against smaller linemen from the MAC opponent. Quarterback Tyler Tettleton followed a similar formula to what Wisconsin's Russell Wilson and Houston's Case Keenum did by getting rid of the ball quickly.

The Lions have a strong front seven and questionable secondary, so one way for teams to counter that is with three-step drops.

"When it's a three-step drop, it's almost impossible to sack the quarterback," Hill said. "So when you notice that they're doing three-step drops, you have to stop your rush and get your hands up and try and bat down balls. That's the biggest thing because once you start doing that, then they have to focus on getting into a five-step and maybe into a seven.

"We're trying to rush so hard that ... the ball would get up while we're still fighting with the offensive line," Hill added.

If you couple the three-step drops and quick throws with defensive backs not getting tight enough coverage, the result is what has happened to PSU in the past three games.

"We just have to play tighter coverage," Willis said. "It all works hand in hand. If we get a lot of plays that game, the defensive backs in the secondary and the linebackers have to play tighter coverage and force the quarterback to hold the ball ... to allow our front four to get to them."

A third thing also happened against Ohio -- or didn't happen, as the case may be. The Lions didn't play any nickel coverage, and surprisingly, Willis said they hadn't even worked on a nickel package going into the game.

Much of that is a product of having so little depth in the secondary. But having no nickel package puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers in coverage, and when a team is throwing a lot of short, quick passes, the receivers typically have a big advantage over the linebackers.

The Lions have gotten good news this week as cornerback Stephon Morris has been recovering from his ankle injury suffered Saturday. He practiced Wednesday and would appear to be good to go against Virginia.

Coach Bill O'Brien said Tuesday he has no plans of moving anyone else from another position to help out in the secondary.

"The depth is the depth," Willis said of the secondary. "We have to deal with what we have."

What Virginia has is a solid quarterback in Michael Rocco, two good running backs in Perry Jones (915 yards last season) and Kevin Parks (709 yards) and a huge offensive line (four measuring 6-foot-6, the other 6-5 and bookend tackles weighing 325 and 310 pounds).

The Cavaliers have as many -- if not more -- weapons on offense than Ohio, so PSU's defense will have to make big improvements over last week to stay in the game.

Whether they'll match up physically against Virginia remains to be seen, but the Lion defenders also know they can't let the struggles from the opener bring them down mentally.

"We don't want Ohio to beat us two times in a row," Hill said. "By that, I mean basically coming out and laying an egg this week."

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